The Pyramid Scheme of Professional Football (Tiers of Professional Football)

With so many professional football leagues it can often get confusing as to where each league stands and why players would choose one league over the other and vice versa. Indoor, and Outdoor these leagues often get confused by new fans as to where they stand.

While it will only get more confusing next season, I will attempt to try and give some semblance of clarity to this situation in word form. That way it goes a bit deeper than any graphic can, and explain why some leagues might be viewed slightly ahead of others.

Tier 1: The Super Power that is the NFL

The NFL wasn’t always the biggest football league and the face of sports. Formerly two separate leagues, the National Football League, and American Football League, the two leagues merged, remaining named the National Football League but splitting teams into two conferences. This merger were the first steps to creating the worldwide media juggernaut that is the NFL.

Something tells me in 1920, no one expected that one day we would witness NFL franchises selling for more than $5 billion dollars, and seen as good investment at that price. It’s amazing how far the NFL has come in it’s 100+ years of existence. From a handful of teams playing in conditions we would these days deem as semi-pro, who gathered together to raise the standard of professional football across the board. Not only did they achieve their dream, they are now the model of success in the professional football world, and the unrivaled top dog in this food chain. Many leagues have tried to punch above their weight class and take swings at the NFL, but it reigns undefeated in its long career so far. Currently there is no league on the horizon that could even attempt to challenge this global entity.

Tier 2: Elite Leagues Providing NFL Opportunities

This category is where the debate truly starts. With three fighters in this ring at once, many fans choose a league based on their opinions alone, and spend literal hours, days, months even arguing over which league is the best in this weight class. While many arguments could be made as to why the CFL, XFL, or USFL stand atop this category the truth is they are so similar in what they provide to players in terms of larger opportunities, contracts, and benefits that I don’t know that there truly is a top dog at this point.

If it went to any league it would have to be the CFL. Why? Well there are a few factors that make me lean this direction, and it’s the same items that cause XFL and USFL fans to squabble about which American Football League is the more dominant of the two, as if the CFL is some far off dream they don’t have to revisit now. The truth is, the CFL is the most established football league on the planet outside of the NFL. They have been running for over 100 years, and they offer peak pay that is nearly 10 times that of the average XFL or USFL player’s salary (not including the XFL win bonuses, I’m looking at you DC Defenders) Players in the CFL can peak out over the $500,000 mark at times per 3 down nation, if they are the larger more established names like a Jeremiah Masoli, Zach Collaros, Bo Levi-Mitchell, Trevor Harris, etc etc. In my mind this peak pay is what keeps the best and biggest names north of the border in the CFL. Could that change over the next couple years due to the timing of the XFL, and the significantly fewer games? Absolutely, but for now I air on the side of caution here.

In my opinion the XFL and the USFL are nearly a stalemate in terms of game-play, salary, level of competition, broadcast quality, and even tv packages. That’s where the stalemate ends, because the XFL has built themselves two slight advantages which attracted players away from the USFL heading into season two. Playing in all 8 cities, and the timing of their season. Ending earlier, gives guys time to latch on with NFL teams longer before training camp and mini camp begins allowing them to have a better grasp on the system by the time they arrive, and they are closer to 100% healthy given the time between.

USFL, if any league here is in the third spot unfortunately for myself and other USFL fans it has to be the USFL, and again I AM NOT CONVINCED THERE IS MUCH IF ANY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THESE THREE LEAGUES. The USFL is slightly behind the other three due only to the hub situation. When you get past the issues with attendance for teams that don’t represent the cities they play in, and the fact that they don’t have any home field advantage at all, the game-play is still great. The talent is borderline NFL, with many guys getting looks, or signing after playing in the league looking to get back. From former first round picks like Corey Coleman, or Reuben Foster to up and coming names like Case Cookus, or Alex McGough. There have also been complaints about the USFL cutting cost on flights, and travel arrangements resulting in delays and very public complaints from players. This isn’t a good look, and it’s something that hasn’t occurred in the XFL yet.

Tier 3: Overseas and Mexican Football Leagues, American Leagues With Asterisks

The LFA, or Liga Football Americano, has quickly established itself as the premier American football league in the country. The pay, treatment of players, and the overall fan support of the league has caused immense growth, and the attraction of some big name players including former NFL players like Trevonne Boykin, and Terrance Williams. We have also seen recent XFL cuts like Tommy Auger down in Mexico making the most of another opportunity to play outdoor football. With the FAM folding after the 2022 season, and the LFA absorbing several teams it only grew the reach, and the overall staying power of the league. This has not fallen lightly on the players either. Although the lead over the ELF is slight if any.

