In the last 30 years, the NFL draft has gone from a complete afterthought in the minds of sports fans to one of the biggest sporting events of the year. And it’s about to get even bigger. – Jim Weber
First off, I’d like to say that I hate when people say the NFL draft is the most over-hyped event in sports and that it’s a colossal bore.
You have to love the atmosphere of Radio City Music Hall on draft day, when it becomes a mecca for NFL fans all over to descend upon New York City and represent their team. The draft is an event all 32 franchises can enjoy simultaneously, instead of watching two teams most of the country doesn’t care about battle it out in the Super Bowl.
For NFL fans, the NFL draft is the equivalent of Christmas Day. Roger Goodell walking to the podium with your team’s pick is like running down stairs when you were a kid to find out if Santa Claus had delivered on your wish list that year.
And for a Washington Redskins fan like myself, this is one of the few times every year I get to actually cheer for my team. Unless a team makes a disastrously poor selection (see: Darrius Heyward-Bey seventh overall in 2009), fans of downtrodden franchises get a chance to dream big.
Is there a good chance the pick could end up being a colossal bust (i.e. Devin Thomas)? Of course.
But the NFL draft is a day of optimism where fans get to imagine an elite prospect turning into a franchise cornerstone. And unlike the NBA draft where anyone outside the first 10 picks probably won’t even become a regular starter in the league, the NFL draft is where franchises are made using young, cheap talent that can immediately turn a bad team into a Super Bowl contender almost immediately.
Look at the Green Bay Packers.
After going 6-10 in Aaron Rodgers’ first year as a starter in 2009, the franchise’s future looked dicey considering the team had lost seven of its last nine games and the defense was downright ugly at times, like giving up 51 points in a game to the Saints.
Fast forward two years later and the Packers are Super Bowl champions and stocked with young talent after GM Ted Thompson worked two masterful drafts that landed them LB Clay Matthews, DT B.J. Raji, OT Bryan Bulaga and CB Sam Shields (I know he was an undrafted free agent, but that still counts) – among others.
And while the later rounds can get a little tedious, you still find yourself looking over Mel Kiper’s “best available” list hoping that your team lands a sleeper like Terrell Davis, Tom Brady, Steve Smith or Donald Driver.
Heck, it’s even worth your while to scour the undrafted free agent pool after 250-plus players are selected in the draft; former undrafted free agents like Arian Foster, James Harrison and Cameron Wake all made the 2011 Pro Bowl.
But even though I love the draft, I’m blown away by the level of media coverage each April. This is an event that wasn’t even televised until 1980 when a upstart TV network named ESPN was desperate for sports programming.
The response from then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle upon being asked to broadcast the event: “Why would you want to do that?”
Thirty years later, the 2010 draft drew a Nielsen rating of 6.4 (ESPN and NFL Network combined) during its new prime time, three-day set-up masterminded by current commissioner Roger Goodell. For comparison, the draft outdrew two NBA playoff games combined which aired that same night and the 2010 World Series averaged a rating of just 8.4.
Draft viewership was up 16% from 2009 thanks in large part to the spectacle of airing the draft in primetime. In all, a whopping 45 million people tuned into last year’s draft.
Based on last year’s smashing success, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a day soon that the NFL draft is regularly outdrawing the World Series.
Goodell has regularly shown during his first five years on the job that he is a huge opportunist that is ready to push the envelope on everything from putting a Super Bowl in New Jersey to an 18-game regular season.
And based off the success of last year’s new set up, you can expect plenty more changes to the NFL draft’s coverage in the coming years.
Goodell has already made it public that he’s considering a move of the draft’s third day coverage to another city such as Los Angeles, Indianapolis or New Orleans – among others. This could happen as early as next year and is a complete no-brainer. While everyone in New York is worn out by Day Three of the draft, a city like Los Angeles with no pro football team would die to get rounds four through seven on Sundays even if fans haven’t heard of most the players being selected.
In fact, even though the draft has been located in New York since 1965, many wouldn’t be surprised if the first round of the draft is soon held next door to the Staples Center at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles.
Who knows, Goodell might even be dreaming of holding the draft in the legendary Kodak Theatre – home of the Academy Awards – and an Oscars-type event with the draft preceded by a full red carpet special and beautiful celebrities in attendance for the cities’ hottest new sporting event.
Not thinking big enough for you?
How about all three days of the draft being “hosted” in separate cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago) with the draft prospects and media at those locations with each pick being selected over simulcast from NFL stadiums around the country?
Draft parties are already a staple of NFL franchises and imagine how much more exciting they would be if a franchise legend went up to a podium at midfield to make the team’s selection while being aired around the country. If 92,000 people are willing to show up to watch a spring game at Alabama, you can bet rabid NFL fans in cities like Dallas, Green Bay and Pittsburgh would pack the house for an excuse to tailgate, take in the nice weather and – of course – consume lots of alcohol.
Sound ridiculous, excessive and gluttonous? It is.
So brace yourself America because Goodell is just getting started.
Jim Weber is the founder and president of LostLettermen.com. His column appears each Monday.