Minor league football (gridiron)

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Minor league football is a loose term for pro football (gridiron) which is played below the major league level (also known as Secondary Football or Alternative Football). There is a major league designation to the National Football League (American football) and the Canadian Football League (Canadian football), but contrary to the other major sports in North America (MLB, MLS, NBA and NHL) no formal development farm system is in use, [1] after the NFL severed ties with all minor league teams in 1948, [2] [3] and again with the cancellation of NFL Europe in 2006. [4] Since 2018 the CFL has a partnership agreement with the Professional American Football League of Mexico (LFA) for player development, [5] but do not consider it as a minor league in the traditional sense. [6]

Contents

There have been professional football leagues of varying levels since the invention of the sport, and over the years there was an attempt to organize a development or farm leagues such as the Association of Professional Football Leagues, [7] [8] [9] and the after-mentioned WLAF/NFL Europe/NFL Europa, but failed to produce profits and cancelled unceremoniously. [10] As a result, over time the North American leagues settled into an informal hierarchy, with many aspiring entrepreneurs trying to establish in that vacuum rival or alternative/ supplement leagues to the NFL, but beside the All-America Football Conference and the American Football League that merged with the NFL, none of the other leagues succeeded, [11] particularly because the leagues lack of ability to generate television revenue to keep them afloat in its first years of existence. [12] [13]

In modern times, the NFL has developed players not ready for the active roster through each team's practice squad, or relied on college football [14] [15] [16] [17] and separate entities like the now-defunct Arena Football League [18] [19] [20] as their feeder organizations. Since the beginning of the 21st century, three fledgling pro football leagues - UFL, [21] FXFL [22] [23] and AAF [24] [25] - had hoped to create a relationship with the NFL as some sort of a developmental minor league, but all folded without any such connection being made.

History

Early circuits (1890–1919)

The birth of semi-professional football can be trace back to the 1880s, when most athletic clubs in America had a team playing football, and played (supposedly) without paid players. In realty, most teams often found ways around that, and acquire the best players with the promise of jobs and trophies or watches (that were later pawned by the players) to play against the area top clubs and colleges. While the practice of professional and semi-pro teams playing college and amateur teams was common in the 1880s and 1890s (most notably was the establishment of the American Football Union, a coalition of teams that operated from 1886 to 1895 in the New York metropolitan area), in the 20th century college and professional football began to diverge and college-professional interplay effectively ended after the NCAA formed in 1906. During this time, the most prominent circuit was the Western Pennsylvania Professional Football Circuit, and most winning teams claimed national "professional" football title. [26]

The first attempt to form a pro league was the National Football League of 1902, but despite the name was actually regional league that was only composed of teams from Pennsylvania (two of the teams were based in Philadelphia, while the third was based in Pittsburgh). The next step came when promoter Tom O'Rourke established the World Series of Football (1902–03). The series (and not a "league") played indoors at New York City's Madison Square Garden and consisted of five teams, three from the state of New York, one from New Jersey, and another team called "New York", but comprising two Philadelphia teams - the Athletics and the Phillies. [27] The 1903 series also featured the Franklin Athletic Club from Pennsylvania.

At the same time, teams from Ohio – namely the Massillon Tigers, the Columbus Panhandles and the Canton Bulldogs – start attracting much of the top professional football talent in America: Harry McChesney, Bob Shiring, the Nesser brothers, Blondy Wallace, Cub Buck and later even Jim Thorpe, and gave rise to the Ohio League. The "league" was actually a circuit – informal and loose association of independent teams playing other local teams and competed for the "Ohio Independent Championship". The group pioneered the concept of playing games on Sundays to avoid competition with college football games, as it was illegal in other states (due to the existing blue laws), which eventually became the professional standard.

The Ohio League decade-long monopoly began to lose hold in the 1910s, with the formation of the New York Pro Football League (NYPFL) (the first league to use a playoff format) and other associations in the Midwest (particularly in Illinois). The rise in level of play resulted in barnstorming tours between the circuits, which laid the foundations for the first truly national "Major" league – The American Professional Football Association in 1920.

