We talk to sports agent Don Yee about his planned Pacific Pro developmental football league, which will pay athletes and could compete for talent with NCAA schools.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Following high school, baseball players can enter the Major League Baseball draft. Basketball players can play overseas, or jump to the National Basketball Association following a year on campus. Tennis players, golfers, and gymnasts all have professional options, too.
Meanwhile, post-prep football players essentially have one path to the National Football League: participate in at least three years of college football, risking serious injury and submitting to economic exploitation.
Only what if those same athletes had a legitimate choice? What if there was a developmental league for America's most popular sport? That's the idea behind Pacific Pro Football, a new college-aged league that was announced on Wednesday and plans to kick off next year.
Pac Pro is the brainchild of former NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey and sports agent Don Yee, who represents New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and has spent almost 30 years working in professional football. VICE Sports spoke with Yee about what distinguishes Pac Pro from college football, what lessons can be drawn from previous professional football leagues, and how the new league may influence the ongoing battle over college athlete compensation.
VICE Sports: Let's start with the basics. What does this league entail, how is it going to work?
Don Yee: It's a four-team professional league that will start play in July 2018, initially based in four different counties in Southern California. We'll have 50 players per team, and an average salary and benefits projected at $50,000 per player.
The player population will be players either directly from high school, or up to fewer than four years removed from high school. This is a group that has never been professionalized before. Our venture is first of its kind.
Our brand of football will be professional in nature. The calendar will have a regular season, playoff, and off-season conditioning and coaching periods.
We're hoping to do a good job developing players for pro football as well as helping them find a path for life outside of football.
What do you mean by a professional brand of football?
Professional football is different than football at the amateur level. The rules. The size of the ball. The hash marks on the field. The timing of the game. Everything in our league will be like the NFL. The amateur level is more of a coach- and scheme-driven game, while the pro level is more of a mismatch game. We'll play a pro style of ball. But we also anticipate some rules modifications to enhance player safety.
Some of the ones we're considering might be to eliminate kickoff and punt returns during games. Another might be to implement more of a man-to-man defense type of game. Another might be to look at potentially limiting blitzing—that would enhance safety for quarterbacks, as well as allow offensive linemen to develop in a matchup-type scheme. And another might be to look at prohibiting or limiting types of offense plays that use multiple receiver crossing routes.
I've talked to a lot a pro football scouts about some of these ideas. What type of football would they like to see? The idea is to have the athleticism of the players on full display. Philosophically, it will be a player-centric league. That means the safety and welfare of the players will be paramount.
Football is so physical and violent. I would like the players to have an experience where they feel the administrators are taking their well-being into consideration at every step of the way.
Let's take a step back. Where did the idea for this league come from?
I've been thinking about this for many years. To some degree, I've written publicly about it. I got tired of thinking about it, and challenged myself to do something. It comes out of a lot of discussion and information I've accumulated in nearly 30 years of working in professional football. Doing a lot of careful listening in conversations with scouts, players, coaches, officials, media. It's really a culmination of a lot of that.
It has become very clear to me, particularly over the last 15 years or so, that emerging athletes from middle school on have become much more specialized and even professionalized in their training and protocols—in becoming good at whatever sport they choose to become good at. In every other sport you can think of, even global sports, young and emerging talent is about to be professional directly from high school or even younger. The only outlier is football. I felt it should no longer be an outlier.
Who are some of the key people involved?
Our current COO, Bradley Edwards, is a former ESPN and NFL executive. Our chief content officer is Jeff Husvar, a former executive at Fox Sports Digital. Our advisory board includes [former NFL coach] Mike Shanahan, [former NFL official and current FOX analyst] Mike Pereira, [ESPN reporter] Adam Schefter, [sports business consultant and former NFL Super Bowl czar] Jim Steeg, and Steve Schmidt.
Wait—Steve Schmidt, the MSNBC political analyst?
He's a big football fan! [Laughs] A big thinker. And he has an impressive network in all areas of society. This is a project he's enthusiastic about.
