NFL Draft has become must-see television
It was 1979, and Chet Simmons, president of an upstart cable network called ESPN, was scrounging for programming to fill his month-old and unknown but innovative 24-hour, all-sports channel.
Without professional programming other than the daily highlight show “SportsCenter,” Simmons brainstormed with an old acquaintance from his days operating NBC Sports. His friend: NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.
One idea that piqued Simmons' interest: live coverage of the NFL Draft.
Rozelle broached the subject with the then-28 team owners during a meeting in October 1979.
“The owners, to a man, said no,” said Jim Steeg, the former head of NFL special events who is credited with turning the draft into a larger-than-life event.
Owners were afraid the draft would become a forum for agents to talk with players and drive up contracts, Steeg said.
“Rozelle literally walked out of the room — and I was there and he looked at me — and told to me call Chet Simmons and tell him ESPN is covering it as a news event,” Steeg said. “There was no way we can deprive them of covering a news event.”
Rozelle handed the reins to Steeg, and the draft grew from a behind-the-scenes meeting into a televised spectacle viewed by tens of millions. Today, it is popular enough to be aired on two networks — ESPN and NFL Network — and occupy a pair of prime time television slots over three days.
The draft celebrates its 77th year and 33rd broadcast April 25-27 at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
“The ESPN connection with it was so key because it took the last great newspaper event and made it into a television event,” Steeg said. “The draft had a lineal growth that each year you could see it grow a little bit more and a little bit more.
“When you look back on it after 30 years, you say, ‘Oh my God.' ”
The first televised draft began on a Tuesday morning with three rounds and concluded the next day with the final nine rounds. The 28 teams made 333 selections in a New York Sheraton ballroom — all in front of the cameras.
“When the fans started to show up to watch it, we knew we had something,” Steeg said. “Maybe we had 150 back in the late '70s to all of a sudden getting people lined up around the block. We moved into the Marriott Marquis (five years later), which almost tripled the attendance, then we got people lining up around the block again, so you figured out quickly that people had a natural interest.”
Reality TV at its finest
The question persists: Why do people tune in to watch the draft? There are no winners or losers, at least not immediately.
There is a better chance of no draftees being on your favorite team a couple of years later — think 2008 Steelers draft or '09 Cowboys draft — than drafting a Hall of Famer.
But one thing keeps viewers coming back.
“Hope,” said NFL Network coordinating producer Charlie Yook. “Those particular days provide hope for 32 teams and 32 fan bases. ‘Maybe this is our Cam Newton. Maybe this is our Mike Wallace steal in the third round.' Hope is what the football fan points to.”
Steeg sees the initial attraction the same way.
“No matter what you had the year before, (the draft) builds up hope for the next year, even though you might never hear of the guy,” he said. “It breeds the anticipation that this going to be great for your team.”
The draft has become the ultimate reality series.
No one gets voted off like on “Survivor” or “American Idol,” and there are no contrived fights, but drama exists.
Mel Kiper battles with Todd McShay. Chris Berman waxes poetic. Teams feign interest in players they want to, or ultimately do, draft.
There are trades, the winding clock, Roger Goodell posing for photos with first-rounders, war rooms and green rooms, boos from Radio City Music Hall's rafters and the occasional star player free falling down the draft board for some inexplicable reason.
“It really is dramatic, and that keeps people tuned in over the course of the three-day event,” said Leah LaPlaca, ESPN's vice president of programming and acquisitions who oversees coverage of the NFL. “Sport in general is the ultimate reality TV, but the draft really epitomizes that. You have college football fans interested in where the player from their alma mater goes. You have NFL fans wondering how my team is going to improve. It really keeps people on the edge of their seats.”
The networks have learned to play to the drama.
Yook, who says NFL Network starts preparing for the draft the day after the previous one ends, believes it is important to give viewers something they can't get any other time of year or in any other sport.
“What people want now is access, and that's what we try to give them,” Yook said. “Whether it is a clip inside the team's war room or behind the curtains in the green room, that is where you build up that tension and drama. It is just not the commissioner going up to the podium and saying, ‘With the first pick, the Kansas City Chiefs select …”
They are watching ... a lot
Oversaturation was a concern when the NFL decided in 2010 to move the draft to prime time on Thursday and Friday nights — four years after allowing league-owned NFL Network to also broadcast the draft.
Turned out there was nothing to worry about.
The draft gained two million viewers between the networks that year and has gained 66 percent more viewers since 2004.
While NFL Network and ESPN's combined daily average viewership of 8.1 million over three days last year wasn't earth-shattering in terms of ratings, it was significant.
“A No. 1 show on during a particular week is about 20 million,” said Robert Thompson, director of Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “It is lower than the No. 1 show of the week, but to put it into perspective, ‘Mad Men,' which gets the cover of magazines and won a bunch of Emmys, on a good night will get 2.5 million.”
