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When junior quarterback Deshaun Watson led Clemson past Alabama in a championship game thriller Monday night, it was another reminder of a lifeblood to the multibillion-dollar college football industry: a monopoly on players three years or fewer removed from their high school graduating class, who by rule are ineligible to enter the NFL draft.
What if some of those players didn't have to wait to go pro?
The people behind a new professional league that hopes to launch in 2018 say they don't intend to compete with the NCAA. They have a long way to go financially and otherwise just to get their venture off the ground. But if they can play even one season, paying the bills and cutting 18- to 22-year-olds in on the action, it's easy to see where the impact could be significant.
"It'll make sense for a lot of young men and a lot of families," longtime NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey, one of the nascent Pacific Pro Football League's co-founders, told USA TODAY Sports. "We're hoping to provide them with that choice."
The plan: Four teams based in Southern California, each playing an eight-game schedule on Sundays in July and August. Roughly 50 players per team making an average salary and benefits package of $50,000 a year, which they'd be free to supplement with endorsements. Rules tweaked to enhance safety and give NFL scouts matchups they want to see. Coaches with NFL experience teaching pro-style schemes. Any player four years or fewer removed from high school would be eligible, including college underclassmen who had entered the NFL draft.
Numerous minor leagues have tried and failed in recent years to expand the American pro football landscape by relying on players who had missed the NFL cut, which inevitably limited the potential for creating a compelling consumer product. Money has been a common problem, too, and remains a central question here.
Don Yee, a veteran NFL agent who is CEO and principal founder of Pac Pro, says the league has received financing from family and friends and he has met with a potential investor, plus media distributors. But a lot of work must be done. There's no backing from the NFL or its players union.
What makes the concept intriguing is it targets a previously untapped talent base: players who currently have no option to play for pay because the NFL's collective bargaining agreement bars them from the league. (Basis for that rule: Players need time to physically and mentally mature before competing against fully developed adults.)
Paying up to lure a few NFL-ineligible superstars such as Watson would have been a year ago or as the USFL did decades ago with Herschel Walker, would put the new league in the spotlight, though the economics are on a smaller scale initially.
Plenty of players would still choose the glory of the college game and the four-year education that comes with it. But like minor league baseball or junior hockey, Pac Pro would be an option for players who either can't or choose not to play on college scholarships, some straight out of high school. Think academic non-qualifiers, junior college players paying their own way, players with urgent need to provide for their families, those transitioning from another sport, those who would have to sit out a year under transfer rules, those who have been dismissed from a college program, those who simply want a different path -- perhaps, eventually, some top college players who want to start cashing checks and use the league as a sort of football graduate program.
"You've got all day to spend with football," said former NFL coach Mike Shanahan, who is on the league's advisory board.
If players want to attend school, the summer schedule wouldn't interfere and there would be an option to receive one year's tuition and books at a community college. Training would continue year-round on a similar calendar to that used in the NFL. There also would be development opportunities for coaches and officials, who could come from a program started for military veterans by another advisory board member, former NFL head of officiating Mike Pereira.
It would cost millions to get something this ambitious started, though. Salaries, insurance, medical expenses, equipment -- it all adds up.
"We believe that the business environment is good for a project like this," said Yee, who has written on college sports' exploitation of athletes. "We believe that the players are ready for a choice, and we think we can be a good supplement to other football products that are out there."
There are no plans to have traditional roster cuts, Yee said, but for some, taking the new option would mean giving up another. Any player signing a Pac Pro contract would forfeit NCAA eligibility.
McCaffrey's involvement is notable because his son, Stanford star Christian McCaffrey, was among the high-profile players to sit out bowl games this last month with an eye toward April's NFL draft. Another son, Dylan McCaffrey, has committed to play at the University of Michigan, which also has offered a scholarship to youngest son Luke, a high school sophomore who would be eligible for Pac Pro's second season if the projected schedule holds.
"I'm hoping he gets an invite," Ed McCaffrey said. "If he's lucky enough to be considered, I'll certainly sit down with him and we'll have that discussion.
"Honestly, I believe that there will be thousands of kids that want to play in this league. I think the toughest thing that we will have to do is limit the scope."
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