European League of Football has returned in force, even without the NFL’s backing the ELF, has brought back many of the franchises you knew and loved from the early 2000’s NFLEL. The Rhein Fire, Hamburg Sea Devils, Frankfurt Galaxy, Berlin Thunder, and Cologne Centurions. They have also slowly been adopting the stronger franchises from leagues around Europe like the Austrian Football League. They have brought in the Vienna Vikings who went on to win the ELF Championship in 2022, and the Raiders Tirol who are another very well run team and established team as well. Their pay, level of competition and standing in the eyes of players has them standing slightly above other leagues that are overseas for American players.

German Football League; let’s get one thing straight right away. Germany LOVES its football. In fact the GFL was founded 44 years ago and has been sending talent to other leagues for a long time. In fact football is so established in Germany, that they have their own minor league called the GFL2, and teams from the country in the ELF as well. This support for the league has been noticed by players all over America, and many players have looked to the league for their next opportunity. Recent examples are Dylan Van Boxel, and Treydonte Hill.

Austrian Football League; The Austrian Football League could have been discussed as over the GFL in terms of talent. However, just last season they lost two of their best teams to the ELF, in the Vienna Vikings, and Raiders Tirol. This has weakened the league slightly as these two teams traded championships for many years. Now the league still stands, but is missing two of it’s more well known franchises, and looking for the next team that can be the face of the league moving forward.

X-League; The Japanese league is interestingly arranged, with each team tied to a company. Each player is expected to dedicate 7-8 months of the year to the league and plays in two seasons per calendar year with a break between. The league was established in the early 70’s and continues to attract American born players to this day. With team names like; Asahi Soft Drink Challengers, Asahi Beef Silver Star, All Mitsubishi Lions, IBM Big Blue, and Panasonic Impulse, its no secret there is money tied to the league. The pay is actually fairly comparable to some of the leagues in tier 2, but the distance players have to travel, and the amount of games it takes to make the money are the detracting factors for players. David Pindell, and Joshua Shim are recent examples of players to try their hand at the X-League.

Arena Football League: This league is right on the border of being in Tier 4. With so many unanswered questions we don’t know how the AFL will ultimately end up panning out. As of now we have some bits and pieces of information as to where they will set up shop, what they will have allotted for salary cap, and the number of teams in the league. With a salary cap of $700,000, for a roster that likely will be 30 or less players given the two-way players, and smaller arena league rosters, players will earn around $28,000 per season in the AFL, which when considered in comparison to existing indoor or arena football leagues, is very high. This could help them immediately slot in as a tier 3 league for players given that it will still be in the US. However, this ranking could and should fall drastically if a rumored TV contract, and the pay fails to materialize as has been discussed.

Major League of Football: IF, and that’s a big if, the Major League of Football ever gets off the ground I expect them to be a tier 3 outdoor league even if they play all their games in the United States, in markets that don’t currently have professional football teams. With players just slightly outside the XFL/USFL/CFL level, and at the high end of the indoor player pool, the talent alone would get the MLFB to this tier. The question is if their two previous failures, would hold them back from continuing to attract this level of talent. Their pay was reported as $2,500 a week for each game during their initial 4 game “showcase season” that never happened in 2022. Given that players were lucky to collect any money from the league for reporting to training camp only to get kicked out of their hotel rooms, I would be surprised to see many players return to the league. Trying to launch since 2016, this league has left players high and dry twice in the past. How many times will players be fooled into believing this league is more than a pipe dream before the “powers that be” give up on the league that never was?

Tier 4: Indoor Football’s Finest

Fan Controlled Football League many will wonder why the Fan Controlled Football League is at the top of this list, and there is just one quick answer to that question. Exposure. for. players. The Fan Controlled Football League is unrivaled in their ability to hype up the stars of their league. They have helped discover XFL, USFL, and even NFL players like:

Brycen Alleyne-Houston Roughnecks

Andrew Jamiel-Orlando Guardians

Deondre Francois-Orlando Guardians

Cedric Byrd-Houston Roughnecks

Kavontae Turpin-New Jersey Generals

This and their high energy form of publicity, and unique play has drawn in a cult following of video game nerds, conventional football fans, fantasy football fans, and the couch general managers/coaches that want to build teams and call plays. Their level of fan interaction has helped all of their bigger name players grow into brands in their own right. FCF fans also still follow their favorite players when they make the leap to other leagues.

