Why is it that the NFL is the only big professional sports league without official feeder teams or developmental leagues? It is the biggest sport in America and yet it only has one, fully professional league with the full version of the game. Should it have an official developmental league? I say, why not? Especially with so much chatter of the NFL moving a franchise to London and possibly even beyond.
Major League Baseball has an excellent development system, with 3 levels of teams all playing in full leagues with playoffs and awards, all whilst improving and working your way up to the parent, MLB team. Players have a contract with the MLB team that allows the team to move that player around any of their affiliate teams within the three classes (A, AA and AAA).
The National Hockey League uses the American Hockey League as a development league and the East Coast Hockey League as a de facto development league in a similar way to the MLB. NHL teams can own the contract of a player and be able to move them to and from their affiliate in the AHL. To move a player to or from an ECHL team they must first go through the AHL team. The only difference from baseball is that players on AHL or ECHL teams are not all owned by NHL teams and have separate contracts with an AHL or ECHL team.
The NBA has a development league too, the NBA D-League. Though it is not as established or comprehensive as the NHL or MLB equivalents, it still provides a decent percentage of players in the NBA.
You could say the NFL uses college football as a developmental league, but it is not affiliated with the NFL, the players play under scholarships provided by the schools and are amateurs. Though pretty much every player in the NFL went through the NFL draft, it is not a farm system and it makes it incredibly difficult for players who have always lived abroad or were not able to go to college, for whatever reason, to make it in the NFL.
Part of the reason that Jarryd Hayne came out in support of a developmental league is that it would give foreign players – who are trying to make the NFL direct from their country, not having moved to America to go through the NCAA – a better chance of making a team if they get the opportunity. By playing in an NFL funded league with professional level coaching and in a full NFL environment, players who are new to the game stand more of a chance of a) being noticed and b) improving to a point that they could make it in the NFL.
Furthermore, each team will draft players and sign plenty of undrafted free agents and veteran free agents who effectively end up being camp bodies, or need more time to develop but teams don’t have the roster space to let them do that, so they end up being out of the league without ever having had a proper chance. If a team had one or even more affiliate teams, they could not only harbour players they see and regard as promising and develop them within their organisation, but they would be giving these players a real and extended chance of making a living. Even if they never reach the NFL, they could make somewhat of a career within the affiliate leagues. Especially if players were also given the opportunity to move freely within that league once their contracts are up.
With that said, the NFL did attempt to make a development league before – NFL Europe – and it failed. It did not make enough money, it was in fact losing $30 million a year by the time it was ceased, and NFL officials reportedly used it for its intended purpose less and less. So you could argue that the NFL has been there and done that, and it didn’t work.
To that, all I have to say is that times have changed. Interest has only risen worldwide, participation has risen worldwide and as more and more players have shown (Moritz Böhringer, Anthony Dablé, Efe Obada and others) there are draft worthy/NFL worthy players wasting their talent on amateur/semi-pro teams with comparatively poor coaching. If the NFL had farm leagues and teams competing in leagues around the world, the current teams and leagues could act as farm leagues for the NFL’s farm leagues.
This would create a huge network that could all be funded by the NFL and its partners. Not only would this provide the NFL with a greater pool of talent to easily scout from, but the increased funding league wide would mean that more and more players would be coached at a higher level, and play in leagues with more competition and better quality. It would be a win/win.
I understand that this would be costly, especially at first, for the NFL and any other contributors, and it may be a while before it reaches the desired level. But with time and dedication I do not see how this plan couldn’t become the most comprehensive development program for a professional sport and truly make the NFL a global sport.