You might think that a man who is about to launch an upstart football league of his own would have spent the better part of last weekend consuming the opening games of the Alliance of American Football and digesting every bit of coverage. And in this case, you would be wrong.
Don Yee checked out a little bit of the games, watched a few video clips of highlights and noted the boffo ratings the game broadcast national on CBS received — “That’s a strong number against an NBA game,” he said — but he isn’t spending much time contemplating the AAF or Vince McMahon’s nascent XFL, either. Yee, who has spent his adult life involved in football as an esteemed NFL agent whose clients include Tom Brady, is the architect of the Pacific Pro Football, which aims to open training camp in the early summer of 2020. And with his vision for his league so different than what the AAF is doing or what the XFL hopes to accomplish, his focus remains decidedly insular as he grinds toward its launch.
Suddenly, the landscape for newly-launched football leagues set to play during the NFL’s offseason seems potentially cluttered, but Pac Pro portends to be a drastic departure from anything we’ve seen in this sport before. Consider for a moment if the NFL had a version of the NBA’s G League, or, say Double-A baseball, or Major Junior hockey as a stepping-stone to the NHL. Consider a world in which the best 18-to-24-year old football players on the planet had a bona fide employment option beyond being bound to the NCAA’s “amateur” cartel, and had more to ponder beyond whether to sit out their junior season for health reasons, or skip a bowl game to protect their health and future earning potential.
As someone who has counseled young players and sought ways to innovate football for decades, these were the kind of things that would keep Yee up at night. How can this sport better serve and protect and compensate its best young talent before they reach the NFL’s threshold for entrance to the NFL Draft (three years removed high school)? And by June of 2020, Yee expects to have a mechanism in place to do just that, when Pac Pro will gather its initial talent pool for its four-team league in Southern California. Teams will be constructed with an eye toward parity, all practices will be open to NFL scouts, practices and games will be constructed to best aid player evaluations (think Senior Bowl-style practices) and players will receive compensation, benefits, tuition and books for one year at a community college and retain rights to their likeness and marketing to begin getting compensated for commercials, autograph signings, merchandising, etc.
“The key differentiator for our league is we will be nurturing the best ascending talent — the next generation of NFL stars,” Yee said. “And we feel that we’re going to be able to fill a void in the marketplace where no other entity really is taking great care to curate an experience that properly nurtures the next wave of talent.”
Think of it this way: The AAF, if all goes well, may cultivate some veteran players with past experience in the NFL or CFL, or at least who have spent time in their offseason camps, and perhaps produce players who go on to be role guys or fill back-end roster spots in the NFL next season. It may provide a workman-like, watchable product during the down times in the NFL calendar, and serve as a testing space for the NFL to dabble with rule changes and technological innovations, but that’s about it. Ditto, perhaps, for the XFL.
But Pac Pro has different, and, frankly, loftier ambitions. It aims to be an incubator for some the best too-young-for-the NFL talent in the world, and a viable option for players like like Jadaveon Clowney or Myles Garrett or Saquon Barkley who were clearly by their sophomore years already in line to be potential first-overall picks with nothing really left to prove in college. It could be the perfect spot for some just-graduated former five-star high school players who would rather start earning money immediately rather than waiting years for a shot at the NFL.
It could become the preferred alternative for a junior college superstar (Steve Smith, Chad Johnson, etc.) who would rather play pro than continue playing at a big school. It could be a former four-star recruit now stuck behind a future NFL superstar at his position at Alabama or Clemson. It could be any quality college player who feels like he wants to begin getting compensated for his ability, or believes a college coaching change or scheme change no longer meets his developmental needs.
It has, in theory, the chance to have a unique star quotient, especially if, say, someone like Clemson’s freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence — who would likely be the first-overall pick this April if allowed to enter the draft — decided to leave school after next season and be coached by and play for NFL-caliber coaches in Pac Pro (and have access to NFL scouts and decision-makers along the way) rather than go through the gauntlet of spring practices and summer camp and risk injury through another full college season. Oh, and he’d be able to sign multi-million dollar apparel and licensing contracts and be free of the NCAA’s overbearing and draconian rules and regulations.
