When junior quarterback Deshaun Watson led Clemson past Alabama in a championship game thriller Monday night, it was another reminder of a lifeblood to the multibillion-dollar college football industry: a monopoly on players three years or fewer removed from their high school graduating class, who by rule are ineligible to enter the NFL Draft.
What if some of those players didn’t have to wait to go pro?
The people behind a new professional league that hopes to launch in 2018 say they don’t intend to compete with the NCAA. They have a long way to go financially and otherwise just to get their venture off the ground. But if they can play even one season, paying the bills and cutting 18- to 22-year-olds in on the action, it’s easy to see where the impact could be significant.
“It’ll make sense for a lot of young men and a lot of families,” longtime NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey, one of the nascent Pacific Pro Football League’s co-founders, told USA TODAY Sports recently. “We’re hoping to provide them with that choice.”
The plan: Four teams based in Southern California, each playing an eight-game schedule on Sundays during the sports dead zone of July and August. Roughly 50 players per team making an average salary and benefits package of $50,000 a year, which they’d be free to supplement with endorsements. Rules tweaked to enhance safety and give NFL scouts matchups they want to see. Coaches with NFL experience, who would teach pro-style schemes in an immersive environment unbound by rules regarding classroom time. Any player four years or fewer removed from high school would be eligible, including college underclassmen who’d entered the NFL draft.
Numerous minor leagues have tried and failed in recent years to expand the American pro football landscape by relying on players who’d missed the NFL cut, which inevitably limited the potential for creating a compelling consumer product. Money has been a common problem, too, and remains a central question here. Don Yee, a veteran NFL agent who is CEO and principal founder of “Pac Pro”, says the league has received angel financing from family and friends and he has met with a potential investor, as well as media distributors. But there is a lot of work to be done. There’s no endorsement or backing from the NFL or its players’ union.
What makes the concept intriguing is it targets a previously untapped talent base: players who currently have no option to play for pay because the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement bars them from the league.
Plenty of players would still choose the glory of the college game and the four-year education that comes with it. But like minor league baseball or junior hockey, Pac Pro would be an option for players who either can’t or choose not to play on college scholarships, some of them straight out of high school. Think academic non-qualifiers, juco players paying their own way, players with urgent need to provide for their families, those transitioning from another sport, those who would have to sit out a year under transfer rules, those who have been dismissed from a college program, those who simply want a different path – perhaps, eventually, some top college players who want to start cashing checks and use the league as a sort of football graduate program.
“You’ve got all day to spend with football,” said former NFL coach Mike Shanahan, who’s on the league’s advisory board.
If players want to attend school, the summer schedule wouldn’t interfere and there’d be an option to receive one year’s tuition and books at a community college. Training would continue year-round on a similar calendar to that used in the NFL. There also would be development opportunities for coaches and officials, who could come from a program started for military veterans by another advisory board member, former NFL head of officiating Mike Pereira.