Many startup football leagues have tried to challenge the NFL’s monopoly on the sport over the years, and all have folded for one reason or another. Recently, startups like the AAF and the re-booted XFL have stumbled within their first year of existence due to financial troubles. The Spring League, however, just completed its under-the-radar sixth season, mainly because of their business model and primary focus – player development.
What is the Spring League?
While other major sports leagues like the NBA, NHL, and most famously the MLB, have invested in their own developmental affiliates, the NFL has relied on college football to develop their future stars. After briefly flirting with the NFL Europe league to develop players and expand the game worldwide, the NFL has had no interest in partnering with any startup leagues to create a developmental pipeline for players. Instead, they’ve opted simply to expand practice squad rosters to from 5 players in 1993 to 14 starting in 2022.
Without an influx of money from the NFL, The Spring League has been forced to go with an alternative business model that allows them to stay afloat, wherein players actually pay the league for a chance to showcase their talents and develop their abilities. Their payments primarily go towards their own room and board. The league does not charge players who have previously been on a 90-man NFL roster in an effort to bring more former NFL players looking for a second chance aboard. With only eight teams playing in two host cities, the cost of travel is entirely minimized as well. Teams play against each other and have showcase events, giving players multiple chances to prove themselves in front of scouts.
While the league initially did not turn a profit, it has experienced some monetary gains since 2019, serving as a rulebook tester for the XFL, a developmental hub for NFL referees, and most recently signing a multi-year agreement with FS1 to televise games.
Should NFL Scouts Care about the Spring League?
To date, 104 players who played in the Spring League have gone on to participate in NFL training camps since 2017. Just this year, nine Spring League players were signed to offseason 90-man rosters, with three others accepting mini-camp invites. The Los Angeles Chargers have seemingly been at the forefront of scouting the Spring League, adding three 2021 Spring League standouts to their roster.
With several former NFL veterans in the league looking for another shot, getting an up-close look at the Spring League allows teams to monitor the progress of players they once had in the building, or players they scouted out of college.
With a median age of 24 years old, the league is filled primarily with young up-and-coming players rounding into their athletic prime. However, unlike previous developmental leagues like the FXFL, the Spring League also is home to long-time NFL veterans like 33-year-old quarterback Ryan Mallett. The presence of older veterans within the league can give teams a better understanding of the skill level of the younger players, while also allowing scouts to see how much gas a veteran like Mallett has left in the tank.
While there are no certainties that the league will continue to operate at full capacity in upcoming seasons due to the fickle financial nature of a startup football league, scouts from both NFL and CFL scouts should keep the Spring League in mind when rounding out their 90-man rosters.