A New NFL Minor League?
“To accomplish great things, we must dream as well as act.”
— Anatole France
Dreamers dream for a living. Sometimes it works. But when your reveries produce thoughts of starting up a new professional football league, dreams tend to become delusional and eventually morph into cold-sweat-uh-oh-I’m-going-broke nightmares.
Jaime Cuadra is one such dreamer. And he fully intends to act on it and live it.
Cuadra, 52, is all San Diego. He came to this country from Nicaragua as a baby, attended El Cajon Valley High and received two degrees from USD. From an office downtown, he serves as chief financial officer for Umani Seafood, which owns two bluefin tuna farms, one near Ensenada in Baja and one in Croatia.
Now how one goes from counting tuna profits to starting up a new spring football league beats me, but as Cuadra puts it: “I’m an accountant by education and an entrepreneur by nature.”
As history explains, those who have tried to start up football leagues in a country dominated by the NFL have failed, including the USFL, which had Donald Trump’s ego and money behind it, the ego eventually leading to its downfall. Cuadra has acquired the USFL brand, and as its president and CEO hopes to have an eight-team league (14 games, two playoffs games and a championship) start up by next spring in non-NFL cities. The new USFL will be headquartered here.
Cuadra is dreaming, but he has the right attitude and plan, and he’s enlisted as a consultant Jim Steeg, the former Chargers COO, who for 34 years served the NFL as the man in complete charge of Super Bowls and special events. Smart move. There aren’t many people who know professional football’s insides better than Jim Steeg.
“I like the idea a lot,” Steeg says. “I haven’t talked to anyone who thinks the idea sucks. If you truly believe a triple-A spring football league has merit, this is the way to go. It’s not meant to compete with the NFL. It will give players the opportunity to develop. There are 3,000 football players and only 1,800 roster spots in the NFL. Particularly with the NFL’s new CBA, I think this kind of thing has a different place.”
Steeg must like the idea, because, “I’m not getting paid.” At least not yet.
The key to what he has to say is that, first and foremost, any new league must stay out of direct competition with the NFL. The original USFL did it the wrong way, going after high-priced players and eventually paying the price. How many times have league-starters said they don’t plan on competing with the NFL and then go off the deep end?
“The USFL and UFL did the same thing — they weren’t fiscally responsible,” Cuadra says. “The XFL went totally gimmicky. It’s not going to work with purists. NFL Europe was a great idea, but costly. We can see the mistakes that have been made and try to avoid them.
“We’re going to play in the spring when fans are dying for football. We’re going to take players who didn’t quite make it to the NFL and develop them — we’re talking anywhere from 1,000 to 1,800 kids and giving them a living wage, $3,000-to-$3,500 per game, and give them unfettered access to the NFL. They will be paid by the league, to keep things under control.”
Cuadra claims he has no intentions, at any time, to bump hats with the NFL. Exactly the opposite.
“The NFL can come to practices; if they want one of our players, we aren’t going to stop them,” he says. “The USFL will be about developing players with only a soft association with the NFL. We want to go back to the old roots and allow fans to develop a game-day experience. We want to make sure players can make the transition away from football, not only developing as a player, but as a person. We want to play an exciting brand of football, with good coaches who want to teach the game.
“We must make sure we run the business well. Will we hit pitfalls? Absolutely. But all players and coaches contracts will be funneled through the league. The owners won’t be able to go outside the pay structure. The owners will contribute to a salary pool.”
These will be minor league teams with minor league pay, which definitely is the right way to go. Cuadra plans an organization with checks and balances. He has good ideas. Now he has to find owners and places to play. He’s looking at the likes of Akron, Ohio, Portland, San Jose, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Austin, Texas, Memphis, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., Birmingham, Ala., Omaha, Neb., and Baton Rouge, La.
“We’re staying away from NFL cities and avoiding major league baseball cities,” he says. “We’re looking at cities with high college concentrations with little or no NFL exposure. It can be done not nearly as expensively as some other leagues that started up. There are ways to do this. We don’t have to go to the NFL with our hand out.
“We’d like a commissioner with Hall of Fame credentials; we want somebody with a name, but we don’t want all responsibility to fall on one person. I’m going to be the guy who sits in the background and runs the business aspect. I like to stay low-key.
“I see this as a league that opens doors. I see this as a need. I’d give it 75-percent odds that it will fly. I’ve had other businesses where I was told they weren’t going to work. I’ve had some of that now; I’ve also had a lot of people tell me it’s a good idea.”
As Steeg says: “There’s a long ways to go.”
But Cuadra’s patient — and driven.
“I’m one of those guys who always said when other people got things started: “That’s a great idea. Why didn’t I think of that?”” Cuadra says. “That’s what I’m doing. It’s a romantic idea, but a romantic idea with legs.”
A dream with legs? Go ahead and run with it.
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