NFL milks the clock with ever-expanding and ever-later draft

By Ken Belson / New York Times News Service

NFL draft

When: First round, 5 p.m. today; rounds 2-3, 3:30 p.m. Friday; rounds 4-7, 9 a.m. Saturday

TV: ESPN, NFL

Imagine a sporting event without bats, balls or fields, and for which thousands of fans wait hours for seats and the television audience is larger than for many games. Throw in months of buildup, a red-carpet entrance and big corporate sponsors, and you have the NFL Draft.

Once a sleepy roll call for football insiders that was held in smoke-filled hotel ballrooms, the draft has turned into the highlight of the league’s increasingly cluttered offseason. It is a marketing machine that feeds the seemingly insatiable desire for information about the nation’s most popular sport and the college players who learn their professional fate on live television.

Two networks and more than 1,000 members of the news media will cover this year’s event at Radio City Music Hall, which amounts to a beauty contest rolled into a high-stakes lottery. Starting with the Houston Texans, who have the first pick, the 3,500 fans in attendance will give voice to the millions of others watching at home by cheering or booing the selections. The draftees will include 30 top-rated college players who will parade on stage in person.

Though the Super Bowl was three months ago and next season’s kickoff is months away, the draft manages to overshadow playoffs in the NBA and the NHL. And this year it will get an extra boost from a new film, “Draft Day,” which stars Kevin Costner as the general manager of the Cleveland Browns.

“The draft is a unique business product in that it plays out in a perfect speed for people to watch and there is a limitless combination of teams and players,” said Robert Boland, who represented NFL players before he began teaching sports management at New York University. “It’s a day of incredible theater.”

That theater has grown exponentially since the draft was first held in 1936 at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia. The current draft — seven rounds over three days — is now sandwiched by a host of fan-related events, alumni meetings and sponsor-driven raffles, contests, clinics and meet-and-greets with the players.

Though typically held in late April, the draft is two weeks later this year because of a scheduling conflict at Radio City. This has kept the NFL in the news deeper into the offseason, one reason the league might continue to hold the event at this time. Roger Goodell, the NFL’s commissioner, also said the league could add a fourth day to the draft and maybe hold part of it in another city. Other cities have lined up to host.

“From our standpoint, it’s another two weeks that people are talking about the draft,” Goodell said. But “what would be good from a fan standpoint obviously has to work from a football standpoint in order to make the event bigger and more popular.”

The later draft has led to grumbling from team personnel, who said they would have less time to work with their picks. It also raised questions about whether a fourth draft day would be too much of a good thing.

“You can’t swing a cat without hitting someone’s mock draft that’s been updated for the 38th time,” said Michael MacCambridge, the author of “America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation.”

Mark Cuban, the outspoken owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, raised similar concerns in March when he said that the NFL would decline in popularity in the coming decade because it was saturating the market.

“I’m just telling you, when you’ve got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you,” Cuban said after the league sold the rights to its Thursday night games to CBS. “That’s rule No. 1 of business.”

MacCambridge, though, said that each time naysayers had warned that the NFL has expanded too far, it continued to grow.

The draft’s selection process itself is relatively straightforward. In the first round, Goodell reads the name of each pick, gives him a hug and poses for a picture with the prospect, who is holding a personalized No. 1 jersey. In later rounds, former stars and others take over for the commissioner.

As a business proposition, the draft is more complex. Players, who can earn millions of dollars based on when they are picked, help teams and the league sell tickets, merchandise and sponsorships. The draft also allows fans to hit the reset button and prepare for the coming season.

“From a calendar perspective, it seems like the pinnacle moment, the end for the draftee,” said Eric Weinberger, executive producer at NFL Network, which will also have cameras at more than 20 team draft parties. “But the fan base has grown to look at it as the beginning.”

In some ways, the draft is the climax of months of speculation about where college players will land, a process that begins the previous season, when standouts emerge, the deficiencies of NFL teams are exposed and the draft order is set. The Senior Bowl, the scouting combine, the private team workouts and the sports media, which host mock drafts and devote stories and shows to the draft, fuel the interest.

It is a far cry from 1979, when the commissioner then, Pete Rozelle, hatched a plan with Chet Simmons, the president of ESPN, to televise the draft live. Simmons was eager to fill his fledgling all-sports cable network, and Rozelle wanted to popularize an event that had been almost exclusively for insiders.

The owners rejected the idea because they were afraid it would give the players’ agents airtime, said Jim Steeg, who ran the draft in those days. “They didn’t have the vision to see what it could be,” he said. “Every time you think it can’t get bigger, it gets bigger.”

But Rozelle got his way, and television coverage turned the draft into a spectacle. In the first few years, ESPN did not pay to broadcast the draft. But when the owners learned how much money the network made selling advertisements, ESPN was asked to cover the cost of the draft. ESPN was later charged a rights fee as part of its long-term deal, money the network said was well-spent.

“The draft is still great reality TV,” said Seth Markman, who leads the draft coverage for ESPN, which drew 6.2 million viewers for the first night of the draft last year. “I get more ticket requests for the draft than the Super Bowl.”