Any Given Thursday
The Pawtucket PawSox, Providence Bruins, Maine Red Claws.
What do those teams mean to you? Probably not much. These development teams, however, provide the building blocks for three of the four major sports we enjoy today. Coming out of college, many players are not yet ready to jump into the highest level of their respective sport. They therefore go through a grooming process, obtaining professional experience and working with professional coaches to refine their skills until they are ready to make the final jump to the top tier of their sport. By now, you might be wondering: if these development leagues are so important, why doesn’t professional football — America’s most popular sport by far — have one?
We’re glad you asked.
In the NFL, hundreds of players attend training camp each year but are out of a job by Labor Day. More than 800 players are left stranded: good enough to practice with the elites, but not quite good enough to compete. Although coaches preach about fair competition in training camps, the reality is that teams invest so much in some players that other training camp invitees won’t get a second look unless someone gets injured. That strikes us as a massive waste of talent.
The Fall Experimental Football League, which had its inaugural season this fall, has sprung up to try and take advantage of all that untapped potential --— envisioned as a potential feeder system for the NFL. The FXFL currently has four teams: the Brooklyn Bolts, Boston Brawlers, Omaha Mammoths and Blacktips. The Blacktips do not have a hometown yet — similar to freshmen on a Friday night, roaming around trying to find a game to play. These teams play a six-week schedule, with games on Wednesday and Friday nights so as not to conflict with NFL and NCAA schedules.
In theory, the FXFL should work similarly to the farm system in professional baseball. As we all know, injuries run rampant in the NFL, and pro teams constantly need viable replacements. The FXFL is set up so that players can be called up to NFL rosters at any time. Because the FXFL season runs alongside the NFL season, players can both stay in shape and gain experience while waiting for their chance to play in the NFL. In essence, every game of the FXFL season allows these players to prove themselves in ways they often couldn’t in training camp.
Why has it taken so long for a developmental football league to start up? The answer is simple: in the past, it has not been financially sustainable. The NFL tried to start international development leagues before, but these leagues struggled to attract the international audience and bled money. There were also several attempts to establish a domestic development league, but these previous versions made the mistake of trying to compete with the NFL.
The FXFL is different for two reasons. It is meant to complement the NFL and serve solely as a development league, and it is specifically designed to keep costs down. For example, FXFL teams do not have their own stadiums, instead using existing ones. Plus, FXFL players only make $1,000 a week, whereas in the NFL, even practice-squad players make about six times that.
A successful developmental football league would be great for professional football teams and fans. What fan wouldn’t want to see better football players and more competitive games? Even the most casual NFL fans should root for the FXFL to succeed. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the FXFL can avoid the financial problems that previous football leagues have faced, but fans can certainly be more optimistic about the prospects of this league.
In the meantime, we recommend hopping down to Boston sometime to go watch Tajh Boyd (yes, that Tajh Boyd) play quarterback for the Brawlers. Perhaps you might just find the next big NFL superstar while you’re there.