Proposed Football League Envisions a No-College Path to the Pros

The sports landscape is littered with failed professional football leagues, such is the dominance of the N.F.L.

Yet the sports agent Don Yee, who represents New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, thinks he may have found a model that will work: a league for 18- to 21-year-old players who skip college to play professionally right away.

Most fledgling leagues, like the defunct U.F.L. or the X.F.L., had rosters filled with castoff players who had gone undrafted out of college or who had bounced around pro teams. The quality of play was uneven, while games often overlapped with the N.F.L. and N.C.A.A. calendars, making it hard to gain attention.

Yee and his investment group see their new Pacific Pro Football league, which is expected to start in the summer of 2018, as more of a development league filled with players who want to immediately start playing a pro-style game while getting a paycheck, rather than risking injury on a college team and receiving no compensation.

“Most other leagues usually took players who were deemed not good enough for the N.F.L.,” Yee said. “We’re now trying to go to the head of the line at the buffet instead of getting the picked-over ones.”

Despite the long odds of success, Yee is not the only person seeking to get a football league off the ground. In April, a new spring league will roll out in West Virginia, where players “who may have been overlooked by the N.F.L., C.F.L. and other professional leagues” can pay $350 to showcase their talents in a six-game season, the league’s website says.

The N.F.L. also has toyed with starting a developmental league. In October, Commissioner Roger Goodell said the team owners had discussed the idea of working with 300 to 400 players to make them “ready to play as quickly as possible,” though nothing concrete emerged from the discussions.

Other leagues already employ teenagers who skip college. Major League Baseball clubs draft young players and send them to their academies or minor league affiliates. Many N.H.L. teams have players as young as 18 on their rosters. Players can join N.B.A. teams if they are 19 and a year removed from high school. (In 2001, the N.B.A. started its own development league, where the players can be 18.)

N.F.L. teams can only draft players who are three years removed from their high school class’s graduation, a rule the league said is intended to protect younger, less physically developed players.

“The physical, mental and emotional demands of our sport would make it almost impossible for someone to have success in the N.F.L. at an earlier age,” said Brian McCarthy, a league spokesman.

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Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, or Tides, said that the N.F.L. had an incentive not to undercut college football, which he said was a “great feeder system.”

Even with an alternate league, college football, where players get scholarships but are not paid, would remain a strong draw for high school players because of the potential exposure, he said. He added that requiring athletes to spend more time in college makes it more likely that they will be prepared for life in the N.F.L. and after they retire from the game.

“I don’t know how broad the interest in academic development is by the pro leagues, but someone who has a broader range of interests has a more balanced life and has the potential to be a better athlete,” he said.

Yee acknowledged that his venture was risky, something his advisers have echoed. Fans already have a lot of options for watching college and professional football, and just paying for the necessary training facilities and transportation could be enough to bankrupt a new league.

“I’ve danced with at least three of these groups before, but money was always what killed them,” said Jim Steeg, who is an unpaid adviser to Yee and ran the Super Bowl for the N.F.L. for decades.

Steeg estimated that between $5 million and $7 million would be needed to cover the costs of each team for one season, along with a comparable sum to run the league office.

Still, Steeg was encouraged that Yee was starting small and aiming for a unique pool of players, and that he had already received funding from an “angel” investor. Yee said he hoped to attract enough money in the next phase of fund-raising to cover the cost of a first season.

The league would have four teams based in Southern California, both to reduce expenses and because the region has so many young players. The league would have a six-game schedule plus playoffs, and finish before the college season begins. Players would be paid an average of $50,000 in salary and benefits, including workers’ compensation, a 401(k) plan and free community college tuition.

Yee wants to partner with companies in the area to create internships for the players to prepare them for when their football days are over.

In addition to Steeg, Yee said he was being advised by, among others, the former N.F.L. coach Mike Shanahan; Mike Pereira, who was in charge of officiating for the N.F.L.; and the ESPN analyst Adam Schefter. Ed McCaffrey, a former Denver Broncos wide receiver, is a co-investor.

Having enough money to get a league off the ground is one challenge. Finding a way to publicize it is another. With television already cluttered with dozens of games each week, the chances of a new league finding space on a widely distributed cable network are remote.

Yee said that internet giants like Amazon and Netflix were looking for sports content to distribute. It is far from clear, however, whether one of those companies will pay Yee’s league to show games.