The NFL Draft Is Practically Its Own Sport

Ben BeeckenBen Beecken is a writer at Grandstand Central with a primary focus on the NBA, MLB, and NFL. He has spent nearly a decade working on the business side of sports including eight seasons in minor league baseball team front offices. Ben is also an editor and writer at Dunking With Wolves and a contributor across the FanSided network.

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Opening Day is special in every sport. Crisp lines, clean-cut grass, well-rested players and coaches, boundless optimism, and new beginnings rule the day.

Likewise, the National Football League (NFL) Draft has established itself as a mini-season of its own. Clean, well-trimmed stages. Confident rookies. A smiling commissioner. Boos and cheers alike from each team’s faithful fanbase. Hopeful fans, clad in their favorite jersey and facepaint. Anxious players and their families filling the green room and the live camera feed from dozens of private draft parties.

And, once again, boundless optimism.                                                                    

It isn’t just that the NFL has managed to create a 12-month sport. It’s more like training camp through the Super Bowl is one NFL “season,” while the NFL draft fills in late February through early May as an entire second season.

The NFL dominates the fall and winter sports landscape, dwarfing baseball and basketball in ratings. They’re the Boys of Fall, after all, so why bother trying to rain on the parade of early-spring baseball and the NBA playoffs by dominating in April, too?

But the NFL’s conquest to remain number one in the American sportscape took the league to new lengths. They accomplished complete calendar domination by growing the NFL Scouting Combine, working with the NCAA to enhance the popularity of pro days, and, perhaps most importantly, turning the draft from a two-day weekend event into a three-day spectacle. The NFL Draft is now a full-week event, including primetime Thursday night, and it’s moved its physical location to cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, turning each spot into a weeklong NFL party.

The NFL Draft has gradually increased in popularity and become a full-fledged event. And the recent surge in viewership can, at least in part, be traced to the explosion of the NFL Scouting Combine.

It all started with the NFL Scouting Combine

Somehow, the NFL has turned four days of amateur athletes running around in cut-off shirts and bicycle shorts into must-see TV for its biggest fans.

And, with apologies to Kenny Powers, here’s the thing: it works, enough so that this year’s NFL Scouting Combine was partially televised on ABC. Just imagine telling your 2002 self that the combine would be shown live on broadcast television. Unless you’re a massive fan or a scout, you may not have even known the combine existed back then.

The NFL Scouting Combine features the best amateur football players from around the country, all coming together in Indianapolis to run, jump, catch and throw for 32 teams and the NFL Network cameras. There are physicals and in-person interviews, too, but those elements are not part of what makes the combine attractive to the masses.

The combine as a TV event is a recent phenomenon. No cameras were even allowed into the stadium until 2004, following the launch of the NFL Network. The NFL realized they had the perfect opportunity to grow their brand: a captive audience watching their network along with plenty of programming hours to fill.

From hour-long recap shows in 2004 to the current broadcast time of 30 hours over a four-day span, the NFL’s coverage of its workout competition followed the demand. Now you can even buy a ticket to watch the workouts live onsite!

And that’s just the combine itself. Consider the dozens of hours of pre-combine coverage, man hours that go into sending a field reporter and camera crew to Indianapolis for the days leading up to the on-field portion of the event. They cover the interviews, meeting, and behind-the-scenes rumbling. It’s sort of the NFL’s answer to baseball’s Winter Meetings, and the fluff surrounding a relatively anti-climatic event is … odd, to say the least.

Expanding to pro days and pre-draft visits

Only about 330 players are invited to the combine each year. Yet well north of 12,000 players suit up and play Division I football, and that doesn’t include any of the other levels from which players can be selected. Even though the overwhelming majority of D-I players don’t sniff the NFL, there are more than 330 with a shot. And that’s why pro days and pre-draft visits exist.