The Golden Era

The first minor leagues period of prosperity or "the heyday" [7] started in the 1920s and lasted until the end of World War II. By the '30s, Football was not a fledgling enterprise, but was certainty one when we talk about Pro-Football, as even the National Football League had trouble attracting fans, and was located mostly in the northeastern quarter of the United States. In the vacuum, several regional leagues tried their luck in the pro game, along with flourishing regional circuits of independent teams, recapturing the pro football roots. The era is also considered the best of all time, because the quality of play, as there was only 250 players in the NFL, while the regional leagues could sometimes offer better pay and jobs, and offered black players opportunity to play during the period when they were excluded from all NFL teams (1933–1946). [28] [29]

In 1934 the American Football League was the first true attempt to establish pro football in the American South and Southwest regions. The league was formed by the strongest independent teams in the region, including the Memphis Tigers, who claimed the "national pro championship" in 1929, after beating the NFL champions the Green Bay Packers. The AFL had only one season of competition and folded after only the Memphis Tigers and the Charlotte Bantams completing their respected seasons. [30]

Another strong "South" league was the Dixie League, that represented Mid Atlantic teams. The league was one of the most successful minor leagues in history, playing eight seasons in 11 years, while claiming they're the "highest level minor football league" in the era. Unlike most pro-football minor leagues, the Dixie League had a relative stability in membership until the Pearl Harbor attack forced the league into hiatus. The league returned in 1946, but wasn't the same, and folded altogether in 1947, after playing only one week. [31]

The Dixie League's biggest counterpart was the American Association football league. The AA was formed by the nucleus of independent teams that played in the New YorkNew Jersey circuits, and was led by the president Joe Rosentover. The league teams sought relationships with the NFL, and several teams functioned as a farm system for the major NFL teams, like the Newark Bears, Brooklyn Eagles and the Jersey City Giants. The league allowed black players to participate, including the last African-American in the NFL Joe Lillard (Clifton Wessingtons) and most teams scheduled games against the independent Fritz Pollard's Harlem Brown Bombers. The league closed operations during World War II, and after a four-year hiatus, the AA was renamed the American Football League and expanded to include teams in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The league demise is attribute to the fact the NFL severed ties with all minor league teams in 1948. [32]

The last of the "Big Three Leagues" [33] was the Pacific Coast Professional Football League which started in 1940. The roots of pro-football in the west are attribute to the Red Grange barnstorming tour with the Chicago Bears in 1926, [34] as some leagues were formed – Pacific Coast League (1926) and American Legion League (1934–1935) – but did not lasted long. The PCPFL was formed behind the financial backbone of the sport in California – the Los Angeles Bulldogs – the "best football team in existence outside the NFL", [28] [35] and were the only prominent minor football league that operate during the war years. The league became home to the top African American football talents in the country, including Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Ozzie Simmons, Mel Reid and briefly even Jackie Robinson during the NFL enforced color barrier. The league played its last season in 1948, two years after the NFL moved the Rams to Los Angeles. [36] [37]

The "Big Three" reached an agreement with the NFL, and in 1946 formed the Association of Professional Football Leagues for a formal farm system with the league. The agreement lasted less than two years, after the NFL cancelled it altogether in 1948. [2] The termination triggered the end of the era.

Other prominent leagues were the Anthracite League (Pennsylvania), Eastern League of Professional Football (Pennsylvania and New Jersey), Ohio Valley League, Midwest Football League and the Northwest War Industries League (Washington and Oregon). During the '30s and '40s there was also a strong independent circuits in Greater New York metropolitan area and in the Northeast. [38]

The second wave

The minor leagues experienced renaissance in the 60's and 70's, as their growing relevance occurred concurrently with the AFL and NFL rivalry. [12] Several prominent leagues operated during that period and were mostly regional: The original United Football League (UFL I) lasted from 1961 to 1964 and was concentrated in the Midwest, although we remember it as the first football league to operate teams in both the United States and Canada, as the Quebec Rifles played in the league in 1964. In 1962 it was quickly joined by the Atlantic Coast Football League (ACFL) from the Northeast, which was run by Joe Rosentover as the previous American Association (AA) of the 1930s.