Yee’s pitch to Lawrence, or any other player that the Pac Pro football operations staff believes has the talent to reach the NFL, would emphasize the professional and educational avenues his league aims to provide.
“For any aspiring NFL player that has obvious great ability, we want to honor that ability, and let them know that their ambition to be an NFL player is just as honorable as anybody else wanting to be a doctor, or an engineer, or a journalist,” Yee said. “It’s honorable just simply to have those same ambitions to do something in their chosen profession.
“And next thing is to let them know that they will now have an early professional path. But we are only going to make employment offers to those players that we feel have an NFL future. And if we make an offer, it’s only a choice, and we hope they see it as a compliment. It’s no different, frankly, then, if you’re a sophomore computer science engineer and Google comes to campus and makes you an offer to leave now.
“So I think the one thing we want to make clear is that even if a player chose to take our offer and play in our league, they still can continue their academic education. We want to emphasize that, and frankly they’ll be able to do that without the interference of football as they are taking classes and doing labs and doing internships outside of our season.”
Pac Pro’s advisory board includes former NFL head coach Mike Shanahan and former NFL special events coordinator Jim Steeg, among others. Its executive board, which is already largely in place, is filled with NFL and broadcast veterans, and former NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey has worked closely with Yee to hatch the project from its inception.
Pac Pro will enlist one general manager to oversee the roster of all four teams — which will work and train together daily at one facility — a hire Yee intends to make by this summer. They will then assemble a full football operations staff of likely four-to-five experienced full-time scouts, along with scouting internship positions for former players, to begin identifying the potential talent pool and determine which players to attempt to sign.
After a three-day orientation in the spring of 2020, a training camp will follow and then the regular season will begin in July. Roster construction would include non-traditional positions that have taken on more significance in the NFL in recent years (i.e. slot receivers and slot corners with college concepts bleeding deeper into the pro game).
“Essentially, our calendar and protocols will mimic what the players will expect in the NFL,” Yee said. “The first year will be a little different, obviously, but typically we would have a spring OTA session and then early summer training camp and then we’ll go right into the regular season.”
Unlike many college programs, NFL scouts will have unfettered access to the camps and practices, which would all take place at a centralized location, with drills designed to emphasize development and one-on-one atmospheres to aid player evaluations. Pac Pro already has an apparel deal with adidas and is working with adidas Sports Science and Korean tech giants I-ON Communications, Yee said, to gather real-time metrics and measurables (speed, acceleration, leaping ability) similar to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats initiative, but Pac Pro will share all of that data with NFL teams.
“We will curate the experience for scouts and GMs to make it completely hospitable and easy for them to scout our players and gather as much information as they need,” Yee said. “Similar to what they would expect at the Senior Bowl … Our typical practices will be more productive as they will function more like scrimmages.”
With an emphasis on player safety, Yee said the advisory board may opt to eliminate kickoffs from games and is also studying playing time minimums and maximums to mandate access for all players to scouts and to also prevent any individual from being exposed to too much contact (no one will be carrying the ball 30 times a game, suffice to say).
“Where we’re starting from is that this is a developmental product designed to benefit future NFL players, as well as ensure to the best of our ability a safe working environment,” Yee said. “So having said that, the innovation that we are considering will always be biased toward the proper safeguarding of the players and their appropriate professional development.”
Yee said he is making progress towards securing media rights for the league — “We are having active and vigorous discussions with potential media partners” — and thus far everything projects to a full kickoff next July. They continue to meet with investment partners, planning day by day.
If they can get one star to jump on board — the way Joe Namath once took a shot on the AFL, or the way a teenage Wayne Gretzky once joined the WHA — things might take off quickly, and other top youngsters would surely follow.
“The model has worked in other sports,” Yee noted.
Given Yee’s acumen, intellect, dedication and passion, I wouldn’t bet against it working in this case, either.