- Kevin Lyttle American-Statesman Staff
Imagine this: Vince Young squaring off against Johnny Manziel in a football game between NFL hopefuls on a beautiful spring Saturday night in Austin.
Far-fetched? Perhaps, but not as crazy a thought as one might think if Brian Woods has his way. Woods, the founder and CEO of the Spring League, wants to bring his unique operation to Austin next April. To Circuit of the Americas, specifically.
The Spring League provides a three-week job interview for free agents — some call it Camp Last Chance — that is part-NBA Summer League, part-NFL mini-combine. Players are divided into four teams, all based in one location. They won’t just practice, they will compete in regular games, three each for every team. Tickets for the contests will be sold, Woods said, priced at minor-league levels.
“Austin is our front-runner,” Woods told the American-Statesman. “We’re considering five or six cities and looking for a multi-year deal, but Austin is clearly attractive to us for a number of reasons. You’ve got a strong football market, proximity to a good airport and ideal April weather in Texas.”
Woods recently toured Circuit of the Americas, the sprawling motorsports and entertainment complex in Southeast Austin, and liked what he saw.
“COTA has endless possibilities for us,” he said. “They are building a stadium, they’ll have grass practice fields, space for meeting rooms.”
Bobby Epstein, COTA’s chairman who announced Wednesday he is bringing pro soccer back to Austin in 2019 along with a 5,000-seat on-site stadium, wants to continue diversifying his race track.
“Yes, we are interested in the Spring League,” he told the Statesman. “The infrastructure is there — conference rooms, a media center, a café and concessions. We’ll have the fields. Somebody just needs to buy some goalposts. We’ve got the paint.
“COTA would be a great venue for the Spring League — or even an NFL team training camp. We intend to build out and bring in more sports events.”
One potential roadblock involves a scheduling conflict with MotoGP, COTA’s second biggest race behind Formula One. MotoGP tentatively is scheduled for April 19-23 next year. “We’ll have to check those dates,” Epstein said, “but football isn’t played on the track so I’m hopeful it can work out.”
Woods, whose league is funded by private investors, will tour a few other cities he declined to name before announcing a final decision, likely in the summer.
The first Spring League was held this past April at the Greenbrier Sports Performance Center in West Virginia. Though teams mostly were comprised of younger players — Woods said the median age of participants is about 24 — NFL veterans such as Fred Jackson, Ben Tate, Ahmad Bradshaw, Greg Hardy and Kellen Winslow Jr. also competed.
Scouts from 10 NFL teams and two CFL teams visited, Woods said, adding that another 20 teams requested practice and game video.
“For our first year, that’s quite a success,” said Woods, a former walk-on safety at Ole Miss who’s been an assistant coach at Iowa State and a front-office employee with the New York Jets.
Nearly 20 players from the Spring League were invited to NFL mini-camps in 2017, including former Texas quarterback David Ash. The one-time Belton standout earned a shot with the Carolina Panthers.
“I think the league is on the right path,” Carolina director of scouting Mark Koncz told ESPN.com. “What Brian did was get guys in, play some games, have time for scouts to come in and evaluate and see what was there. A lot of these guys got looks that otherwise they would not have.”
One drawback in 2017, though, was the inability of scouts to zip in and out of remote White Sulpher Springs, W.Va., the Spring League’s base.
“We heard about accessibility a lot,” Woods said. “NFL people I’ve talked to like Austin, and the airport is right next to COTA.”
A move to Austin could pique the interest of quarterbacks Young, Manziel and Robert Griffin III, each hoping for one more NFL shot.
“It’d be important to us to have a Texas presence. We’ll sound out those guys,” said Woods, who expects to invite 160 players to the 2018 Spring League.
“I also envision building a relationship with the University of Texas. We’ll have opportunities for student trainers and those in the athletic administration field.”
Woods said he he has created a winning business model that is economical and sustainable. Players receive room and board, but they are not paid. There are no travel expenses as all four teams share one facility.
“From the NFL standpoint, scouts can see guys in the offseason in football shape, with shoulder pads and helmets, playing games with full tackling,” he said.
Woods said his league also is a training ground for referees and, if it moves to Austin, he wants to add a sports-related symposium pulling in area tech companies.
It all sounds promising to Lance Aldridge, executive director of the Austin Sports Commission.
“Austin fits for what the Spring League is trying to do,” Aldridge said. “This is a hot football market, and it could catch on with the fans.”