In April 1964 the two leagues, along with Central States Football League, Midwest Football League, Southern Football League formed the Association of Minor Football Leagues (the association also included the non-paying semi-pro [39] [40] New England Football Conference ), and appointed UFL commissioner, George T. Gareff, as the CEO. [41] The association represented teams in 50 cities in US 21 states plus the Rifles from Quebec, Canada, and tried to schedule exhibition games between leagues, [42] but disbanded after two years without notice.

When the UFL folded, and the Newark Bears of the ACFL unsuccessfully applied to join the AFL, two new national leagues formed. The first was the North American Football League (NAFL), [12] which ran from 1965 to 1966, and tried to establish Major league affiliations with either the NFL or the AFL. The second – the Continental Football League (CoFL), which ran from 1965 to 1971 – was probably the biggest in the era, and attracted the ACFL three best teams: Hartford Charter Oaks, Newark Bears and Springfield Acorns (as the Norfolk Neptunes).

Some of the other notable leagues were the Professional Football League of America (PFLA) [43] which lasted three years (1965–1967) and played in the Midwest (essentially substituted the UFL), the North Pacific Football League (pacific region) and the Texas Football League (TFL), which operated in the southern United States. However, those leagues would later merge with the CoFL, as several teams from the NPFL joined the league in 1966 and the PFLA followed in 1968 (resulting in dissolution of both leagues), [44] while in 1969 the CoFL announced that the entirety of the eight-team TFL was added to its ranks as a separate division, and were mostly scheduled to play against each other with few inter-league contests. [45]

The two bigger leagues, the CoFL and ACFL had different strategies: the CoFL had "independent" aspirations, while the ACFL was happy as a developmental league and (like previous leagues run by Rosentover) allowed its teams to become farm teams to the AFL and NFL teams. [12]

Over their existence, the CoFL arguably had better talent, that went on to NFL and CFL stardom (Ken Stabler, Don Jonas, and Sam Wyche), but folded after 1971 (as an incarnation called the Trans-American Football League), and plans to take on the Canadian Football League head-to-head were abandoned. Although the revival as the TAFL was largely a failure, the league foreshadowed the future of minor football from now on, as it played its season at the spring to avoid direct competition against other football in the fall. [46] [47]

The ACFL also produced some significant talent (e.g. Pro Bowler Marvin Hubbard, the first female professional football player, placeholder Patricia Palinkas and cult figure King Corcoran) and even lasted longer. The league operated continuously through 1971, with a return season in 1973, which played mostly by promoted teams from the lower-level Seaboard Football League (which in turn, brought up a semi-pro teams to supplement them). [48] However, the attempted major World Football League (WFL) sapped both leagues from most of their talent, and forced them to fold by 1974.

During it existence, The Seaboard Football League hovered between a minor league and semi-pro, as some of its players never got paid (most notable was Joe Klecko [49] ) and other got only $50 per game. Despite that, the league had some notable alumni including: Vince Papale, Jack Dolbin and Klecko. Additionally, the league's claim to fame is that it is the last minor league to play an inter-league exhibition match against an NFL team, when the New York Jets rookies defeated Long Island Chiefs 29–3. [50] [51] [48]

One other minor league attempt in the '70s was the American Football Association (AFA), that operated from 1977 to 1983 – was less successful, especially because it struggled to acquire recognizable players and consequentially failed to secure a TV deal. [52] The AFA followed the model set by the TAFL, and played "off-season" schedule during the summer (May to August). [53] The formation of the USFL led to a decline in AFA talent, move to a semi-pro status, and a cancellation of the league entirely after the 1983 season.

