Lights. Camera. Action.
Forget the actual sports. Those three words stand as an accurate description of the NFL offseason.
Indeed, the NFL’s spring Super Bowl has passed, and the NFL Draft was again a spectacle to behold. For yet another spring, a sporting event with no actual sports dominated the media landscape for the better part of a week—and, perhaps, more accurately, the better part of the last two months.
The draft once again cleaned up, finishing with strong ratings and nosing its way into network television spots on all three days of the event, and appearing live at one point or another on ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, FOX, and NFL Network.
From the lengthy lead-up to the draft that begins almost immediately following the Super Bowl in early February through the NFL Combine a month later and subsequent pro days and workouts, the NFL has created a Path To The Draft out of thin air. It’s a phenomenon of which the other major, North American professional sports leagues should be envious. And while the NFL is far from perfect, this is one area in which they’re head and shoulders above the other leagues. Some might even say that the NFL Draft is its own sport entirely.
So what would it look like for the NBA or MLB to create more excitement around their respective drafts? The NBA is close, but the lag time between March Madness and the June draft is consumed by playoff basketball—great for fans of the best teams and for those who simply enjoy watching the best players, but far from perfect for the team-specific diehards, college basketball fans, and draft nerds. Major League Baseball has made plenty of strides to turn their draft from a weird, conference-call-only situation nobody would dream of watching into a slightly-less-uncomfortable primetime event on a Monday in early June.
The NBA and MLB are simply leaving too many viewers on the table each year, and it’s time they step up their games.
Building Excitement for the NBA Draft
March Madness continues to reign supreme as the best multi-day event to capture the hearts and minds of crazy and casual sports fans alike. But then those same players who dominate multiple weekends in March fall off fans’ radar for three months until the NBA Draft finally rolls around in late June.
The biggest difference between the NFL and NBA drafts is that the NFL has nothing else going on during combine and workout season. The NBA, on the other hand, has the playoffs packed into the timeframe between the NCAA Tournament and the NBA Draft. That means it at least feels like the NBA doesn’t need to push draft content constantly into June.
But it remains a missed opportunity for the NBA. While playoff games do well enough in the ratings (the latest first round being an exception) and pure basketball fans still get jacked to watch good ol’ fashioned postseason basketball, there are plenty of casual fans who simply want to get excited about next season and have little interest in watching the Golden State Warriors roll over the competition en route to another title.
It’s up to the NBA to create offseason content for the non-playoff teams to keep them engaged. And it isn’t hard. Look no further than how the NFL markets their scouting combine and the success that they’ve had turning a glorified workout into must-see TV.
The NBA has some of the most dynamic athletes on the planet, but the draft process has turned the NBA Draft Combine into—well, whatever the opposite of must-see TV is. The weeks and months leading up to the draft are a slow drip, and the league hasn’t exactly opened the faucet to encourage a free flow of information.
The best prospects don’t touch any part of the process with a 10-foot pole, but that’s not all that different from the NFL Combine. New Arizona Cardinal Kyler Murray didn’t appear at the combine this year but was the consensus top pick for most of the draft season before going No. 1. Even still, there was a clear appetite for the draft process, and the league managed to host an event that still had plenty of traction.
The NBA tried to spice up its combine a few years ago by instituting more live action, including televising the 5-on-5 scrimmage portion. But it hasn’t worked, as many top-tier players have been more than willing to claim injury to avoid participating.
Following the NFL’s example, the NBA should not simply lean on the “But the best players don’t participate!” crutch and simply develop an event that is more television-friendly. That means more actual on-court drills and even more live action—both things that have been increased of late but have yet to be maximized.
One of the obvious differences between the NBA and the NFL drafts are the number of players involved. The NBA has two rounds to the NFL’s seven. But with the NBA’s recent expansion into two-way contracts and the progress the league is making towards one-to-one affiliation agreements between the big clubs and the G League, there are more college prospects of interest to NBA front offices. Beginning this year, the NBA will host a G League Elite Camp, which is a three-day event that will showcase the best players not invited to the combine.
Other tweaks the NBA could make include adjusting the timing of the draft lottery, Elite Camp, and Scouting Combine. While the league wants to avoid stealing the thunder of its own playoff basketball, why not spread the events out and build additional anticipation in between each of them? The pace of the NFL’s lead-up to the draft is nearly perfect, and the league adeptly capitalizes on the popularity of college football without the benefit of a true playoff system such as March Madness. The NBA allows a fantastic opportunity to slip through its fingers.
Baseball has Some Work to Do
Major League Baseball didn’t even televise its draft until 2007, when proceedings were shown on ESPN2. That year, the league still made its selections in the middle of a Monday afternoon and the draft still consisted of 50 rounds.
Since then, the draft moved to the league’s own MLB Network and was reduced to 40 rounds, with the first two rounds plus supplemental picks taking place one night and the rest of the draft over the next two days. Rounds three through 40 are not televised on broadcast TV but can be streamed online.
The differences between the MLB First-Year Player Draft and its counterparts in other leagues are obvious. For one, baseball is the only sport that holds its rookie draft in the middle of the season. Secondly, college baseball is far less popular than both football and basketball. And just as importantly, the majority of MLB draft prospects won’t sniff the majors in their first couple of years as a professional due to the sport’s extensive system of minor league affiliates.
But all of that still isn’t an excuse for baseball to more or less punt on what should be a major event and milestone in the league’s calendar.
So what can MLB do? Find a way to hold a combine, for one. While the timing of the draft complicates matters, why not shuffle the offseason calendar and allow time for a series of workouts and televised events to allow the hype machine to grow just a bit? It’s proven fans love watching long balls. There would surely be an appetite to watch top prospects run through many of the similar drills prospects go through in other sports: running the 40-yard dash, the bench press, vertical, and more.
Other sports have seen success with exhibition-style skills competitions at their respective All-Star breaks, something baseball has avoided. Think about an arm accuracy competition from the right-field corner or throwing off balance from the hole at shortstop to hit a target at first base. Or maybe the fastest time from home to third, or directional hitting. Some iteration of these ideas could easily be adopted to fit the draft combine format.
A combine helps set the narrative and build storylines leading up to a draft, and while some of the existing challenges will remain in place related to the relative anonymity of many prospects, events like this would work toward tearing down some of those walls.
It’s All about Building—and then Capitalizing on—Momentum
Football has less than three months between the end of the playoffs and the draft. The NBA only has two months to play with while its own playoffs are ongoing, while the MLB drafts roughly a third of the way through its regular season.
Theoretically, the NFL should struggle the most with keeping momentum, but they’ve successfully packed the combine, free agency, pro days, individual workouts, individual team offseason programs, and the draft itself into that three-month span. It’s that constant, almost obsessive attitude of we’re-still-here-don’t-forget-about-us that keeps the NFL as the closest thing to a 12-month sport that we have in North America. And it best serves the league in the weeks and months leading up to the draft.
While baseball doesn’t necessarily need to have that same level of obsession, they certainly would be well-served to follow some of the above suggestions and revive what is currently a relatively sleepy process. And basketball, which is generally on the cutting edge when it comes to making change, is still victim to a process that’s relatively clunky compared to their NFL counterparts.
Here’s the thing: the NBA and MLB are the kings of missed opportunities when it comes to the sports landscape’s thirst for the Next Big Thing. That desire is manifested in the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, and football capitalizes in impressive fashion. It’s about selling hope to fans, and it’s time for the NBA and MLB to refresh their stale processes and take a page out of the NFL’s book for once.
That is, if Major League Baseball can get past their Kyler-Murray-induced sour grapes…