Sports entrepreneurs gathered here Thursday to build a football empire.
There were no heady notions of taking on the National Football League, however.Organizers of the defunct United States Football League and World Football League learned that lesson, failing under the weight of financial woes.
Architects of the new National Minor League Football System are drawing their X's and O's carefully around a game plan of stable ownership, a tighter operating structure and a "farm-club" identity, which they hope eventually will bring their league credibility as a primary feeder program to the NFL.
The new league, which is conducting organizational meetings through Friday, will have its headquarters in St. Louis, and former Cardinals cornerback Roger Wehrli is its commissioner.
"Football is the only major sport left that does not have a minor-league system," said Ed Watkins, league spokesman and principal owner of the St. Louis Gamblers, one of 16 charter members of the new league.
"The last time that was attempted," Watkins said, "was in the USFL, and the USFL tried to compete with the NFL. They didn't set out that way; that's what they wound up being.
"We have no interest, and we've made it very clear to the NFL and the (Canadian Football League), that we don't want to compete with those leagues."
Instead, the National Minor League Football System hopes to build a league of select teams from nearly 200 semipro franchises operating around the country. The Gamblers previously played in the National Professional Football League, finishing 14-2 last season before the league folded.
The new league's objective is to provide football players with a competitive league that will enable them to remain sharp until there is an opening in the NFL or CFL.
The Continental Basketball Association receives player and referee subsidies from the NBA, and Watkins eventually would like to see his league develop a similar relationship with the NFL.
Watkins said, "So far, the response has been positive. The (NFL) plans to discuss minor leagues at its meetings in March."
Watkins said the new minor league has "attracted the very best teams in the country, teams that have credibility."
Owners attending the two-day conference were required to foot their own travel expenses to St. Louis and "pay $2,000 just to be in this room," Watkins said. "By the end of this month they pay a $10,000 annual league fee, and then they also make a commitment to having a $100,000 operating budget."
That is significant, Watkins said, because scant operating budgets often have led to the demise of less-organized semipro football leagues.
Wehrli will oversee the league's daily operations and will act as a liaison with the the NFL, the NCAA and cable television.
Watkins said there is a definite need for the new league.
During the NFL players' strike there were 2,000 semipro players available, but the NFL didn't know how or where to find them, Watkins said. "They didn't know where to look. That's where a lot of the frustration came from. That's why there is increased interest."
Players in the league will not be paid, but the owners have passed a resolution that ensures a job-placement program for athletes.
"A lot of them will just be players who don't have a chance to get to camp or figure it's a waste of their time because the NFL is a meat market," Watkins said. "A lot of people out there are real frustrated."
A committee made up of NFL players will advise the league. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Dave Kreig and San Francisco 49ers tackle Bubba Paris are the first members of the committee, Watkins said.
Proposition 48 and tighter admission standards for college athletes will make the new league attractive to some players, Watkins said.
"We may have some players who may feel its better to play for us than a small college," Watkins said.