By the end of the era there was one last attempt to organized non-NFL pro teams under one umbrella, with the establishment of the Minor Professional Football Association, which represented more than 200 teams and about 10,000 players. [54] From 1980 through 1985 the association sponsored an annual post-season championship tournament for minor league teams, with an attempt to establish a minor-league system. In 1981 the association reached an agreement with the NFL to hold a special national all-star game for minor leaguers, the day before the Super Bowl, with scouts in attendance. NFL had the right to sign any player from the association for a $1,500 payment to the team that holds his contract. Alas, the agreement did not continue and the association would reformatted in 1986 to the American Football Association and focused on providing services to semi-pro and amateur teams around the US. [55]

The development of arena football and the birth of the Arena Football League in 1987 has effectively ended the era, and reduced most outdoor leagues to amateur or semi-pro status.

NFL Europe

After the turmoil in the '80s, the NFL decided to form its own league in 1991 – the World League of American Football – a spring developmental league. For the first time, an American sport league had a European division as part of its 10 team league, [56] while the other teams were located in continental US and Canada. The league was used to test rule changes and technical innovations [57] and supposed to use as a "farm system" for the NFL teams. However, the first two seasons produced low TV ratings, [58] and was put on hiatus until 1995. When it came back, the league was based entirely in Europe, was reduced to six teams and re-branded as NFL Europe.

From then until 2007, the league kept the same format, when the NFL decided to cancel it altogether. [59] Ultimately, the league was the longest tenured minor league in history, having lasted for 15 cumulative years, and producing players like the hall of famer Kurt Warner and Superbowl quarterbacks Brad Johnson and Jake Delhomme. [60] Other notable players include: Dante Hall, David Akers, James Harrison, Adam Vinatieri and William Perry.

Modern era

Early 2000's

In the late '90s and early 2000s began a wave of new "outside" entrepreneurs that wanted to dip their toes in the evergrowing football market, corresponding with the dot-com boom.

The first league was the Regional Football League that played one season in 1999, and had aspirations to be considered a high-level minor league, as they self-styled themselves as the "Major league of spring football". The league was proposed to begin in 1998, but financial difficulties delayed it by a year, and change the business plans, as it was now a lower-budget league and featured only six teams from mid-size cities that was mostly located at the Southern United States. The league did not prosper, as it failed to secure a television contract, and beside the Mobile, Alabama team, failed miserably at the gate, was forced to play eight-week shortened season and folded altogether at the end. Although in the end the league was unsuccessful, it suggested an interesting wrinkle that future leagues will use, as the players were assigned to teams base of the region where they played in college (hence the league name).

Parallel to the RFL, there were two more separate attempts to start up new leagues. The first, the International Football Federation flopped so miserably it is remembered as the shortest existing league ("one press conference"). The second, the Spring Football League, was founded by several ex-NFL players (Bo Jackson, Drew Pearson, Eric Dickerson and Tony Dorsett) but failed to attract big investors because of the tech-market crash of 2000, and was cancelled after only two weeks.

The next attempt was probably the biggest since the emergence of the AFL in 1960, as NBC and the WWE collaborate to form the (original) XFL in 2001. Although 14 million viewers who tuned in for the first game, the Nielsen ratings was later plummeted because of mediocre football, and triggered NBC to pulled out of its broadcast contract, and the league folded after one season. The league featured several changes in rules and broadcast, and remembered as the one the gave birth to the "Skycam" in sport broadcasting.

From that point on the startup leagues had trouble to attract investors, as there was no proof of concept to a feasible minor league football. During the era five high-profile attempts – All American Football League and United National Gridiron League in 2007, New United States Football League with two separate attempts in 2010 and 2014, and the A-11 Football League (2014) – never materialize and made it even harder for other future leagues.

The new modern day United Football League was the most prominent league in the era, playing 3½ seasons before folding. The UFL was fairly successful, attracting big crowds in Omaha, Sacramento and Hartford and had plans of expending, while all league games aired on Versus and HDnet (every game was also webcast), and functioned as a single entity league following the Major League Soccer model. The UFL featured former NFL players and was the first professional fall league other than the National Football League to play in the United States since the mid-1970s. Alas, the league collapsed mid-2012 season, failing to pay the bills after most investors stepped out. The league will be remembered in football lore as the one giving Marty Schottenheimer his only championship as a coach. [61]

The Fall Experimental Football League (FXFL) was the first league that openly embraced the minor league concept, and wanted to become a professional feeder-system for the NFL. The league owner, Brian Woods, wanted his franchises to be primarily based in minor league baseball stadiums, and use the infra-structure in place to attract fans. The FXFL attracted the final NFL roster cuts, for the purpose of keeping them "in football shape, physically and mentally". [62] The league was cancelled after two abbreviated seasons, and was reformatted as the developmental "The Spring League".

