Inside Slant: Developmental league on tap

During the next nine days, NFL teams will lose 1,184 roster spots. About a quarter of those released will join a practice squad. A few more will head to injured reserve. But in all, some 800-plus players will be out of work by Labor Day.

For the first time in a while, members of that group have an option to continue working in a football environment. The Fall Experimental Football League (FXFL) is moving forward with plans to field a four-team, six-week developmental league, commissioner Brian Woods said this week. The FXFL will target young players who are within a few years of leaving college and would otherwise spend the fall working out at home after an NFL release.

Woods said his goal is to get 25 to 30 percent of FXFL players back onto NFL rosters by November. But the real value, as we discussed earlier this summer, is in giving players game experience to develop their skills in preparation for another run at the NFL next year.

"We think there is a lot of value in what we'll offer," Woods said. "These undrafted rookie free agents that get cut in the coming weeks, a lot of them are talented and have the ability to play in the NFL. They need a year or two of playing at a lower level to develop, or maybe they just need to stay in football shape for when the NFL needs them. We think there is a real need for that."

Indeed, the FXFL season is scheduled to start Oct. 8 and conclude Nov. 12, one day after the NFL trade deadline -- a time when injuries begin having an impact on back-end roster depth. The plan is to play most games on Wednesday nights, avoiding conflicts with high school and college games.

At this point, the best way to view the FXFL is as the first entrant in a race that intensified when Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, publicly noted this spring the need for a developmental league. Other groups, including a rebranded USFL, are mobilizing more slowly amid a significant historical challenge: Every alternative outdoor football league has failed for economic reasons, even NFL-backed attempts in Europe.

Woods said the FXFL has enough financial backing to play in 2014 and beyond but has declined to provide details. The league will own franchises in Miami and Omaha, Nebraska, and has partnership agreements with teams in New York and Boston, according to Woods. In New York, the FXFL has aligned with the Brooklyn Cyclones -- a minor league baseball team affiliated with the New York Mets -- for marketing and other business operations. That team will play at the Cyclones' MCU Park near Coney Island.

In addition to MCU Park, home facilities will include Harvard Stadium (Boston), TD Ameritrade Park (Omaha) and FIU Stadium (Miami).

"The Brooklyn team is kind of how I envision us going forward long term," Woods said. "We partner with a minor league baseball team and utilize their existing marketing and infrastructure. They handle day-to-day business and we handle football operations."

Plans to field teams in Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas, have been put on hold, Woods said. This season is in essence a "proof of concept" that will require a demonstration of both cost-containment and football sophistication to survive.

According to Woods, here is how it will work: In the first week of September, the FXFL will hold a territorial draft and allocate available players to its teams. Practices will begin about Sept. 23. Each team will have 40 players, with between six and eight coaches per franchise. As part of their eight-week contracts, coaches must agree to avoid exotic schemes and use a traditional approach to maximize players' NFL preparedness. (Woods said he has hired a number of coaches, including one former NFL head coach, but wasn't ready to make any announcements when we spoke this week.)

Officials will be culled from the college ranks and use the official NFL rule book to mirror league games as closely as possible. Players will earn between $1,000 and $1,250 per week. For perspective, consider that the NFL pays practice squad players roughly $6,300 weekly.

Regardless, this is an awfully large undertaking to complete in such a short time. It's a daunting process to contract out for hundreds of new workers -- players, coaches, medical staffs, etc. -- while acquiring equipment, buying insurance and booking large-scale travel.

And while the FXFL is under no obligation to reveal its financing, cynics smarting from failures of other minor leagues have understandable concerns. At the top of the list: The United Football League, which folded in 2012, still owes unpaid salaries to hundreds of people. I asked Woods how he will reassure agents and players that the FXFL has the financial wherewithal to pull off its inaugural season.

"The UFL pay structure was vastly different than ours," he said. "They overstaffed, but they also paid coaches and some players really hefty salaries. That's not our concept. The guys coming into this league, they will have to understand the pay scale is akin to a minor league baseball team.

"They can expect that everything about this league is developmental, even pay scales. To be honest, we've been very surprised at some of the coaches we've gotten at our price. You're not going to become rich working in our league, but we're finding people who believe wholeheartedly in the developmental model. We have financial backing to make it through the season and then some, and more importantly, we don't have the costs that some of these other leagues had."

Ultimately, however, the key to financial success might be an official endorsement and affiliation with the NFL. That's the ultimate carrot to chase. Will it be the FXFL? Someone else? The race is on.