Depending on where you are in the country, a high school athlete could feel as though they are a professional. In Texas, for instance, they build multi-million dollar football stadiums, where each Friday night the entire town comes out to watch their boys compete. The citizens know the team better than the coaches, they can tell you how many seniors are graduating and how many freshmen are coming in. It’s almost a religion. However, high school is not the majors and depending on what sport these athletes pick, their paths to the big leagues could each be quite different.
The star pitcher may have scouts from across Major League Baseball crowding the bleachers and fighting for space on the chain link fence. And his abilities could be so great that a team drafts him right out of high school. Now, depending on how good that team’s scouts are, that high school student may opt to sign on the dotted line and skip attending college entirely, based on the thought that he could make the show before his twenty-first birthday. However, his path to the majors, no matter how impressive he is in high school, will take a route through small town America and the minor leagues before he can experience the big leagues.
But, why is it, only the baseball player has a stop with the Montgomery Biscuits while his classmates sign letters of intent and head to college before going directly into the majors? Why is it that the high school, point guard can give one year to a college coach before making millions in the NBA before his twentieth birthday?
There is no good answer; the only reasoning is that each game is different. And it’s those differences that make each athletes path vary, at different points, along the road.
Major League Baseball
Baseball has long been an American pastime. As such, it remains popular across the country. Fans fill stadiums, from Pawtucket, Rhode Island to Peoria, Illinois, to watch future big leaguers, on their way to the majors.
As one of only two major sports leagues with a minor league system, it is MLB that most people think of when they consider an athlete’s path to the major leagues. It is the most expansive minor league system and for many players, it is the closest thing they will ever get to the majors. A typical draft pick of a MLB club will head to one of a few places, either to a Low or High Single-A affiliate or a Double-A affiliate of the team.
For instance, a draft pick of the Detroit Tigers, will typically head to Grand Rapids, Michigan and become a member of the West Michigan White Caps baseball club. From there, that player has a ladder of teams to climb through, before he may don the Olde English “D.” The trip can be from West Michigan down to Lakeland, Florida, then to Erie, Pennsylvania and on to Toledo, Ohio before making it back to Detroit.
This path is a long and arduous one where each team will attempt to mold the player into becoming a better ballplayer. The player must improve, at each stage, along the way or they risk becoming a career minor leaguer, or worse, being labeled a Quad-A player. With each MLB team drafting a large number of players each year, improvement is necessary for a player. But if they should stall in their improvement, they will be labeled as a waste of time and dumped from the farm system. But even the best players can take years to make it to the majors; they may not even remain at their position.
For instance, Washington Nationals first-round draft pick Bryce Harper was drafted as a top-tier, catching prospect. But now that he is in his second-year in the minor leagues he has been converted to a center fielder and must prove himself at this new position before making in to Washington, D.C.
National Football League
The NFL has surpassed the MLB as the most popular league in the United States. As such, there is intense scrutiny placed on the draft yearly as each player immediately joins the professional club out of college. High school football players are just as sought after as any other athlete, perhaps more so. But instead of seeing scouts from the Philadelphia Eagles or San Francisco 49ers, athletes can expect to see scouts from the University of Wisconsin or Auburn University.
Once a player has selected a school, they will be thrust directly into training camp. College coaches understand while their players may have been the best in high school; they will struggle to handle the 300 pound linebackers and increased level of skill in the college game.
These athletes step onto campus with a list of coaches, each with their own duty to improve the player, from the strength coach to the running backs coach. High school graduates go to college and more often than not, hold a clipboard for the first season while they get bigger, faster and stronger. This process goes on for four-to-five years. By the time a player from the University of Southern California enters the NFL draft, they have already been molded into the type of player that will create an immediate impact on whichever team selects them.
But doesn’t the NFL have a minor league system? It is due to inflexibility. Each off-season, there are a handful of coaches that are fired. When they are replaced, the new coach often brings, with him, a new philosophy and playing style. With that stated, firing a coach and hiring a new one would have to go the entire depth of the farm system in order for the players to become what the coach needed them to be.
The NFL experimented with a sort of minor league system with NFL Europe, but the game never really caught on with Europeans. The few teams that existed were located near American, military bases. Without business, the league folded and the only semblance of a farm system went with it.
The popularity of the game also plays a factor whether or not a minor league system is used. While the NFL may be the “king of popularity”, it may be its own, worst enemy. Who would pay the cost of an NFL ticket to see an inferior product when they can either pay the same amount and see the real Baltimore Ravens in person or wake up late on a Sunday and catch the game on television?
The National Hockey League
The NHL has its own form of a minor league system in their partnership with the American Hockey League. Draft picks of the Detroit Red Wings will not don the winged wheel right out of the box, they will first be sent over to Grand Rapids, Mich. to play for the Grand Rapids Griffins. Each team has their own partnership with an AHL team where they can send their prospects until they are either ready for the NHL or injuries necessitate their call. While the farther south one travels the less popular hockey gets, the AHL teams located in the northern United States and Canada enjoy packed houses on a regular basis. This success is not only good for the AHL franchise, but for their NHL partner as well, as it builds a fan base and revenue that follows from the minors to the majors.
National Basketball Association
Basketball is the outlier. Until recently, some players did not even attend college before taking on the likes of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. However, some players did go to college because they did not think they were ready for the big court. Magic Johnson, for instance, grew up in Lansing, Michigan. He attended Michigan State University, under Coach Jud Heathcote. The coach took Johnson from a scrawny guy from Lansing, to a dominating force in the NCAA. Johnson used college to get bigger and faster, only returning to school for his sophomore year because of the chance to win a national championship. Once he had it, he bolted to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Now, the National Basketball League has instituted a rule that forces high school players to attend at least one year of college prior to joining the NBA. While this was created as an attempt to stop the flow of players directly out of high school, it has made the college landscape merely a stopping point on the way.
Each athlete has their own path to success. Whether that path sends them to a minor league team or straight to the big leagues; it depends as much on the popularity of the sport and their business model as it does their skill.