Other leagues in the era were the low-level New World Football League (2008–2010) and the Stars Football League (2011–2013), as they both survived three season but folded unceremoniously.

New resurgence

In 2018, several strong figures, with connections to the original XFL, entered to the spring-football market with rival leagues. The first was the Alliance of American Football (AAF) that was founded by Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian, and began playing in 2019, but ceased operations eight weeks in, as the controlling owner Thomas Dundon decided to pull the plug. The second was the relaunched version of the XFL, as Vince McMahon hired Oliver Luck as commissioner. The league first began play in 2020, with higher success and reception and had aired on ABC/ESPN and Fox Sports. After 5 weeks of play, the XFL announced that its season would end, because of growing COVID-19 pandemic concerns. The league is currently on hiatus, after it filed for bankruptcy and put up for sale by McMahon and was later sold to Dany Garcia, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and RedBird Capital, [63] and is set to return in 2023. [64]

"The league may be dead due to the extraordinary circumstances of our time, but it died after proving that a secondary football league can absolutely work in the United States."

Nick Schwartz, The XFL is gone but not forgotten, USA Today, April 14, 2020. [65]

Six other planned leagues tried to throw their hat to the ring, but have yet to launch. [66] The first is the Spring League of American Football, a presumably high-level minor league that was first announced in September 2016, by two former Madison Square Garden executives, and still looking for initial funding. Two other leagues are the supposed mid-level minor, the Major League Football (first announced on 2014, but had several management changes) and American Patriot League (2018), that had plans of starting in 2020, but still haven't launched because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Another planned high-level league is the Freedom Football League (2018), which run by former NFL players: Jeff Garcia, Ricky Williams, Terrell Owens and Simeon Rice, with yet-to-announced starting date.

The last two were developmental-level leagues. The first was Pacific Pro Football (2017), designed for non-NFL eligible players, but was abandoned in mid-2020 after several investors backed out, and was reformatted to a scouting event called HUB Football. [67] Contrary to the Pac Pro, the Your Call Football league did start, lasted two years (2018-2019) and featured concepts that gave the fans the power to control the outcome (later adopted by the indoor Fan Controlled Football league), but was abandoned when its parent company had moved on to adapting the technology in other sporting environments.

On June 3, 2021, The Spring League owner Brian Woods announced that he had acquired the remaining extant trademarks of the United States Football League with intent of launching a USFL-branded league in 2022, with Fox Sports remaining as a partner in the new USFL. [68] He did not specified what will become of developmental' TSL, but according to the initial announcement the "league" will continue, probably as a scouting showcase. [69]

System and structure

There have been professional football leagues of varying levels since the invention of the sport, trying their turn in the sport's ever-growing market. Over time there was attempts to start a rival major leagues, as the last one was the USFL, but most leagues that followed were high-level minor leagues such as the XFL, the UFL and the AAF. Whether it was "Major" or "Minor", most football leagues were looking to establish teams in untapped potential U.S. big markets. [70]

Most of the minor leagues were separated through the years to three de facto categories: [71] high-level (for example: PCPFL [72] or the XFL [73] and the AAF [74] [75] [76] [77] ), low-level (American Football Association or Seaboard Football League) and semi-professional leagues. Today there are two more levels: mid-level (Regional Football League or the FXFL [78] [79] [80] ) and developmental leagues [81] (The Spring League [82] [83] or Your Call Football [84] ).

The categories are usually determined by the following rules: the high-level leagues salary is above median US wage, the mid-level pays around the median wage and the low-level pays around or below the US minimum wage. The developmental leagues don't pay salaries or construct with a non-NFL eligible players, and designed to showcase the players' skills for future opportunities.

