The Roots of NFL Draft Obsession

There’s been an NFL draft since 1936. But how did it become the three-day media spectacle it is today?

Jerry Lai / USA Today Sports

In 1935, the Philadelphia Eagles were the worst team in the NFL, winning just two out of 11 games that season. Up until then, the best players coming out of college were signing up with the best teams in the league. Earlier that year, in order to even the playing field, NFL team owners agreed to set up a draft that would give struggling clubs a shot at picking up players in the offseason. So, on February 8, 1936, at a Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia, the Eagles had the first pick in the first NFL draft.

The Eagles would select Jay Berwanger, a Heisman Trophy winner out of the University of Chicago. In the middle of the Great Depression, however, he chose to work a more lucrative job at a rubber factory instead of pursuing a career in the NFL, turning down the Eagles offer.

On Thursday night, before a crowd of thousands, and with millions of people tuning in from home, the best college athletes will realize their dreams of playing in the NFL at the 2016 draft. The closed-door meeting of team owners 80 years ago has transformed into a massive, three-day, seven-round, 256-pick, primetime media spectacle that even ESPN acknowledges as “our year-long obsession.” But how did we get to this moment, an event that is so much more extravagant than it was ever intended?

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.

By 1988, the NFL moved the draft from the week to the weekend. In 2006, the NFL Network also started covering the draft, giving ESPN some competition and bringing more coverage to the annual event.

In 2010, the draft moved to a three-night primetime event, starting Thursday. Commissioner Roger Goodell knew the move would make the already huge event bigger. “We continue to look for ways to make the draft more accessible to more fans,” Goodell said then. “Moving the first round to prime time on Thursday night will make the first round of the draft available to fans on what is typically the most-watched night of television.”

It paid off. Today, more people watch the first round of the draft than watch the last day of the Masters Golf Tournament. And fans not only tune into the draft, they’re glued to their televisions for the three-day NFL Scouting Combine every February and pro days at universities before then. The NCAA football season is as much about college athletes representing different schools across the country as it is a long scouting event for the NFL.

Professional football has been a part of American life since the NFL’s founding in 1920, then under the banner of the American Professional Football Association. It grew from a small-time league with 14 teams, like the Muncie Flyers and Decatur Staleys, to a 32-team, multi-billion-dollar operation. But as media progressed, so too did other aspects than just watching games on Sunday afternoons. It turned into 19 million people playing fantasy football, and millions of others watching the draft.

While the media spectacle has changed over the past 80 years, the fundamental nature of the draft remains the same. It’s an opportunity for the league’s worst teams to get a shot at new talent and a chance to do better the next season. And the Philadelphia Eagles still aren’t that good.