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Why Can't Minor League Football Succeed?

RIP, you crazy bastard.
RIP, you crazy bastard.

Up at the mothership, some of SBN's brightest have been discussing the idea of relegation and how it might apply to college football.

If you're not familiar with the idea, go ahead and read that first link. If you're too lazy, here's the gist: the worst teams in a league are "relegated" to the next highest league, while the best teams from that next highest league are promoted to the top league. Obviously, it had me thinking about how it would hypothetically apply in the NFL.

But I ended up going on a tangent: minor league football.

See, relegation is awesome. It gives you this, and this, and that's cool. It also makes the games for the worst teams in the top league very, very important at the end of the season. But as I was thinking about the application of relegation to the NFL, I ended up thinking more about something else: why doesn't the NFL maintain a minor league system?

The history of professional outdoor football leagues not named the NFL is spotty at best.

For an entire decade in the 1960s, the NFL had an actual competitor. The American Football League (which was actually the fourth league to bear the name, but unlike it's predecessors survived more than a year) was successful on many, many fronts, and led to an eventual merger. It is far and away the best non-NFL pro league ever, but was certainly not a minor league.

Similarly, the USFL competed with the NFL for three seasons in the early eighties. The league signed three consecutive Heisman winners (Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie and Mike Rozier), and produced numerous NFL greats. It too had a strong impact on the NFL as a business, but the instability of its individual franchises was too much for the league to maintain.

There have been other short-lived experiments. The World Football League (which is not the same as the World League of American Football/World League/NFL Europe/NFL Europa which operated for more than a decade) ran for two years. The XFL was a thing that actually happened.

And it's worth noting the long-tenured successes of two other leagues, despite their dissimilar rulebook: the Canadian Football League and the Arena Football League.

But more interesting to me is the UFL, set to enter its fourth season this year. Which is a relatively big deal.

The UFL itself said:

The United Football League recently made history by simply finishing its third season.

Is there a reason why the NFL doesn't have a developmental league? It's obvious that from a player progression standpoint, it's useful, but it would likely be more useful if the teams were tethered to an NFL franchise to use for it's own internal player development. I can't think it wouldn't be able to make money. And obviously, it would make sense economically for cities like Sacramento, Hartford and Omaha (all who have UFL franchises but no major college program). Baseball does it. But that's really the question, isn't it?

Why can Major League Baseball run their minor league system and the NBA run the NBADL successfully with a full-fledged college system but the NFL can't?

I don't know the answer. And perhaps in the next decade, we'll see the NFL open a minor league system in the U.S. instead of the failed NFL Europa model. But for now, it's the NFL and college.

Y'all know I love them both. Hell, I miss going to high school games in Texas. There's got to be a market for minor league NFL football though. Right?