There’s currently an empty spot open for the next failed NFL alternative or developmental football league, so The Spring League is coming to fill the void in 2017. Pardon my pessimism, but it’s almost baffling to see another league founded following a long list of unsuccessful attempts to create either a secondary professional football league during the NFL’s offseason or a “minor league” of sorts to find and promote NFL-level talent fallen through the cracks. We’ve already seen the USFL, XFL, UFL, and most recently the FXFL (among others) begin with hopes high but cease operations within five years. So is there any reason to believe the Spring League will achieve success, or will it simply follow in the footsteps of its predecessors?
For starters, let’s go over some of the basics of The Spring League. Unaffiliated with the NFL, the league is headquartered at The Greenbrier Resort’s football facility and sports performance center in Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. From April 5-26, four teams of 40 players will participate in practices, classroom instruction, and film review, and play a total of six games. All head coaches and their staffs have previous NFL experience, and all practices and games will be open to employees of the NFL, Canadian Football League, and Arena Football League. Tickets to games will be made available to the public as well. Additional information can be found on the league’s website.
To answer the original question, I don’t believe The Spring League will be around for long. The main problem with the league will be finding quality talent for its rosters. Anyone eligible for a previous year’s NFL Draft can submit an application for a fee of $350, but here’s the deal: every year, roughly 250 players are drafted into the league, and even a larger number of additional players (476 this year) are signed to teams’ offseason rosters, which have 90 players before the team makes cuts down to 53 during the preseason. This means the players likely to participate in the league were either already deemed not good enough to make a roster or weren’t even one of the best 700+ players in their own draft.
Of course, NFL veterans currently out of the league could also play in The Spring League. However, the NFL is a physically demanding sport, and very rarely are players able to contribute in the league after being cut- they have either suffered injuries, lost their athleticism, or never lived up to their potential. Plus, in 2015, the NFL had their own veterans combine- an opportunity for players to prove themselves and earn a second chance. In 2016, the event was cancelled due to lack of interest from NFL teams, who would rather take chances on younger players with higher potentials.
Since the quality of play would likely be so much lower compared to the NFL, any standout performances wouldn’t even be viewed as that impressive. Surely, any player in the NFL would dominate these hopefuls. The short time teammates would spend together and the chemistry and communication errors likely to be present during games won’t help either.
Another large issue with The Spring League is attracting an audience- revenue has to come from somewhere, and money is the main reason football leagues have folded in the past. The UFL lost between $120-150 million, and the USFL ended over $163 million in the red. The Spring League’s costs shouldn’t be nearly this high, but the question remains- who would want to watch lower-quality football without any rooting interest? There isn’t the competition or rivalries of high school or college ball, and there wouldn’t be any history, tradition, or reason to support one team.
The league claims that all games will be nationally televised, but I doubt it. And even so, look at the XFL- opening week ratings were through the roof, but plummeted immediately after, causing the league to fold after its first season. It will be interesting to see the league’s special kickoff procedures, intended to reduce the frequency of high-impact collisions, and new overtime rules, both of which have yet to be announced. Still, if you’re someone that just wants to watch offseason football, I don’t know why you’d choose The Spring League over the Arena Football League.
However, the AFL might not even exist much longer. The league, which once contained 19 teams and had 14 just three seasons ago, is down to just three with hopes of adding two expansion teams for the 2017 season.
The Spring League has hopes of expanding and growing an official relationship with the NFL, but I doubt any football version of a minor league could succeed.
Football careers simply don’t have the longevity of other sports. The NFL only plays 16 games a year and already faces high physical tolls and injury rates. For example, it’s rare to see a running back play into their thirties. Additionally, NFL players enter the league after at least three years of college, where most top NBA prospects only attend one year of college, and many high schoolers enter the MLB farm system and NHL draft. The talent in NFL developmental leagues just isn’t there, and there’s too much an investment for the shorter careers (still with far from a guarantee of success) should any of these players actually be signed by an NFL team.
I understand why these leagues continue to spring up and why hopefuls continue to play in them. On one side, the NFL is a money-making machine, and everyone wants to be associated with it. For the hopefuls, they’re exactly that- hopefuls, eager to take any shot possible on fulfilling their dreams. Both sides have every right to give it a shot, but I’d be surprised to see The Spring League be anything more than just an experiment.