In America, football is king.
Whether it’s NFL or college football, people cannot get enough coverage of it, can’t watch enough of it, and crave any and all content about it.
You would think this would make minor league football, whether it be developmental leagues for the NFL or indoor leagues in the spring, a can’t-miss idea when people try to start a new league, or bring a new team to town.
But it’s the exact opposite. Developmental leagues for the NFL have tried and failed again and again, and minor league indoor leagues start and fold every year, as well as countless teams that do the same.
The three biggest minor league indoor leagues, Champions Indoor Football, the Indoor Football League, and National Arena League this past season combined to have 32 teams, and barring a miracle, at least seven of them won’t be back.
If the NFL or any other major league lost seven teams in a year, nobody would take it serious, and it would probably shut down in the near-future.
So why, in a country that obsesses over the sport of football, can’t minor league indoor football seem to get on any sort of stable ground, while the college and NFL versions seem to rake in more and more money each year?
No affiliation means a tons of expenses at every level
The biggest advantage that minor league baseball, basketball and hockey teams have is that most have affiliations with NHL, MLB or NBA teams, who pay the salaries of the big prospects or guys who might be called up to the team later in the season, which saves them a ton of money over the course of the season.
With no affiliation at all at any level of minor league indoor football, teams have to cover the cost for every salary on the team. Even at $250 a game, divided over 25 players and say 12 games is still $75,000 just for players. Add in coaches, trainers, and everything else you need to run a team, and you’re likely paying at least twice that just for player/coach/front office salaries.
Add in your arena rent, equipment costs, travel expenses (which cost more than anything) and the thousand other things that go into having to run a decent organization and you’re probably eyeing at least a million bucks a season just in operating costs.
And in a sport where you only get 6-7 home games, that’s not a lot of opportunities to make back that money. Which brings us to the next point.
Few home games means limited advertising dollars
In addition to hockey, baseball and basketball having those affiliations with teams who rake in money, football suffers from a big time lack of games.
Minor league baseball teams can have anywhere from 40 to 70 home games each year, hockey and basketball roughly 28 to 40.
Minor league indoor football, if you get home field advantage in the playoffs and play all those games: 9 or 10.
Now pretend you’re an advertiser and since most of these teams draw around the same, let’s say 2,500-3,000 fans per night (yes some places are way higher and others are way lower, but this seems like a fair middle ground), and cost the same, which one are you going to pick to spend your money on? The one that people could see 40 to 70 times per year, or the one that is getting seen 10 times at most?
If you’ve never been to a minor league indoor football game, they try to offset this with ads for EVERYTHING. First down? Ad. Second down? Ad. Third down? Ad. Fourth down? Ad. Flag on the play, touchdown, field goal, extra point, timeout, injury, ball in the stands, red zone entered, you name it, and minor league indoor football will put any advertisement they can on it to try to make money. And with only 6-7 promised home games, you can bet they are putting an ad on literally anything they possibly can to try and make that money back.
But there’s only so much advertising to go around, and most of these minor league indoor towns aren’t that big, so it’s not like they have Fortune 500 companies there waiting to buy the field naming rights and two suites. It’s Jim’s Mid-Nebraska Ford Dealer, or Frank’s Family Fitness Center, places that like the team may not be around come next year.
But more than anything, the thing that affects all of these factors…
The quality of play isn’t that great
They make maybe $250 a game, there is almost no chance they are getting signed by a CFL or NFL team, and if they do it’s to be a training camp body, and you have just as much injury risk, if not more because of the walls that surround the field.
So why would anyone with talent want to play in this stuff? And that shows on a lot of teams across the leagues. Don’t get me wrong, all of these guys are more talented than 98 percent of the football-playing world, but it is still nowhere near the NFL or even CFL.
Let me put it to you this way, the team in Amarillo this past season had home-field advantage through the playoffs in the CIF, and it’s star player and biggest name is Nate Davis, formerly of Ball State. Now, Nate was a great quarterback in college at a good mid-major program, and is a great indoor quarterback, but he bounced around to three different teams in the NFL while never taking a snap in the regular season.
Again, that’s the star and big name player on this team. When you’re offering a whopping $4,000 a year for the regular season with all the risks of playing football, minus the insurance and recovery that the NFL offers, why the hell would anyone play?
And again, throw in the 32 teams in the NFL, the nine in the CFL, and five in the AFL, and you’re at 46 teams looking for football talent BEFORE you get to these minor leagues offering $250 a game. There’s not a lot of talent to go around.
Yes, the teams that have it at this level are entertaining and are worth going to see, but for every one of those teams, there are two where it looks like they just signed guys off the street and they go 2-10, 1-11, or maybe don’t win a game at all. And nobody wants to watch that.
But, because there are always people who think this is the first stop on the way to the NFL, and because there are always owners who think they can make the league work, minor league indoor football will continue to roll along, just looking a little bit different every year.