Previous attempts to launch independent football leagues have had mixed success at best. What have you learned from looking at the past in terms of what to do, and also what to avoid?
We have done a lot of research into those other attempts. Not just football but other sports. One of the things we realized is that while other football leagues haven't succeeded in the long term, many succeeded in the short term in various ways.
The XFL succeeded by creating initial interest. The TV ratings for early broadcasts were very high. But long term, they went astray a bit in their presentation of game. In the mid 1980s, the USFL proved it could procure talented players and coaches, put on a good product, and sell out venues. Many of those coaches and players went on to Hall of Fame careers. The only reason it didn't succeed was that at the time, there was no way to generate significant media rights—the amount of content distributors in the country was limited.
Who's paying for this? What are your startup costs?
Over the past years, we've conducted an angel round of financing that we are in the process of closing. Due to [Securities and Exchange Commission] regulations, I'm prohibited from speaking in specifics about our efforts in that area, but obviously, it will take a lot of capital.
Let's pretend I'm a skeptical investor. Why should I give you my money?
Again, I have to be careful in how I answer. What I can say, generally, is that football is undeniably America's No. 1 passion sport, as evidenced by television ratings. We're creating a football league and creating more content inventory, and we live in a day and age with more potential content distributors than ever. And this is also a product that for the average consumer is not going to be difficult to understand.
So what makes Pac Pro different from previous leagues?
All of them used the player population that had already exhausted its college eligibility. We're going to use a player population that is eligible for college participation.
Which means you'll be competing for talent with NCAA football.
We're simply going to offer a choice.
There's no question that there is tremendous interest—as evidenced by successful web businesses—in emerging football talent. ESPN devotes an entire day to National Letter of Intent signings. People follow high school football talent and where it goes, and follow that talent earlier and earlier. We feel that giving the talent an opportunity and choice to professionalize earlier may bring along that fan interest.
Do you worry that those same football fans are interested in high school talent mostly because it currently ends up in college football, and may not be interested if it goes to your league?
No. I generally try not to operate out of worry or fear. After doing a lot of research, as well as looking at entertainment industry here in Southern California, I feel there's enough data that shows fans tend to follow stars. So if we're able to bring aboard really good talent, the fan interest will eventually develop.
Let's say I'm the top-ranked high school quarterback in the country. I'm giving you a meeting. How do you convince me that I should say no to Nick Saban at Alabama, and yes to your league?
Well, I would never speak about your other options, I don't know the nature of them. But for us, first I would explain your salary and benefits compensation package. How that can be used to create a retirement plan for you at a very young age. What that could look like when you are in your 60s and withdrawing money.
So the miracle of compound interest, huh?
[Laughs] Of course! The second thing I would discuss is our calendar. While you are specializing in football, much of the year is still open for you to pursue off-field interests and create a foundation for your life after football.
Third, if you aspire to a professional league beyond ours, you will be immediately immersed in that kind of play. Protocols, playbooks, techniques. Especially as a quarterback, you will develop faster. Your learning curve will be much shorter if you go on to the NFL.
Fourth, because football is such a physical and violent sport, your body actually has an expiration date on it. And we play a much shorter schedule [than college football]. So your exposure to injury risk is substantially reduced.
Lastly, I'd point out that we are considering a concept of no sitting on the bench in Pac Pro. Every player will be developed and will play. You will be assured of seeing practice and game repetitions.
You mentioned injury risk. What are you doing, specifically, to protect players from brain trauma?
We've already had a number of those discussions internally and externally with professionals in the brain injury field. We're still figuring out the best path, but I personally feel that path will be fluid.
The very first thing we can do to enhance player safety—especially with concussions, which you can't fully eliminate—is to have our players play fewer games. Our players will play an eight-game season. In other leagues, that schedule is substantially longer. Speaking to a brain surgeon friend of mine about this, I said, "How about if we just reduced the games by nearly 50 percent?" He said, "That is the very best start you can think of to reduce the exposure to risk."