Kavontae Turpin who went from playing in season 1.0, to playing in the NFL in just 2 years time is a name that many of these alternative leagues now speak of as if he is a legend for what he accomplished but he turned heads thanks to the FCF. They also expanded from year 1 to year 2 from 4 to 8 teams, and have discussed expansion again in year 3, although I believe sticking with 8 teams and incorporating Fan Controlled Hoops to the lineup of Fan Controlled Sports Entertainment umbrella it will only help the FCSE grow their reach if they can handle the financial burden of two sports leagues.

Indoor Football League this is the largest and most established current indoor or arena football league. With 14 teams, they have now secured a partnership with the XFL, and a TV deal to broadcast Friday night games, and their next three championships at the Dollar Loan Center. This has immediately raised the profile of the IFL in their 2023 season and attracted bigger names to the league that previously hadn’t considered indoor football.

Ironically a movie based on Kurt Warner, might have helped raise the profile of the league even more having spent a lot of time talking about the Iowa Barnstormers, who now play in the IFL, but at the time this movie was set in the Arena Football League. It was actually quite funny to see the outcry of casual fans after the movie hit theaters saying they “missed the Iowa Barnstormers” only to find out they never left and only joined another league. Jury is still out on how many of those fans truly reunited with “their team” since the release.

Kurt Warner also might be directly helping one of the IFL’s best, improve his game, and attempt the leap to a tier 2 league. A recent Twitter exchange between Ej Hilliard an IFL Veteran quarterback with the Quad City Steamwheelers, and Kurt Warner could eventually lead to Hilliard taking the next step in his professional career, a step that could look similar to the next step in Warner’s journey to the NFL. Warner played in the AFL from 1995 to 1997, but in 1998 he made the leap to NFL Europe and the rest is now history. Could Hilliard catch the eye of an outdoor coach given this exchange with Warner?

National Arena League; In the National Arena League you now have a big name owner causing waves for the franchise that has won the two most recent championships. That of course is the Albany Empire, and Antonio Brown. However there are other reasons why the NAL can attract more established and sometimes better talent at the top end of their rosters. The NAL doesn’t incorporate a salary cap, so in theory, Antonio Brown and company could load up on former NFL players and run the tables if they would like and in turn hold the highest cost per game in the league.

This also however means there is no minimum pay either. This results in some games being absolute blow outs, and its become apparent which teams can’t compete. Prior to the 2023 season the financial restrictions of this model among other things led the Columbus Lions, one of the first members of the NAL, to drop down into the AIFA, which is a tier 5 indoor league.

The instability and wholesale changes caused by Brown have created an intense rivalry between Albany and Orlando after several key members fired, released, forced or bought out by Brown all joined the Orlando Predators. This included former assistant head coach and offensive coordinator Damon Ware, minority owner Mike Kwarta, Top Receiver Darius Prince, lineman Brandon Sesay and several others. The addition of Brown has caused more talk of the NAL outside the arena football fan world than any other in recent memory, but for all the wrong reasons. Someone once theorized that Antonio Brown could be someone’s attempt to devalue the NAL enough that the AFL could absorb the entire league, regaining some of the franchises that once grew up in the Arena Football League.

Champions Indoor Football League: If there is a league that stands in last place of the major indoor leagues it has to be the CIF. With the constant upheaval in ownership even when they return all 8 teams year over year, it becomes a very chaotic atmosphere for players and coaches alike. We have already watched Billings, and Topeka make many coaching changes, while Rapid City signs and releases 3-5 players every week. The teams that are not constantly cycling coaches, and players like Omaha, Sioux City, and Gillette stand apart from the crowd, and often their approach to their treatment of players helps them recruit better talent.

This in my opinion helps creates less parity in the league due to the relatively lax restrictions for ownership finances. This is reflected in the standings where four teams have separated themselves from the rest of the league, and two teams are clearly bringing up the back of the pack. We even watched as a league rep had to step in with Topeka this season, and last season three teams including Topeka changed hands midseason. They are also held back by their stream quality which never seems to be at the same level as the IFL, NAL, or FCF.