Since 1998, there have been more than 20 football leagues (traditional or Indoor) who played an average of 3½ years before folding or merging with others, some never opened. [85] There are five active minor leagues in North America; four low-level leagues: the Gridiron Developmental Football League, Rivals Professional Football League and two Mexican leagues - Liga de Fútbol Americano Profesional and Fútbol Americano de México, with one developmental league - The Spring League. One more leagues is in hiatus, the high-level XFL, which set to return in 2023.

Indoor/arena football

The high cost of supporting an entire roster of professional players and stadium fees led to an indoor variation with the launch of the Arena Football League in 1987. In its heyday, the AFL function as de facto minor league to the NFL, as six NFL team owners - Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints and Tennessee Titans - had purchased teams in the league, [86] and many players and coaches made the transition between leagues. [87] [88] On February 8, 1999, the NFL also purchased, but never exercised, an option to buy a major interest in the AFL. [89] [90] [91]

Prior to the (first) AFL collapse in 2008, the league had had its own minor developmental league the af2 (although it never functioned as a farm system [92] ) but it dissolved after the 2009 season, amid financial problems rooted in the 2007–2008 financial crisis, and several teams joined the "new" Arena Football League. [93]

Today, the Indoor variation of football also has an unofficial minor-leagues hierarchy, although no league holds a "Major" designation, after the AFL folded. [19] [94] [95] Pro leagues pay salary on a per-game basis (payoff varies between leagues), while the high-level leagues also provide housing, health insurance and two meals per day to players during the season.

The categories are more fluid than the outdoor variation, but usually determined by per-game salaries and arena size:

Semi-pro football

The semi-pro leagues hold a strong place in American football history, but were far more common in the early and mid-20th century than they are today. Football is especially suited for semi-pro play, and most leagues often operate at a semi-professional level due to cost concerns. Furthermore, because they play only one game per week, the players are able to pursue outside employment. In the 21st century, the semi-pro circuits usually attract only local players and teams don't pay salaries, although in the past most teams helped players find local jobs within the community. Over the years, semi-pro leagues attracted college players on the fringe of playing in the NFL who needed to stay in shape, and were effectively a farm system for the NFL. [102] [103] [104] [105] [106] [107] [108]

The semi-pro game experienced two peak periods, the first in the 1950s and than in the 1970s through the 1980s, when minor leagues started disappearing. Instead, the level below the NFL tended to take a form of local leagues (sometimes unofficial) matching teams from different neighborhoods or suburbs of big cities with little to no pay. [43] The most notable players are Johnny Unitas who played quarterback, safety and punter on a team called the Bloomfield Rams (Pittsburgh suburb) for $6 a game before joining the Baltimore Colts, [109] and Eric Swann who was the first (and so far the only) player to be drafted in the NFL draft first round from a semi-pro organization called Bay State Titans (played at Lynn, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb). Another player is Ray Seals, who did not play college football but made his way to the NFL through the semi-pro rank (Syracuse Express).

The semi-pro leagues role in history is best portrayed in the 1987 24-day NFLPA Strike, when semi-pro players were called as a replacements, [110] [111] after the third week of the NFL season was cancelled. Their stories are documented in the 2017 ESPN film Year of the Scab . [112] The semi-pro demise in football lore is attributed to the flourishing of college football in the '80s, [15] and the subsequently rise in the never-ending talent pool for the NFL to draw from.