On top of that, we would like every single player to play, so that means you won't have a single running back carrying 30-plus times a game—you'll have two running backs carrying 15 to 16 times. So you diversify the risk within the games, too.
What about long-term injury coverage?
Players will be employees of the league, so if you're hurt on the job, you will qualify for worker's compensation. We will have worker's comp insurance, and you'll be able to avail yourself of the system here in California, which is probably one of the more generous systems in the country.
You said that you also want the league to help players find a life path outside of football. How?
So for me, especially after working with NFL players for so many years, all football players understand the opportunity to play the game at a high level—even if you play ten to 12 years—is a short time in your life. You will be a former player much longer than a current player. I've always felt it was very important to try to help people in some way develop a path for that.
In Pac Pro, we take an expensive view of education. That may be a traditional academic party, or a vocational path, or a range of internships to help someone find their passion outside of football. We will have academic and vocational counselors assigned to each team, listening to each player and helping them form a plan to make some progress in that passion. Starting in Southern California, where we have a diversified economy, we think we can offer players a range of internship and networking opportunities with professionals from a range of industries.
You can't predetermine everyone's future path after football, but we hope to ignite that passion.
Where and when will games take place?
We have a plethora of football facilities here. Community colleges, high schools, universities that used to have [NCAA Division I] football. We're already in discussions, and we project using two facilities on game days, Sundays during July and August.
July and August—will it be too hot?
We considered that, but here in Southern California we have a very temperate climate. We're lucky to have a coastline. [Laughs] And frankly many players already participate in seven-on-seven leagues during the summer.
We'd like to play in the summer. One reason being, we have a larger range of facilities available. Another is that from a content standpoint, those are months we feel might be underserved for football. Also, we want to conclude prior to Labor Day so that the traditional academic calendar will be available to our players if they want to pursue school.
Speaking of those schools, you've written and spoken publicly about the NCAA system economically exploiting its revenue-sport athletes, particularly in the multibillion-dollar industry of major college football. Does that play into what you're trying to accomplish with this league?
No, it doesn't. That's a personal opinion of mine about that particular system. And in building this product, it really just focused on this product and not really as a comparison to any other product.
You're a lawyer. I know you've followed the O'Bannon case, as well as current antitrust cases challenging NCAA amateurism and limits on athlete compensation. Do you have any concern that the NCAA will point to your league, even if it is a relatively small startup, and say, "See, college-age football players have choice, we're not an effective monopoly, we should be allowed to continue to collude"?
That's a terrific question! I can't speak to the NCAA's legal strategy, but if you're being accused of antitrust violations and there exists in the marketplace some other option, it's very possible to some degree that it mitigates those allegations. [Laughs] But I am not an antitrust law expert.
What would you say to people who may think, We already have college football, why do we need a league like this?
Due to exceptional marketing, most people naturally feel that there is only one path to professional football in this country. But after discussing the issues thoroughly, people generally come around to a conclusion of why is that? Why isn't there an alternative or a different option for the players?
The current system in place and the people who administer it and sell it have done an exceptional job over many, many decades. But as we can see all around us in society, there are many things that have been entrenched for a long time that have changed. We feel there's room in the football industry to innovate. I'm not so sure I look at this as changing proposition. It's a supplemental proposition. We are expanding the football industry, and creating jobs for players, coaches, officials, executives. And providing players a choice.
How do you convince fans—who seem pretty happy with college football—to give this league a chance?
Hopefully, we have people a lot better than I am at marketing. [Laughs] But the best way, I believe, is to bring fans closer to the action. Make it more intimate and accessible, as well as provide a high quality of play. That means probably starting out in smaller venues, and making it an affordable experience for an entire family.
What would success look like for your league five years from now? A decade from now?
I think success for us will be measured by player satisfaction. If every player feels it was a good and fair experience, the league will be successful, whether we stay at four teams or eventually expand to eight, 12, or 16 teams. We feel this is model of the future. Football can still be played at a high level with engaged fans, but more safely and with the welfare of the participants always at the forefront.
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