While the intensity of the draft increased over the decades, with trading and dealing (and kidnapping) happening behind the scenes, the draft was still an event in hotel ballrooms between the owners and staffs of teams. The process wouldn’t broadcast into the living rooms of fans across the country until then-ESPN President Chet Simmons asked the NFL in 1979 if the league would be interested in the telecast.
Pete Rozelle, the NFL commissioner at the time, was surprised that anyone would be that interested in seeing a bunch of old guys barter over rookies. Chris Berman, who has been with ESPN since a month after its founding, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune said, “To Pete, it sounded like reading names from the phone book. Everyone said, ‘Who’s going to watch?’”
ESPN had just formed and was looking to make headways. The network saw the potential, even if the NFL didn’t.
The NFL agreed to allow ESPN to broadcast the 1980 draft from the ballroom of the New York Sheraton. The broadcast started at 8 on a Tuesday morning. This was definitely not the primetime event that it is today. But so began our obsession. In 2014, a combined 45.7 million people watched the draft on ESPN, ESPN 2, and the NFL Network.
The football season until then was widely popular, yes, but it lasted just six months. Turning the draft into a media event, and more aptly a reality show for the offseason, would make the football season last throughout the entire year.
“All of a sudden, we got word that people were calling sick to work on a Tuesday in April,” Berman said in that same Chicago Tribune interview. “They were staying home to watch the draft.”
And then came Mel Kiper Jr., the wunderkind draft analyst who brought scout know-how and data to ESPN’s coverage in 1984. He’s still a leading voice in the broadcast today, along with dozens of other analysts, anchors, and former athletes. After Kiper’s hire, the Bleacher Report writes:
Seemingly every year since, the cottage industry of media scouting, mock drafts, and Big Boards has gotten bigger. Teams began realizing the later-round prospects would be better served coming into the league as free agents; the league repeated shaved off rounds, and the length of time allotted to make picks, all to improve the TV product.
It provided drama to home audiences. Passionate fans filled the ballroom, booing picks they didn’t like and celebrating long-awaited prospects who might make this the team’s year. Who could view the yearly disappointment of New York Jets fans and not be amused?
The draft would then move to the New York Marriott Marquis in 1986 and then to Madison Square Garden in 1995, before heading to Radio City Music Hall in 2006. Last year, the NFL held the draft in Chicago, which was such a success the league decided to hold it there again this year. Now, cities are bidding to host the NFL draft, since it’s such a large event with the potential to bring in hefty media attention.