Devel­op­men­tal league in works

Foot­ball play­ers to have op­tion

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Tom Pelis­sero tpelis­sero@ us­ato­day. com USA TO­DAY Sports

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 co­founders, told USA TO­DAY Sports. “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 teach­ing 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 had 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 had missed the NFL cut, which in­evitably lim­ited the po- ten­tial for cre­at­ing a com­pelling consumer prod­uct. Money has been a com­mon prob­lem, too, and re­mains a cen­tral ques­tion.

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 an un­tapped tal­ent base: play­ers who have no op­tion to play for pay be­cause the NFL’s col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment bars them from the league. ( Ba­sis for that rule: Play­ers need time to phys­i­cally and men­tally ma­ture be­fore com­pet­ing against fully de­vel­oped adults.)

Pay­ing up to lure a few NFL- in­el­i­gi­ble su­per­stars such as Watson would have been a year ago, as the USFL did decades ago with the likes of Her­schel Walker, cer­tainly would put the new league in the spot­light, though the eco­nom­ics are on a smaller scale.

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, ju­nior col­lege 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 is on the league’s ad­vi­sory board.

“We be­lieve that the busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment is good for a project like this,” said Yee, who has writ­ten on col­lege sports’ ex­ploita­tion of ath­letes. “We be­lieve that the play­ers are ready for a choice, and we think we can be a good sup­ple­ment to other foot­ball prod­ucts that are out there.”

CARY EDMONDSON, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

For­mer NFL coach Mike Shana­han is on the ad­vi­sory board of the Pa­cific Pro Foot­ball League.

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