It's official: as a nation, we are a sorry bunch. How else to explain the cultural phenomenon that has become the NFL draft? Last April, for example, 39 million television viewers ignored the weekend spring weather to slouch on the couch and watch a blond guy in a suit, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, call the roll and give baseball caps to oversize young adults. Go for a run, people!
The draft's TV audience has grown so much over the past decade that the NFL is now moving it to prime time. Coverage of the first round begins on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. E.T., on both ESPN and the NFL Network. The next two rounds will air on Friday night, while rounds 4-7 will be shown during the day on Saturday.
In shifting to prime time, the NFL is taking a bit of a gamble. Instead of going head to head against other sports events or Animal Planet, it will line up against Thursday-night heavyweights like Survivor, Grey's Anatomy, CSI and The Office. Plus, plenty of West Coast fans are peeved that the draft will kick off while many of them are still stuck at work or in rush-hour traffic.
Back in 1981, when ESPN first approached then NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle the guy who turned the league's games into made-for-TV programming about televising the draft, Rozelle was incredulous. "Why would you want to do that?" he asked. At the time, the event was essentially a staid business meeting conducted in a hotel ballroom. In 1994, the last year the draft was staged at New York City's Marriott Marquis Hotel, 500 fans were in the room. Since 2006, Radio City Music Hall has hosted the football cattle call: 4,000 people fill the legendary auditorium, and the players file in, Oscars-style, on a red carpet.
Between 2001 and 2009, the event's viewership grew 66%, garnering some 39 million viewers last year. The 2009 draft outrated both the NBA and NHL playoff games that aired during the same time as well as a New York YankeesBoston Red Sox game. Remember, no athletic action occurs during the draft, unless you count Goodell's deft pronunciation of tough names as some sort of physical feat (good luck with Ndamukong Suh, commissioner). This year, corporate sponsors like Gatorade, Verizon and Reebok are paying $8.5 million to promote their affiliation with the draft, up from $5 million a year ago.
You have to credit the marketing chops of the NFL and ESPN, two entities that know self-promotion as well as the I-formation. Over the past six weeks, they have blanketed the airways, print and Internet with advertisements hyping the draft. In New York City, you can't pass a bus shelter or lamppost without seeing some kind of draft-related signage. ESPN trots out 8 million draft "experts" headlined by the ubiquitous coif of Mel Kiper Jr. to yap about the strengths and weaknesses of the prospects and the latest palace intrigue among the teams. The nation needs no further discourse about whether Florida's Bible-thumping quarterback Tim Tebow will be selected in the first round.
But as is the case for many peculiar growth stories of the decade, technology has fueled the mania. There's a three-month football vacuum between the Super Bowl and the draft, and to satisfy their pigskin itch, fans flock to the Web, where countless sites analyze the draft to death. What's to stop both the credible and crazy draft "experts" on Twitter, which is already overfeeding this beast, from throwing out rumors and ruminations in 140-character bursts? The NFL is actively courting the social-media set. According to an internal NFL marketing presentation, the league wanted the draft to become a highly coveted "trending topic" on Twitter from April 21, the day before the draft, through April 25, the day after. On Wednesday, the league hit this target, as news of the draft joined Justin Bieber and Glee as the pressing issues of the day. Oh yeah, those items and derelict quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who was suspended for six games on Wednesday for his role in an alleged sexual assault.
Don't expect that to be mentioned on draft day. But word will get out regarding the draft picks, especially as the league is raising the number of credentials issued to non-traditional media by 20%. Sites like Arrowhead Addict (dedicated to Kansas City Chiefs fans) and Cheesehead TV (for Packers nuts) will be there as will the Ochocinco News Network, a fledgling digital-media entity run by the mercurial wide receiver from the Cincinnati Bengals. Overall, a record 904 media credentials have been issued for this year's draft, up 20% from 2009. That is approximately 3.5 times the number of players who will be selected. And not all of the 255 draftees will get a job in the NFL for some, this may be their career highlight.
So with Twitter giving fans a communal forum to quip, argue and vent during the broadcast, expect more strong ratings for the draft. And the NFL deserves our thanks. Not for all the endless draft hype we can't take it anymore but for doing America's obesity epidemic a favor. By moving the first round of the draft to prime time, we can now get off our butts on Saturday and go for that jog in the April sunshine. Or at least walk around the golf course.
And if we're lucky, we won't be cursing our teams' picks under our breath.