Later this afternoon at 3pm, Major League Baseball's All Star Week festivities get underway with the 2011 XM All-Star Futures Game. If you don't follow baseball, the Futures game consists of some of the best young minor league talent in baseball. It features mostly Single-A and Double-A talent but does include young talent at Triple-A (The highest level in minor league baseball). I enjoy following the development of young players so I try and watch the Futures Game each year.
Each of the major sports finds itself separated in how it develops young talent. Baseball has the most extensive minor league system in America as even top prospects can take two or three years before they even sniff the majors. Basketball has slowly developed a more organized minor league system using the NBDL. The D-League rosters are filled with a mix of independent players and players optioned down by NBA teams, in a similar fashion to that of baseball.
Then you've got the NFL. Although the league tried to develop NFL Europe, the finances didn't work and it folded. For the most part, the NFL uses college football as its "minor league system." The NFL has the most aggressive age limit as players have to be three years removed from graduation before they are eligible for the NFL Draft. Given the physical nature of the sport it's not exactly shocking since young men need time to physically grow up. At the same time, I often wonder if the league will develop some kind of farm system in the future. The NFL has practice squads but it's not like these guys get extensive playing time.
Then you've got the UFL. The UFL seems intent on developing into a feeder system for the NFL and I'd imagine their long term business model includes developing a more formal relationship with the league. Arena Football provides some players to the NFL but running as a spring time league is not conducive to becoming a feeder league. A league that runs concurrent with the NFL could bring in some practice squad level talent to create a credible developmental league for the NFL.
I'm sure plenty of people don't view a minor league system as necessary given the development of players at the college level. Arguably the biggest negative for creating an NFL farm system is cost. Having anything close to a 53-man roster creates sizable payrolls, along with all the other costs associated with any sort of minor league franchise. That alone would likely dissuade some folks from investing.
At the same time, with some co-investment by the NFL, I think a league could be somewhat successful. The NBA uses the D-League by having a pair of teams supplying players to single squads. Maybe the NFL could do something similar? It's not a guaranteed success but it's one option. You could have the 49ers and Raiders splitting a squad in Fresno for example.
The NFL will probably do fine without a minor league but I think there's enough football talent to fill out even a modest league. The UFL is working its way towards filling that slight need so we'll see how that plays out. They're prepared to move their season into late August if the lockout continues, but would likely move it back to later in the fall if the lockout is worked out sooner than that. It will be interesting to see how many players make their way from the UFL to NFL squads.