The newly created NFL Alumni Academy has announced its first roster of college football stars and undrafted pro hopefuls.
Auburn standout DaVonte Lambert, four-year Syracuse starter Evan Adams and Louisiana Tech tackle O’Shea Dugas will join others from the ACC, SEC and elsewhere at a training camp at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The NFL Alumni Academy is run by Hall of Fame Resort & Entertainment, a publicly-traded company that is building a sports and entertainment complex around the Canton, Ohio, venue.
“The idea for the Academy is to continue the development of these kids—the top undrafted free agents and the ones who just missed the final cut in September—and run it from the second week of September through January,” said Mike Crawford, president and CEO of Hall of Fame Resort, in a phone interview about the planned annual event, which he hopes will “become another personnel department, if you will, for the 32 franchises to call upon.”
History shows that the crop of unsigned players likely contains a future superstar or two—Hall of Fame Rams quarterback Kurt Warner and New York Jets legend Wayne Chrebet were both undrafted players who didn’t make the cut at their first training camps. Even if a player isn’t a star, he has a good shot to get an NFL invite with further development—injuries and other team needs mean that players beyond a team’s practice squad of 12 reserves get a chance. This year, the NFL Alumni Academy roster is limited to offensive and defensive linemen and running backs. Next year more skill positions will be added to the camp, Crawford said.
The camp originated with the NFL Alumni Association, which worked with Hall of Fame Resort to develop the program. Last week, the academy announced its coaches, which include Mike Tice, Anthony Munoz and Jay Hayes. Players at the debut camp will exist in a bubble similar to other pro efforts this year: They will stay on the Canton campus while undergoing their position and skill training, strength and conditioning and mental development. The academy will stay in contact with NFL personnel departments, including sending video updates on players. An NFL squad has already called up one player set to join the camp, said Crawford.
For Hall of Fame Resort & Entertainment, the establishment of the academy is another step in the company’s effort to create a sports and entertainment attraction around the Hall of Fame, which attracts about a quarter of a million visitors a year.
“It allows us, as a business, an opportunity to have great, new, exclusive intellectual content that we can take and monetize in multiple ways,” explained Crawford. The drama of player lives could lend themselves to something akin to HBO’s Hard Knocks series, while footage of player training could feed into broader content plans. Hall of Fame Resort also expects to be able to sell multiple sponsorships for the academy, such as for apparel and gear. Other economic benefits to the company include the fact that players are staying on-site at a company-owned hotel and eating meals there, too. The direct cost of training is covered by the academy unless a player makes the NFL, in which case there is an arrangement with Hall of Fame Resort that generates a small profit per player, Crawford explained.
Since 2015, Hall of Fame Resort has been redeveloping the site around the pro football shrine, starting with an expansion and refurbishment of the 23,000-person stadium named after late New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson and the creation of areas to host youth sports tournaments. The next phase of development is slated to include a football-themed indoor waterpark, 82,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, 75,000 square feet of mixed-use commercial space as well as a training center.
The company needs to execute on at least some of those plans. Since going public at $12.30 a share on July 1, Hall of Fame Resort has fallen more than 81% to close at $2.29 yesterday. The company filed this week to issue more shares to pay toward a bridge loan that comes due in November. Hall of Fame Resort & Entertainment, which trades under the ticker HOFV, is currently the worst performer on the JohnWallStreet Sports Index, Sportico’s index of 40 equities reflecting the state of the sports business. Since the index was launched on August 1, HOFV is down 58% while the index as a whole is up 16.6%.
Longer-term plans could include residential and mixed-use development on 600 nearby acres, according to an August presentation by the company, which also recently purchased a developmental fantasy football league. Hall of Fame Resort went public at the start of July by merging with a blank-check company.
“We’re doing something incredibly unique, where you have different ways for fans and guests to engage with the sport of professional football, in ways that they’re already spending time in, including fantasy and e-gaming,” said Crawford. The player academy is an example of what he believes the company can do around creating ways to draw more football fans to Canton as well as creating content for media efforts.
“It’s fantastic programming that you can monetize in many different ways as well as help kids get to the NFL,” said Crawford. “The more people we help grow and build and transition to their dreams, the better it is for us.”