If the CIF can clean up some of these issues, and find a way to stabilize the ownership groups, this league has all the makings of the next big league, and has even begun building their paths to the USFL and XFL for players. There were rumors before the 2023 season that the CIF would fold, and end up with several teams heading to other leagues, this never occurred and despite all the in season issues, it looks like the CIF will make it through their second season straight with the same eight teams. This is something the FCF, IFL, and NAL cannot say. The IFL lost Bismarck, and gained Tulsa. The NAL gained West Texas, and Fayetteville, but lost Columbus, while the FCF gained four teams, and rebranded the Wild Aces from season 1.0.

Tier 5: Indoor Football Second Tier

American West Football Conference: The American West Football Conference was born out of necessity for the Idaho Horsemen. The Horsemen are a very well run and organized team but, they didn’t make the cut in the IFL, or CIF. This instead led the team to form their own league. Many teams have come and gone in this league, but none were more dominant than the Tri-City Rush. Over two years they lost as many games as they won championships with two.

Unfortunately for the AWFC, prior to their 2023 season and after their second straight championship victory, the Tri-City Rush folded unable to continue footing the bill for the best team in a four team league. This left the AWFC with just three teams and looking for solutions to fill out their schedule. That’s where the AIFA comes in. They have partnered with the AWFC to fill out their 2023 schedule. Although we have very little idea what that schedule looks like because neither league released a combined schedule.

The AWFC operates about as bare bones as a league can with each team paying players around $150 per game, and an average operating cost of $200,000 per season. The league began in 2018 started by Chris Reynolds, with four teams before a late addition of a team that ultimately didn’t meet requirements. Launching with the Tri City Fever, Idaho Horsemen, Wenatchee Valley Skyhawks, and Reno Express. COVID ravaged the league and led directly to an expansion team in the Bay Area never getting off the ground, the Fever folding, and the league playing with just three teams. Rumors are they’re still digging themselves out of the holes COVID created. The relative instability keeps this league from the next level but it’s absolutely a great leaping point for players headed to the IFL, or NAL long term.

American Indoor Football Alliance: The AIFA seems to be gaining steam over the past couple seasons. This year when the NAL jettisoned one of their legacy franchises, the Columbus Lions, the AIFA became the landing spot for the Lions. This move instantly gave the league more credibility and an established team to continue building their league.

Pay wise the AIFA is comparable to the CIF with a $200 per week average salary, and operate somewhere in the $500,000 cost range with roughly $90,000 headed to payroll. This league was formed from a single division of the AAL splitting off and deciding to form their own league after a sale of the AAL. The league lost one of its founding teams after 2021, showing that the league is still fairly new and trying to build a strong foundation.

In 2023 with the addition of Columbus, and the Dallas Falcons they have ballooned up to eight teams this season. They seem poised to be a quality league long term, but there are still questions as to why they do certain things, like how they haven’t released a full form schedule yet. Given that this is only year three for the league it will be interesting to follow for the next few seasons to see if it follows its current trajectory. If it does, the AIFA could someday rival one of the larger indoor leagues spoken about earlier.

American Arena League: The American Arena League, was created when the Arena Pro Football, and Can-Am Indoor Football League merged. Although the AAL only claimed the APF was involved after the Can-Am founder left the league. However it wasn’t just teams from those two leagues who played in the first AAL season, teams from Supreme Indoor Football, and the National Arena League, wound up joining as well.

Originally partnered in 2017, they first played under the AAL name in 2018. Originally the two leagues simply agreed to have their champions play each other after the 2017 season. At one point the AAL has had as many as 17 teams, but they have never had stability of any kind often times losing teams midseason. The league was then sold to new ownership causing a full rebrand, and bigger plans for the future.

At the end of the 2021 season the AAL announced they would add a developmental league the AAL2. Later it was announced NEITHER league would play in 2022 and that it would wait until 2023, opening up speculation that the league had bit off more than it could chew. Ironically it was only the AAL2 that has so far returned in any capacity for the 2023 season.

Tire 6: Semi-Professional Leagues

This is the point where pay is sparse, if available at all. Leagues that are giving players a place to get film, and not much else. Many teams can’t provide players with equipment, or proper coaching. Some top level organizations have built relationships with indoor football teams as feeder teams.

Some of these teams like the Omaha Stockmen, Fargo Invaders, and Queen City Insane Asylum, are talented and well run enough to make the leap to professional leagues in Tier 5, or even Tier 4 but haven’t yet made the move to do so. This is always a breeding ground for broken promises, but also at times the best source of diamonds in the rough that never would have otherwise been discovered.

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