While neither of these events are televised in and of themselves, the machine that is NCAA football does the NFL a huge favor in assisting in the draft hype machine. Diehard fans of wonderful academic institutions from all over the country are following their favorite school’s prospects as they try to continue their football journey to the highest level.

If nothing else, pro days give the likes of ESPN and NFL Network plenty of fodder for daytime television shows and the countless hours of programing that they have to fill.

Pre-draft visits are a similar version of this, but it’s die-hard NFL fans that get themselves worked into a tizzy here. It ultimately doesn’t matter whom each team brings in with their 30 allowed invitations, but football fans can certainly find reason to curse their favorite franchise for bringing in a surefire bust for a workout.

But guess what? Those college football fans are following their favorite players to the pros. And those NFL fans can’t get enough of their squad. Even if they’re busy poring over a list of names that ultimately won’t matter, at least their mind is on the NFL.

The NFL Draft: Football’s Unofficial Opening Day

The NFL Draft itself used to be a relatively modest affair. It happened during the business day and wasn’t even televised. The league wised up in the 1980s, however, and by 1988 the draft was on weekends and covered exclusively by ESPN.

Beginning in the late 1980s, the league found great success in televising the first round of the draft during primetime on Friday night and the remaining six rounds on Saturday. Not much changed until 2010, when the NFL got even smarter and realized that the growth in popularity of their league and the draft process as a whole could support a primetime TV show. They decided to move the first round to Thursday, with the second and third rounds Friday and the rest Saturday. The brightest names on the marquee would hit the airwaves on Thursday night, a much more popular television-watching night of the week than a Friday.

Now the draft was officially a spectacle, stretching over a span of three days and gobbling up two nights of primetime. But things didn’t stop there: starting in 2018, the Thursday and Friday broadcasts are simulcast on both NFL Network and broadcast TV, with FOX picking up the coverage live. Even Day 3, which is filled with lesser-known names and features draftees that even the pundits know little about, is now broadcast on ABC.

The other modern development involves taking the entirety of the event away from New York City, which had hosted the event for 49 consecutive years dating back to 1965, and shopping it around to various NFL cities. Since 2014, the draft has been held in Chicago (twice), Philadelphia, and Dallas, with the 2019 event in Nashville and 2020 slated for Las Vegas.

This isn’t a direct money grab; tickets are free and can be claimed on a first-come, first-serve basis the morning of the draft. But it is a way to keep multiple communities engaged and add a certain liveliness to the event. Tens of thousands of jersey-wearing fans scream “must-see football event” much more than the dark curtains and theatre seating of Radio City Music Hall.

What Can The NFL Do To Keep Improving The Draft?

So much has changed with the NFL Draft over the past half-decade that it’s hard to imagine what other major changes could be on the horizon.

There are plenty of ways to expand on some elements that have already been dabbled in by the league’s broadcast partners. From cameras in the “war room” of over a dozen NFL front offices at once, to live cameras on draft prospects at their own personal draft parties, to NFL legends proudly yet awkwardly announcing the newest hires by their former employers, the league has tried plenty of off-the-wall ideas to make the draft even more compelling. But why stop there?

Is there a world in which a team allows fans unfettered access to their thought process leading up to and/or during the draft itself? It might sound crazy but it’s already happened, albeit to the tune of $22k.

Maybe it’s a competition to award spots in the combine to players who aren’t already consensus early-round picks. The NFL tried something similar in the past. Could they turn this into another sort of reality-TV spectacle, drawn out over a couple of weekends? Why not turn the whole process into a spring version of Hard Knocks on HBO? Just another way for fans to develop loyalty to prospects and follow their journey throughout the draft process and into the league.

The NFL has expertly turned a complete football-calendar deadzone into a series of events that threaten the exposure of the other major sports in the U.S. The challenge for the NBA, MLB, and others is to find their own way to follow in the NFL’s footsteps and capitalize on their own draft exposure and experience.

The hype machine is real, and the last 15 years or so have turned the NFL’s offseason into the NFL’s second season.