The allure of minor league sports is very powerful. Doing the right thing, having a great experience with young people as they work their way up the ladder on and off the field, an affordable family experience, a year-round chance for brands both locally and nationally to engage all are great opportunities that happen in a host of professional sports in the United States, from hockey and soccer to hoops and baseball. It is a multi-million dollar cottage industry that has launched thousands of careers.
So into the mix the past few weeks comes the FXFL, the latest in a series of developmental leagues around American football. The premise is that the football talent pool is deep, there is a need to develop that talent, there are other jibs like coaching that need opportunities, and there are rules to be experimented in and brands that are looking to engage that can’t afford the prices of the NFL or are locked out of categories, and there is a whole lot of potential content to be had out there. There are also stadia looking for events, and presumably, there are investors looking to throw money into the dream of sports ownership at some level.
The premise works in other minor league sports, football is arguably the largest and most engaged sport in America, so there has to be a market for it. Right?
So welcome in the four team FXFL, which in two weeks proved what many thought; the talent on the field and in the coaching area is there for more room. They have found a TV home, so there is an interest in content, and they have facilities who want to host games. So that works. They also have set spending limits on talent and have played with rules to help grow the game, so all that makes sense.
The question is; is it a business that can return revenue at some point? That is very hard to say. Staging events, especially football, is a very, very expensive proposition, and gaining market share where money is coming in to justify cost, and investor ROI at some point, is also really really tricky once the buzz of initial exposure wears off and a grind of a season starts. It has been tried before in football, and has never worked, even with the NFL-owned properties a decade ago that tried to develop talent in a smaller setting. Arena football? Some limited success in a different model. The CFL? Much more successful in a culture and a style, and with a TV partner and national brands that have worked for decades. The FXFL in the fall? Tough to say.
Is it fun and engaging? Yes. Is there content to potentially go and do reality or digital programming which could generate interest? Sure. Is there potential as a viable business? Maybe. Will brands look at it, assuming there is a consistent broadcast package and effective and consistent local marketing and sales, to say we want to out our dollars here and activate against and with you? Maybe, but that has to be proven. Will investors step up and buy and operate teams in local markets with substantial capital for years at a time? Hard to say.
The biggest challenge with the FXFL and other parallels like minor league affiliated baseball, the DLeague and even minor league hockey and in some instances soccer now, is that the parent club, major league sports, spends a lot of the cash and in many instances absorbs the L in a P and L. Even in Independent baseball, the possibility exists for those teams, which run greater risk but have good talent, to sell contracts to MLB or MiLB or even Japan for a profit. The FXFL has none of that as a safety net to be innovative or creative and not always look at the bottom line. The NFL, as it has since the failure of the WLAF, watches with no risk and simply picks up the talent with no cost or effort. They are quietly supportive with n involvement, which is a great situation to be in.
Would it be great if the FXFL bucks the trend of minor league football, finds investors and cities willing to support with a media company diving in for a partnership akin to what the NHL and NBC had at one point? Sure. Would it be great for brands to come on board with fixed partnerships that involve cash to raise the bottom line? Yes. Success of the FXFL is a success for everyone involved in sport.
Will it work? It is great the investor group got the league up and running to prove concept. That already is ahead of scores of others who have just talked and spent and never saw the light of day. If it is long term and viable, we will see hopefully next fall and the one after that. Ideas and sports are great, but in the end bottom line is what matters in sports business. Time, and dollars, will tell.