Over the next few posts, I am going to lay out some of the basics for the league and why I feel the circumstances are right for this idea.
Affiliation to the Parent NFL teams is a must
The NFL tried the concept of a developmental league once before and it was a colossal failure; NFL Europe. In my opinion, the biggest mistak with NFL Europe was not that it was in Europe trying to build fan base for a uniquely American sport but that there were no significant ties to the core NFL clubs. While players were allocated from the NFL rosters to NFLE teams, there seemed to be no discernable correlation between specific NFL teams and the teams in Europe. Cleveland Browns players could be on several tems as opposed to one team that would make it easy for Browns fan to watch and follow potential members and contributors of the NFL roster. The big problem with this is the American fan base never built a relationship with any of the European teams. It also didn't allow current NFL fans in Euripe to build an allegiance to a specific team stemming from any underlying interest in an NFL team. Also, fans in a specific European town such as Rhine, Germany would naturally gravitate the the parent club in the U.S. much in the same way that fans in double and triple A baseball cities gravitate to their respective MLB teams. At a minimum, there should have been at least eight NFL Europe teams each representing a division from the NFL. The AFC North could all send players to the Rhine Fire therefore giving the fans of the Browns, Bengals, Steelers and the Ravens a reason to watch the weekly games and follow not only their own players but the players of the rival teams in the division.
Why Geography is important
For a developmental league to be successful for the NFL, the league needs to take a page from both the NHL and more speciically, Major League Baseball. Some of the most successful minor league orgainizations within the MLB, certainly from an attendance standpoint, are teams with their minor league affiliate in towns with a base following for their major league club. From personal experience, the Cleveland Indians have a single A team twenty miles east of downtown Cleveland, a double A club 35 miles south of Cleveland and their triple A club now 120 miles south of Cleveland in Columbus. All of these locations build on the fact that people attending the games have a veste interest in watching the players on the field grow into players taht they hope will help the big league club some day. There is a reason to go and watch a double A game when you know you are possibly watching a player who will contribute to the major league team you've been a fan of for 25 years. The Akron double A attendance and interest would not be nearly at the level it is if the Aeros were the double A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs instead of the Cleveland Indians. The allegiance to the big league club brings fans to the ball part, the play on the field keeps fans coming back. Geographic location of the NFL Developmental teams must have an affiliation to an NFL team and must be favorably placed goegraphically close to the same NFL team. A future post will discuss game day venues and potential D League team locations.
A Game for the Average Fan Family
Today, there are two ways to enjoy the NFL Game Day experience. The first is the live experience. This continues to move more and more to catering to the corporate clientele. It remains very difficult for the typical family of four to attend more than one or two games a year due to the expense they would incur, especially in the current economic conditions. Corporations eertainly remain the ultimate target for exclusive and premium seats and suite sales for the NFL. As a result, the live experience is usually not within the realm of reality for the average fan. The second way to enjoy the NFL Game Day experience is through the various networks that televise the games. Whether you bring over your friends and enjoy the game in front of your big screen TV in your own home or head down to the local watering hole to watch the game out, television has become the mass venue for the NFL Game Day experience.
One of the reasons that the NFL fan base is so strong is the history that comes with the league in some form being around since the 1920s. Fathers become fans and pass that on to their sons who in turn pass it on to their sons. There is nothing like going to an NFL game live for the first time and soaking in the experience. As the economics of the game change and accessability of the live experience along with it, the D-League provides a great opportuntiy for the NFL to target families and building fans at the most grass roots of levels. Game times should be family friendly with ticket prices at a reasonable level not requiring a second mortgage to have a hot dog and soda and purchase a big foam "We're #1" finger. Games should start at 2:00 on Saturdays with activities begining for the whole family at 11:00. Kids Clubs, Family Sections and Meet and Greets by some of the players should be a part of every weekend game.
Why the networks would be on board
How many ESPN channels are there today? How many regional and team owned networks are there today? From the family of ESPN networks to Fox Sports to The NFL Network to The YES Network to TBS to Sportstime Ohio. One thing all of these networks have in common is the need for relevant programming. Good quality programming that advertisers are willing to pay for space to advertise is invaluable. Versus tried to buy into being relevant by outbidding anyone else for the NHL coming off of a strike season. Ask NBC executives how much it hurt a few years back to lose their AFC package when Fox dicided to go "all in" with the NFL. NBC eventually entered back into the game but my guess is if they had it to do over again, they would have never let that package get away. The NFL is a draw with a capital D. There would be no shortage of competition from many of the networks looking to capture some of that audiance. NFL fans are loyal and D-League games would provide access to that fan base. Television revenue drives the NFL and television would financially drive the D-League.