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Volume 21 No. 12

Leagues and Governing Bodies

Football players coming out of high school will soon have an alternative to playing college football.

The new Pacific Pro Football developmental league, which will launch its inaugural season in July 2018, will offer a salary and benefits to players who have been out of high school four years or less.

Pac Pro, as it will be known, will fill a void in the football landscape, said Don Yee, a longtime NFL agent, who conceived the idea and will be the league’s chief executive. There isn’t a minor league for the NFL or an option for players who don’t want to go to college. Yee and his co-founders, Ed and Lisa McCaffrey, envision Pac Pro not only becoming a place where players prepare for the NFL but also where coaches and officials benefit from on-the-job training.

“The football industry has not been innovated in a long time,” said Yee, whose client list includes quarterback Tom Brady. “This is going to expand the football industry with lots of new jobs.”

Just how much of a threat this league will be to college football remains to be seen, but the opportunity to make, on average, $50,000 a year in the Pac Pro creates an interesting alternative to the college game, which pays student athletes in the form of a scholarship and a stipend in the $3,000 to $6,000 range.

“Any new league that is introduced with a new concept faces skepticism from the college and pro football hierarchy,” said agent Leigh Steinberg. “But there is a defect in the current system. The defect is we force a whole set of young men who have no academic interest and no real ambition to ever graduate from college to attend. … The reality is that giving younger players an opportunity to follow their career path to be a professional football player is a golden opportunity.”

But Mack Brown, the former University of Texas coach and ESPN analyst, cautioned that the new league also might provide athletes with a reason not to study in high school. To provide its athletes with an educational element, the Pac Pro will offer players a year of tuition and books at a Southern California community college.

“I am still learning about the new league. However, my first instinct is that while the league could be good for some kids, the more concerning part is that it could also encourage some players to not study in high school and to not pursue a college degree,” Brown said. “Also, if players don’t make it to the NFL coming out of the league, they will not have any college education.”

The league, which will start with four teams in the San Diego and L.A. area, will operate with a free-market system, paying players whatever the market dictates. The league will sign players and allocate them to teams; there will not be a draft. Yee projects that the average salary and benefits will be around $50,000 for a season, but not all players will be paid the same — some will command a premium.

“It provides an opportunity for kids coming right out of high school, or it may provide an opportunity for kids coming out of junior college,” said former NFL executive Jim Steeg, who is serving as a Pac Pro adviser. “I have always said different people mature at different times of their lives. You may be a great athlete and not a good student.”

Each team will be owned by the league and every coach and player will be a league employee, not a team employee.

Yee expects the front office, to be based in L.A., will have 30-50 employees when the league launches. Games will be played in stadiums that range from 10,000 to 25,000 in capacity. The league is talking to area colleges about leasing their facilities.

The league’s leadership is meeting with potential investors to raise capital for startup costs. Yee said the Pac Pro will talk to media companies for digital and linear broadcasts.

Investors and sports marketers have widely agreed on two broad theories about esports’ growth: It must become more standardized and structured to fully realize its potential, and everybody will benefit when that happens.

But on Jan. 5, a powerful group of stakeholders — the talent — issued a sharp rebuttal to that notion. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive players for the seven teams that founded the Professional eSports Association in September voted to play in the European ESL Pro League instead of their own teams’ planned startup.

The vote caused the PEA to suspend plans indefinitely for its CS:GO league, a serious blow to its stated goal of ending the “wild west” of esports. By creating a team-owned league, organizers hoped to offer certainty to sponsors and cut out third-party tournament organizers, who sometimes schedule events at the last minute, change rules and regulations on whims and take profits.

Players on the teams that founded the PEA voted instead to play in the ESL Pro League.
Photo by: AP IMAGES

But at least for now, these players prefer the wild west.

“Overall, we do not agree that closed systems are necessary right now in order for everyone in esports to thrive,” said Scott Smith, an esports industry veteran who spoke on behalf of the players in an open letter. He went on to say that “closed” systems, i.e., self-contained leagues made of teams that govern themselves and compete mostly with each other, would mostly benefit owners.

“Esports as an industry is unique — it has been built with an inherent level of unprecedented openness that the accessibility of live streaming, social media and online play allows,” Smith wrote. “I believe that this openness and accessibility should be empowered and cherished — not suffocated by forcing esports into traditional sports models.”

To be clear, this controversy was limited to a single game, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. CS:GO is especially prone to the wild west issues because publisher Valve has shown none of the interest in organizing and regulating competitions that Riot Games or Blizzard Entertainment have.

Nevertheless, the PEA’s struggles are a sobering reminder that interests are not as aligned as they may appear to esports newcomers. Players are only beginning to exercise their collective clout, and in this case, chose the EPL for its superior prize incentives and better worldwide reputation even though it undermined the momentum toward structure.

“There’s no doubt that players value certain aspects of the open ecosystem, including the prominence of international events with the best teams in the world,” said Bryce Blum, a lawyer who represents four of the seven PEA teams.

But, Blum thinks the recent events shouldn’t be seen as a blanket philosophical objection. “If there was an offer on the table that created a closed ecosystem with drastically better economics, it would be difficult to pass up.”

Shortly after the players’ vote, the PEA declared a startup CS:GO league could not be viable alongside the ESL Pro League and FACEIT’s ESports Championship League, where its teams are already committed. The CS:GO landscape is too saturated, the statement read, and others used the occasion to call on Valve to get more involved in regulating the game.

PEA Commissioner Jason Katz did not respond to requests for comment beyond an official statement, but sources within the PEA say the group intends to press ahead in other game titles.

Consultants who advise non-endemic marketers on the esports space preach patience. Most of them want highly predictable, closed leagues, a la the NBA or NFL, but it’s easy to forget that standardization only came to American pro sports after decades of brash competition, legal fights and bitter labor disputes.

“I’m not saying these leagues, these unions, are just going to fold,” said Dan Ciccone, managing director of rEvXP, an esports brand consultancy. “It’s kind of like Obamacare — you’ve got to implement something to get it going, then you’ve got to tweak it to go along.”