Why the NFL’s talk of an official development league should cause the CFL some concern

55 Yard Line

NFL director of football operations Troy Vincent's recent comments discussing the possibility of creating an official developmental league are drawing some attention north of the border, but the CFL reactions to it thus far have been rather muted. Lowell Ullrich of The Province explored that in a column Friday, and quoted B.C. Lions' player personnel director Neil McEvoy as saying "To be quite honest, a league like that doesn’t hurt us." On one hand, precedent is on McEvoy's side; the NFL's gone this route before with NFL Europe, which didn't have much of an impact on the CFL, and plenty of other U.S. football leagues (including the UFL, the XFL and the various incarnations of the Arena Football League and the United States Football League) haven't damaged the CFL dramatically. A lot depends on what this league would look like, though, and a fully-realized version of this concept could have significant implications for the CFL.

Where McEvoy (and B.C. quarterback Travis Lulay, also quoted in Ullrich's piece) are right is that there's no shortage of talent out there. As Lulay said, "There are more players than there are jobs available." Thus, regardless of if and how this concept comes to be, there are still going to be plenty of talented players for the CFL to snag. The potential problem comes in the distribution of top talent, though. At the moment, the CFL is drawing incredible talent to even its long-shot open tryouts. A key reason for that is that the league looks like the highest-calibre and most stable professional football league outside the NFL right now, and even more importantly, it looks like the best option for former college players trying to get to the NFL. Yes, not a ton of CFL players make the NFL each year (according to Ullrich, 13 have signed NFL contracts this offseason), but the NFL hope is still very much there for many. An official development league stateside might well look like a more direct route to the NFL's bright lights, especially if it's done well.

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Much of the downplaying of the impact of a NFL developmental league is around salaries, and it certainly seems unlikely that a new league could offer salaries close to even the CFL's limited ones at first (unless the NFL is willing to take a massive loss). That's why McEvoy cites this prospect as more potentially troubling for the AFL than the CFL. However, it's worth keeping in mind that salaries aren't the only factor drawing players to the CFL. A lot of players are willing to make a small amount for a year or two to hopefully get on the NFL radar and the path to massive contracts, and this is where this NFL idea could get really problematic. If they do it the way the NHL-AHL agreement works (since 2010-11, every NHL team has had an AHL affiliate of their own), that establishes a lot of minor-league teams providing a clear path to the big league, and a much easier one than learning a different game in Canada and playing it at a sufficiently high level to attract NFL interest. (And that's before considering the CFL's removal of the NFL option clause, which made CFL to NFL movement much simpler). The CFL would still certainly get talented players, but a lot of guys who go to the CFL now might opt to stay stateside under those circumstances.

Of course, another element some would say makes this less worrying for the CFL is that the NFL already essentially has a pre-draft minor-league system in the NCAA. Unlike baseball and hockey, most NFL draft picks are going right into the league rather than into a minor-league system. That's similar to basketball, and at first glance, the NBA's D-League would seem to pose a less-troubling example. After 13 seasons, the NBADL still only has 17 teams, only 14 of them are directly tied to one parent NBA club, and only 149 of a current max of 450 NBA players have D-League experience.

However, the way the NBADL is going is closer to the NHL model: a minor-league club for each big-league one, and close ties between them on the coaching and executive fronts, with a focus on developing players for the big team rather than winning in the minors. A NFL system along those lines would pose a significant talent drain on the CFL, and the salaries it paid wouldn't necessarily have to be equal or better; it would just have to offer a clear pathway to the NFL. Again, the CFL isn't going to collapse or run out of players regardless of what the NFL does here, but a large-scale, well-run NFL minor league would draw away many of the top candidates for the CFL, reducing the league's level of talent and its level of play.

This concept is all very pie-in-the-sky at the moment, of course, and it may never come to fruition. Thus, McEvoy and others are right to not be overly concerned just yet. However, there are steps the CFL could take to help forestall or minimize an NFL minor league. The league could try to enhance its own status as a developmental league, which might convince the NFL there's no need for an official alternative.

Of course, the CFL should be careful not to go too far there. This can't become an official minor league, with each team tied to an NFL franchise, midseason callups and a focus on development over winning; that would kill fan interest. The CFL certainly could make it easier for players to go to the NFL, though, perhaps by bringing back that option clause. Enhancing the ease of the CFL to NFL transition would cost the CFL a few players, to be sure, but it would also help boost the league's recruitment efforts significantly. Most American players are dreaming of the NFL, but only a few are ever going to make it there, so if the CFL can offer a convincing illusion of NFL hope, it's going to attract plenty of people who wind up staying.

At the moment, the CFL has great talent and doesn't particularly need to worry about boosting its recruitment efforts. It's the best option out there. A NFL-sponsored stateside minor league would be an awfully strong competitor, though, and it would draw off a lot of the top talent that might choose the CFL otherwise. It would seem logical for the CFL to keep an eye on this potential league, and perhaps loosen its own rules to embrace development and prevent a competitor from filling that void.

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