The Spring League (TSL) – a professional developmental football league founded in 2017 – is wrapping up the second of two ‘Summer Showcase’ events in Mission Viejo, CA later today. Nearly one-hundred former college players paid to participate in the four-day camp that will culminate with a full-speed 6-quarter scrimmage. Those in uniform are hoping to catch the eye of a team scout and continue their football career, while the XFL executives and coaches in attendance are using the mock-game format as a product innovation lab to test rules adjustments and in-game technologies in preparation of the league’s February 2020 debut. ESPN and Fox also sent teams to Southern California to provide real-time feedback on how the proposed on-field changes would impact broadcast coverage.
Howie Long-Short: To be clear, the relationship between the XFL and TSL is that of 3rd party vendor and vendee – the XFL does not own a stake in The Spring League. However, Vince McMahon’s spring league is among TSL’s biggest clients having spent six-figures on three mini-camp like tryouts thus far. For contextual purposes, The Spring League will hit the $1 million revenue mark for the first time this year.
The Spring League has managed to survive three seasons and will reach profitability this year because its business model has eliminated the costliest expenditures associated with operating a football league. CEO Brian Woods said, “the players are not paid, they self-insure and all of the games are played in Texas, so there’s minimal travel and stadium costs remain low; essentially that’s what keeps the ‘academy model’ sustainable.”
Finding ways to monetize the product without having to rely on traditional revenue streams (think: tickets, sponsorships, merchandise) has also been crucial to TSL’s success. In addition to player participation fees and the affiliation agreement referenced with the XFL, the league draws a unique annual subsidy from the State of Texas for operating out of Austin. Woods added that TSL recently signed a two-year deal with STATS, which has enabled the league to “explore a model where wearable tech companies would pay to have TSL players wear their products on the field for R&D purposes. We could also package that data and sell it to a company like Google or to professional sports leagues.”
There’s no question TSL maintains an attractive value proposition. As XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck noted, “it’s really hard to find places where you have talented guys in full uniform willing to test football thesis.” He’s right. Outside of the independent Atlantic League, which has been testing robotic umpiring in partnership with MLB, I’m unable to name any other unaffiliated organization that serves as a real-time incubator for pro sports innovation. The relationship between TSL and the XFL has gone so well, that Woods said he’s had preliminary discussions “with Oliver about our league becoming the ‘Official D-League’ of the XFL.”
Fan Marino: TSL provides the XFL with the opportunity to “test rule changes in a game environment.” Luck said to properly evaluate the viability of an innovation like a 25-second play-clock, “you need to see how it looks over four quarters – if the pace is sustainable for an entire game on the field and in the broadcast trucks.” In addition to the play clock, the XFL is testing “a different kickoff, a new overtime format and a double forward pass (forbidden in CFB & NFL) – as long as the recipient of the first completion remains behind the line of scrimmage.”
There’s also a scouting component to the TSL-XFL relationship. Luck said his league is “looking at the talent [on the field] and will certainly end up signing a handful of their guys.” To date, Woods said that “over 120 of our players have either signed with an NFL or CFL club or were invited to an NFL training camp.”
It’s worth mentioning that The Spring League season is played between the months of February and April. TSL doesn’t permit draft eligible prospects to participate, so the ‘Summer Showcase’ gives players who went undrafted one last opportunity to impress NFL talent evaluators in time to make a training camp roster for the upcoming season.
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