Last year's first-round drew a combined total viewership of 25.3 million on ESPN and NFL Network, according to The Nielsen Company.
The networks posted a record combined average rating of 5.28 — an 18 percent increase over the previous year's first round (4.46 average rating).
In comparison, the World Series averaged a 7.6 rating last year, or an average of 12.7 million viewers per game.
Only two of ESPN's NASCAR races last year topped the draft in viewership, and only two of the network's college football games — Notre Dame vs. Michigan and LSU vs. Mississippi State — eclipsed the draft.
“Sure, the draft could be quite boring and not very exciting to watch, but so can a lot of Super Bowls,” Thompson said. “All the action in the draft is the release of pieces of data, and that's exactly what ‘American Idol' results shows are.”
Between ESPN and NFL Network, the combined daily average viewership last year (8.1 million) was up 16 percent from the previous year (7.0 million).
“It is not just about getting information, but it has turned into a whole presentation,” Thompson said. “You know you are getting it instantaneously.”
NFL Network's viewership on all three days last year was up 34 percent from 2011, while ESPN's 6.66 million viewers on opening night were the second most in the past 33 years.
“We have always found it compelling, so that's why we decided to put it on TV in 1980,” LaPlaca said. “It has obviously continued to exceed our expectations in terms of the excitement and the attention it brings from fans and viewers.”
“I never thought you would get the ratings that you are getting for it now,” said Charley Casserly, who spent 26 years as an NFL executive. “You have to credit TV, but the popularity has increased tremendously over the years when you compare draft ratings to other sporting events. And that's the thing that's mind-boggling.”
On the first day of this year's draft, NFL Network will devote 18 consecutive live hours to the draft.
“The reason it has been so successful is that they packaged it brilliantly, they put it in prime time, and they had a lot to work with it,” Thompson said. “You have a lot of interest in all these players already, you have an upcoming season, and you can do all the things you can do with games.”
It wasn't always like this
By the mid-1960s, Steelers founder Art Rooney had begun to turn over much of the franchise's operation to his oldest son, Dan. That included the draft.
“The NFL Draft was more for the teams back in the early years,” Dan Rooney said. “We used to get together in Philadelphia around a table, and the only interest in the draft was from the teams and not the media.”
Casserly served as a scout for the Washington Redskins from 1978-81 before becoming assistant general manager in 1982 — the early days of the draft on TV.
There was no internet and not much communication during the days before ESPN televised the event.
“You would have a speaker phone hooked up to New York, and that's how you got the information,” Casserly said. “That's the only way we would know what was going on.”
Prior to 1980, drafted players had their names written on acetates and shown on a screen with an overhead projector. After that, picks would be shown to team personnel in the room via internal TV monitors.
“The Los Angeles Rams were the first ones to take the interest in the draft to a new level by providing so much more information on each player that could be drafted,” Rooney said.
Former Steelers public relations director Joe Gordon remembers fondly the old days. Gordon worked for the Steelers during the iconic drafts of the 1970s, including the '74 draft in which four future Hall of Famers — Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Mike Webster — were selected with their first four picks.
“We had a representative in New York, and when he made the pick, we would scratch it out on the board,” Gordon said. “You had players in the top 50 and in also the top 20 at each position. The coaches, scouts and owners would be there, and then we would relay the info back to the media room.”
Gordon said the media coverage of the draft was substantial in Pittsburgh during those years, but it was also during a time when the Steelers won four Super Bowls in six years.
“The first day of the draft, we would have two metropolitan papers and maybe 10 suburban papers,” Gordon said. “We would have five or six AM radio stations in the market. It was big.”
How much more?
Despite the widespread coverage, the draft seemingly has not hit its saturation point, mostly because of the possibilities with technology such as social media and mobile devices.
“You can go golfing and still not miss a thing,” Steeg said.
ESPN and NFL Network have broadened coverage to include digital platforms that had tens of thousands of visitors last year.
Last year alone, ESPN digital platforms generated an average minute audience of 84,000 on the first day of the draft, up 11 percent from the previous year.
“We always try to add some tweaks to our telecast and our coverage,” LaPlaca said. “The sky is the limit. The fans have shown so far an insatiable appetite for NFL content.”
Steeg hesitates when talking about even more growth for the draft.
“I went through this with the Super Bowl, and you always said that this can't get bigger, and every year it got bigger,” he said. “It is no longer Joel Buchsbaum putting out a book about who is going to get drafted.”
The popularity of the draft comes down to one thing: the success of the NFL.
“It was a phenomenon then and more of a phenomenon now,” Gordon said. “It really all comes back to the popularity of NFL football.”