The Watertown Red & Black, a semi-professional team that currently plays in the Empire Football League, is the oldest existing football club, tracing its history to 1896. [113]

Minor League Football System

After the decline of the minor leagues in the 1980s, the semi-pro circuit tried to fill that niche. In the summer of 1989 the Minor League Football System (MLFS) was formed, as an attempt to develop a nationwide semi-pro football league. [103] [114] [115] The circuit had aspiration to become a feeder system for the NFL [115] and featured 11 teams, in the same amount of states (CA, CO, FL, GA, MA, MO, NC, OK, PA, VA and WA). Because the "league" did not pay salaries but wanted to attract good local talent, it was established as a temp agency, and offered jobs for players in local communities as well as providing housing solutions during the season. [115] [116] Despite that, they managed to attract decent talent, including ex-NFL players (Rusty Hilger and Ben Rudolph) and coaches (Walt Michaels, Darryl Rogers and Lou Saban). [117] After successful first season, the league attracted strong sponsors in Wilson and Gatorade, [118] but two teams folded midway through the second year, while the others stumbled to the finish line and folded altogether in the months that followed, as they were unable to establish a working agreement with the NFL. The league's commissioner was Roger Wehrli. [114]

Modern circuit

Today, most leagues and independent teams are sanctioned by the American Football Association [119] (unrelated to the former AFA), which acts as an organizer of games and playoff tournaments for teams throughout the US, and maintaining a Semi-Pro Football Hall of Fame. [120] [121] [122] Another organization is the USA Bowl Championship Series [123] that ranks the top 25 semi-pro/amateur teams in the country, and attempts to crown the annual "National Champion" at the USA Bowl. The last association is the United States Federation of American Football, [124] which tries to divide the existing leagues to AAA and AA class-levels in terms of business practice, representation and the athletics, [125] and was formerly recognized by the International Federation of American Football as the USA's football governing body. [126]

Under USA Football and Football Canada strict criteria, players in this level are eligible for the United States national American football team and Canada men's national football team (respectively).

The prominent present-day leagues in the "Adult Amateur"/ "Semi-Pro" US circuit are:

LeagueFirst seasonTypeGeographical area
Amateur to Professional Developmental Football League [127] [81] [128] 2013 [129] Outdoor Southeast
American 7s Football League 2014 Seven-man Football Traveling league
American Flag Football League 2018 Flag football Traveling league
Eastern Football League [130] [131] [132] 1961 [133] Outdoor Northeastern
Empire Football League 1969Outdoor New York State
Florida Football Alliance 2008Outdoor Florida
Mason-Dixon Football League [134] [135] [136] 1978 [137] Outdoor Mid-Atlantic
MidStates Football League [138] [139] [140] 1999 [141] Outdoor North Central
Minor Football League [142] [143] [144] [145] 1993Outdoor Eastern & Central United States
New England Football League *1994Outdoor New England
Pacific Coast Football League [146] [147] [148] 2006 [149] Outdoor California
Pacific Northwest Football League [150] [151] 2016Outdoor Pacific Northwest
Rocky Mountain Football League [152] [153] 1997 [154] Outdoor Rocky Mountains

*The NEFL is unique in the American sports landscape, allowing promotion and relegation among conferences.


In Canada there are three prominent leagues:

LeagueFirst seasonTypeGeographical area
Alberta Football League (AFL)1984Three downs Alberta
Maritime Football League (MFL)2001Three downs Maritime Provinces
Northern Football Conference (NFC)1954Four downs Ontario

The AFL and NFC are considered bigger leagues, and every September the NFC champion meets the champion of the AFL to determine the Canadian Major Football League national champions. Canada also have three prominent "Junior leagues": the Atlantic Football League (Maritime Provinces), Canadian Junior Football League (Western Canada and Ontario) and Quebec Junior Football League.

International American Football Leagues

American football is a growing sport worldwide, and has the International Olympic Committee recognition since 2013. Over the years the NFL tried to expend their exposure to additional markets, when they played some of their games outside of the United States. The first pro game outside US and Canada played in Japan in 1976, [155] in 1978 the NFL played in Mexico, [156] [157] and in 1983 they had their first game in Europe (London, United Kingdom). [158]

After the success of the international series in the 70's and '80s, foreign countries have established their own leagues and have earned a reputation over the years, and even begun to attract some American players. [159] Usually, the foreign players in the National Football League moved to the US early, and played the game in college, but there are few exceptions. Anthony Dablé, a French football player, was the first foreign pro-player to signed in the NFL, Moritz Böhringer, who was drafted in 2016 directly from the German Football League (although he still has not played in official game) and Efe Obada was the first player to make an NFL 53-man active roster. Since 2017, the NFL run special program to increase the number of non-American and non-Canadian players in the league called International Player Pathway Program, and so far the only player to start an NFL game is Jakob Johnson (New England Patriots).

