Maybe in football and basketball, it would work better if more kids had a chance to go directly into the professional ranks. If they're not comfortable and want to monetize, let the minor leagues flourish. —Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany made his point clear while talking to reporters Wednesday night: NCAA athletics should not be the minor leagues to the NFL and NBA, if players want to get paid to play.
Delany's comments come during a time when major conference commissioners have been calling for NCAA reformation, with the issue of whether to pay college athletes a hot-button topic.
“I can't tell you the NBA and NFL are going to start minor leagues,” Delany said, according to CBS Sports columnist Dennis Dodd. “I think they should. I think it takes more pressure off us. It lets us be who we are. Why is it our job to be minor leagues for professional sports?”
Is it viable for minor league football to exist where players could bypass college and get paid to play in preparation for a potential NFL career?
The commissioner said that football and basketball could model a minor league system similar to the one employed by Major League Baseball, where an athlete can sign professionally right out of high school.
"Maybe in football and basketball, it would work better if more kids had a chance to go directly into the professional ranks," Delany told ESPN. "If they're not comfortable and want to monetize, let the minor leagues flourish."
The NBA already has the D-League, which has been around for 12 seasons. But salaries in that league remain low; according to ESPN's Marc Stein, D-League remained at $25,000, $19,000 and $13,000 heading into last season for the league's three player classifications.
And while 132 current NBA players have D-League experience, only 13 players who've played in the D-League have won an NBA title.
The NFL, however, has no other feeder system other than college football.
Every year, more than 1,000 football players are cut during NFL training camps as teams whittle their regular-season rosters down to 53 active players and eight practice squad members.
This year, more than 60 players with Utah ties were on NFL rosters entering training camps. Only 34 are on active rosters now.
There have been attempts in the past to set up a pro football league that is complementary to the NFL, itself a merger of two leagues — the National Football League and the American Football League back in 1970.
The United States Football League was around in the mid-1980s for three seasons; the XFL existed for just one season in 2001. Both folded due to financial struggles; former BYU quarterback Steve Young, selected No. 11 by the Los Angeles Express in the 1984 USFL collegiate draft, is still making millions from his contract with the Express.
Two weeks ago, a step was potentially taken in the right direction. The "new" USFL announced on Sept. 13 it will kick off its inaugural season in spring 2015. Work to assemble the league began years ago, but a criminal investigation against the enterprise's former founder involving fraud and embezzlement has slowed the process.
“We have been hoping against hope that we would be able to play football in 2014,” CEO Jim Bailey said on the league's website. “Everything is coming together really well, but it’s obvious we aren’t going to be able to field a league in 2014 without compromising the quality of our product, so we’re going to start play in March 2015.”
The USFL has yet to announce what cities will earn the league's eight franchises in the inaugural season. According to the league, it will focus on cities where demographically there is not a large major sports presence.
A 2012 Associated Press story listed Salt Lake City as one of the cities that could potentially land a franchise.
The USFL is trumpeting itself as a development league for the NFL, though it won't be affiliated with the premier league. With the season running from March through mid-July, it would allow players with NFL aspirations to play during the USFL's 14-game season and still have the opportunity to try to make an NFL roster.
"Players under contract with the USFL will be free to move to the NFL at any time if the opportunity presents itself," the USFL website says.
"Overall the USFL hopes to fill a void on the football calendar while giving minor league players, coaches and executives a chance to get the reps they need to make it to the next level."
In an effort to overcome past failings of leagues like the USFL and XFL, the new USFL has chosen to use a single-entity structure for its league; the USFL will own all the teams instead of having individual team owners, a part of the problem with the league's 1980s predecessor.
One major sports league that has found success with the single-entity structure business model is Major League Soccer, which was founded in 1993. One of its several expansion teams is the hometown Real Salt Lake.
According to the USFL, under its football structure, "Player salaries will remain financially sustainable, that no financial advantage will be given to one team versus another, and that revenues will be shared equally for the benefit of all."
This is to prevent outlandish contracts being offered similar to the ones, like Young's, that doomed the original USFL, and can be seen being signed throughout major pro sports today.
What isn't clear from the league's website is whether athletes could sign with the USFL straight out of high school, like the MLB minor league model allows.
Another recent football league shows just how difficult it will be for the USFL to get off the ground, however. In 2009, the United Football League opened its first season, and former NFL players like quarterbacks Jeff Garcia and Daunte Culpepper were on UFL rosters. Longtime NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer won his first pro title with the UFL's Virginia Destroyers.
During its prime, the UFL had eight teams in its league. But by 2012, financial constraints had dropped the UFL, which played its games in the fall, to four teams. According to Yahoo Sports, the 2012 season was postponed part way into the year and a game hasn't been played since.5 comments on this story
In March, the Wall Street Journal reported that William Mayer, a New York-based investor in the league, said the UFL will return in 2014, with games now being played in the spring. According to the Journal, the past two seasons ended early due to cash shortages and players filed a lawsuit, claiming they were not paid in full for the 2012 season.
With all the failed attempts in the past, as well as the current struggles of the UFL, could a league like the revamped USFL really give football a minor league pro option? History suggests the financial hill may be too tough to climb.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @brandonljudd