Over the last few decades fans have flocked to coverage of the annual draft and each one has become an expert capable of breaking down a mock draft. And the NFL has been reveling in it all.
So, when exactly did this happen?
How did the NFL draft segue from a sleepy endeavor conducted mostly incognito into the most overhyped, oversaturated and overwrought event on the sports calendar?
I have some theories, but suffice it to say that when the Seahawks finally, mercifully, make their selection on Thursday — barring a trade, of course — it will end months of feverish speculation, intense analysis and mostly inaccurate prognostication.
Well, not exactly end it, because after the final pick on Saturday comes the next phase of the thriving cottage industry that the NFL draft has become — instant grading of each team’s selections, conveniently ignoring the fact that it may take years before the success or failure reveals itself.
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It’s everything the NFL could have dreamed of, a bloodless coup in which they have managed to steal the spotlight from the NBA and NHL playoffs and the young MLB season without playing a single game. And if you think, as I do, that the whole thing has gotten out of hand, as unsightly (and unyielding) as Mel Kiper’s hairdo, well, guess what? Roger Goodell could not care less.
Not when the TV ratings for the draft are through the roof (and quite robust for the underwear Olympics known as the NFL combine). Not when fans will jam the 3,000-seat, open-air theater that’s been constructed in Philadelphia at the Art Museum — near the famed Rocky steps, no less — for the first outdoor draft.
Not when the league has stumbled upon the perfect way to keep its sport at the forefront of the public’s consciousness at a time when they used to be in hibernation. When the first NFL draft took place on Feb. 8, 1936 — also in Philadelphia, coincidentally, at a Ritz Carlton — there was virtually no coverage whatsoever. Names were listed on a chalkboard, and many players didn’t even know they had been drafted until the teams called them. The first pick, Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger from the University of Chicago, couldn’t come to terms with the Bears and took a job in a rubber factory.
The circus didn’t come to town overnight. There were seminal events along the way. In 1946, Rams owner Dan Reeves hired the first scout, setting into motion the vast machinery of player evaluation that exists today. The first combine was instituted in 1977, and it moved permanently to Indianapolis in 1987, allowing one-stop shopping for teams to size up players and the media to size up the sizing up.
But things changed irretrievably in 1980 when the draft was televised for the first time. The honors went to ESPN, the all-sports channel that had launched the previous year. Even though it began at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday, viewers flocked to the event, the coverage of which has gotten more sophisticated, and flashy, annually.
Now it is a slick affair with the production values and dramatic flair of a reality series. Which, in many ways, is exactly what it is. During its many years in New York, you had fans robustly booing the poor sap who had the misfortune of being chosen by the Jets.
In 1999, Eagles fans journeyed to New York for the privilege of giving a Bronx cheer to Donavan McNabb when he was selected second overall. Occasionally, the monotony is broken with a stunning bumble (for instance, the Vikings failing to get their pick, No. 7 overall, off in time in 2003) or a blockbuster trade (such as the Saints sending their entire draft in 1999 for the No. 5 overall pick, which turned into running back Ricky Williams; or the Cowboys picking up five players and eight draft choices — three first-rounders, three second-rounders and a third rounder — for Herschel Walker in 1990).
Kiper came aboard in 1984, and don’t underestimate the huge impact he had in unearthing the inherent and ravenous interest of the average fan in this process. In 1988, the draft moved to the weekend, and in 1995, the whole shebang transitioned to Madison Square Garden, kick-starting its status as a spectator event. The capper came in 2010, when the draft went to its current three-day format in prime time, running from Thursday through Saturday.
Of course, what the draft peddles more than anything — and the overriding reason for its wild popularity — is hope. No professional league has done a better job of selling the notion of upward mobility; you can be horrid one year and a contender the next, and the draft is at the heart of that process. Unearth a Russell Wilson in the third round, or a Kam Chancellor or Richard Sherman in the fifth, and you’re back in business.
Throw in the added attraction that every average Joe and Josephine can imagine themselves as a general manager due to the wealth of information they are provided, by virtue of the combine and the various websites and analysts devoted to the draft. Everyone loves to mock mock drafts, but there may be nothing that appears in print or on the internet that is more widely scrutinized.
So, yeah, it’s overkill, and it’s sensory overload, and it will be a relief when we can move on to more important football matters, like hyper-analyzing the schedule. But we all know the truth. Next year at this time, we’ll all flock back to see what Kiper and company say about the latest crop of franchise saviors.