Since 2017, the Canadian Football League tried to globalize as well, [160] and made partnership agreements with football leagues in Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom. [161] The league held special global scouting combine in Europe, Mexico and Japan, [162] and in 2019 held a special draft for Mexican born players, and another one for European players. [163] Today the CFL featured two designated "global players" roster spots from countries outside the U.S. and Canada on its nine member clubs. [164]

Another international league that has entered into partnership agreements with American league for players developments is the Elite Football League of India which has an agreement with the Gridiron Developmental Football League. [165]

Australian Football League

American football is a very different gridiron code than that of Australian rules football played in the Australian Football League (AFL). [166] However, the punting specialist position requires similar skills to those used in Australian rules football, and made the transition easier for the players from down under. [167] [168] The most successful player to ever make the transition is Darren Bennett, which started his NFL career after finishing his "Aussie rules" one and was selected to the NFL 1990s All-Decade Team.

Because salaries are usually up to five times higher in the US, [166] a high number of players try their luck in the American game. In the last decade, the NFL has placed full-time development officers in Australia, and there is a full-time punting academy in the Australian continentProkick Australia [169] – which is aimed at training and assessing talented punters from the country for positions in major U.S. colleges and the NFL.

Although the vast majority of Australian players in the NFL are punters, there are few exemptions. The most known one is the Offensive tackle Jordan Mailata, who played Rugby league and was drafted in 2018 without college experience, [170] while another example is Joel Wilkinson who signed with the Arizona Cardinals as a cornerback. Defensive end Adam Gotsis is probably the most successful non-punter Australian; He played in college (Georgia Tech) and was drafted in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos. Other notable players are Jarryd Hayne and Jesse Williams.

Current and planned Minor leagues

Current leagues

High-level

Low-level

Developmental

1: The league is in hiatus and set to return in 2022. [63] [180] [181] [182] [183]

Planned leagues

High-level

Mid-level

Developmental

Defunct Minor leagues

High-level

Source [71] [28] [43] [195]

Originally South Atlantic Football Association
Became American Professional Football Association in 1938, American Football League in 1939
Merged with the Professional Football League of America in 1968, and with the Texas Football League in 1969.

Mid-level

Low-level

Source [71] [28] [43] [195]

Renamed Interstate Football League in 1933
Originally the New Jersey Football Circuit (1934)
Outgrowth of the Tri-States Football League (1934)
Outgrowth of the Bi-States Football League (1949-1959) and Tri-States Football League (1960-1961)
Merger between the Dixie Football League (1961-1962) and Florida Football League (1962-1963)
Renamed North Atlantic Football League in 1967
Supplemented the Southern Football League in 1966
Renamed Western Football League for the 1976 season

Developmental

* Official NFL / AFL minor league.
Unofficial NFL minor league, that featured NFL farm team(s).
𝐟 Folded without playing.

Notes

  1. Pottsville Maroons moved to the NFL.
  2. Informal association of teams; Portsmouth Spartans would later move to the NFL.
  3. American Association suspended operations for duration of U.S. involvement in World War II; in 1946 the AA was renamed American Football League.
  4. Suspended operations in 1942 for duration of U.S. involvement in World War II; Some teams played few games at the newly formed Virginia Football League in 1942 before going to full hiatus.
  5. Merged with PCPFL in 1945.
  6. The league was in hiatus and re-branded as the NFL Europe League in 1995.
  7. Two separate attempts, with different managements.
  8. Reformatted as the developmental The Spring League.
  9. Informal association of teams.
  10. Informal association of teams.
  11. Informal association of teams; the Toledo Tornadoes and Duquesne Ironmen would later move to the UFL and the ACFL (respectively).
  12. Merged with CoFL in 1969.
  13. Reformatted to a scouting event called HUB Football in 2020.

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