Though the naming of Super Bowl L and LI host cities as Santa Clara and Houston, respectively, took top billing at this week’s NFL spring meeting in Boston, ongoing discussions of a changed NFL offseason schedule could end up being the bigger story.
Mentioned in hushed tones at the NFL Draft Scouting Combine in February and then again during the NFL Draft in April, a new NFL offseason schedule that would potentially move the start of the NFL free agency signing period to February, the NFL Draft Scouting Combine to March and the NFL Draft to May, picked up a lot of steam in Boston this week.
I’m told we could have a new NFL offseason calendar by the end of this week. Regardless of the long-term plans, it seems as though Radio City Music Hall, the draft’s long-time home, already has a non-football “Spring event” booked for the final week of April next year. Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged this scheduling conflict on Tuesday, meaning the draft could be held elsewhere in 2014, or simply moved back to the month of May. Either way, it’s hard not to feel as though a change is a comin’.
Any long-term calendar moves would seriously alter the way football fans follow the game year-round. It would also impact the way rosters and teams are constructed and the business of football is conducted. In a sport where things are regimented down to the minute, such drastic changes would have multiple trickle-down effects. So, who wins and who loses? Let’s break it down.
1. The Fans
This is awesome, right? Personally, I’m all for it. In an age when the desire for NFL news is a 24-7 craving and there’s an insatiable interest in the game, extending the pre-draft period should be celebrated. Football fans want their football, and they’ll take it in February, March, April, May, or whatever month you give it to them. In the case of the draft, it serves as a nice buffer between the free-agent signing period in March and the start of training camps in July. Pushing things back one month, spreading the love out just a bit to make this a 12-month obsession, spaces the NFL’s offseason out evenly. The months of May, June and July (before the start of training camps) are typically the three lightest months for NFL news and activity. A May draft would close the loop and only give fans more action during the NFL offseason. The weekend I’m hearing is May 15-17, sandwiching the event between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. That’s the real Triple Crown. A Draft in May would mean more football talk, analysis, and action in the Spring. Who is against that?
2. The League’s Broadcast and Digital Partners
Mock drafts do incredibly strong traffic online, and now there will be more research, debate and reason for further investigation with another month built in. You’d be shocked to see just how close March Madness and NFL Draft traffic numbers are on leading sports websites. You might be even more surprised to see NFL Draft Week measure up against the Super Bowl week.
The league’s broadcast partners likely won’t mind, either. A record-high 7.25 million viewers watched the NFL Draft Scouting Combine on NFL Network in February, an 11 percent increase from the previous year which featured far more household names like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Justin Blackmon. Putting the Combine in March, with even greater promotion and fan familiarity with the players, could only boost those numbers. Though the first round of the NFL Draft didn’t put up the same ratings numbers this year as it did in 2012, it was still the top-rated cable program of its timeslot that week. Nielsen estimates that a total of 20 million viewers tuned in to either broadcast (NFL Network or ESPN) at one point during the draft Thursday night. Citing Nielsen’s numbers, “Among adults 18-49, ESPN’s 2.9 rating topped all broadcast and cable for the night — with the exception of CBS’ The Big Bang Theory.” Now, imagine if the NFL Draft is held during May sweeps season? That means bigger numbers, bigger attention and bigger promotion of the event. Would ESPN rather have Kiper and McShay debating over Manti Te’o’s draft stock for three months or two? Laugh at that if you want, but network draft programs do considerably better than May baseball.
3. NFL general managers
Would GMs rather use the month of May for vacation or for NFL Draft study? If you answered the former, you don’t know these guys. They want to meet every single player and have as deep a draft file on each prospect as possible. An extra month means more workouts, more interviews, and more comfort and familiarity with the prospects. Though it could lead to some second, third, and fourth guessing — really, how many months do these guys need? — more time to get to know someone is better than less time when you’re handing them over $22 million before they clock in for their first day of work.
4. NFL veterans
The scheduling change would likely eliminate rookie minicamps and put rookies behind the ball a bit when it comes to learning the playbook and getting up to speed, aiding NFL veterans ever-so-slightly in their attempts to make teams in July and August. I say this with hesitation, though, as this same reasoning was used to support theories against Cam Newton and Andy Dalton — two rookies — succeeding in their lockout-shortened first seasons. They went on, lockout and all, to have two of the best rookie seasons ever seen from NFL quarterbacks.
5. NFL owners
More football year-round means more $. If they blow the NFL Draft out into something that transcends football and becomes an even larger May ritual, everyone — well, at least 32 men — win big. If it were up to the NFL owners, I’m confident there’d be something big football-related on in every month of the calendar year, if not week.
So, why the resistance?
Here are our losers
The dirty little secret of the NFL Draft is that it costs agents a lot of money. Who pays for the weeks of competitive training and pre-draft schooling in those fancy training centers down in Florida and Arizona? Not the players and certainly not the teams. That comes out of the pockets of agents who pay for the bulk of the client’s Pre-Draft activities in exchange for the right to represent them in their first contract. Six weeks at one of these high-end facilities can cost anywhere from $120K-$200K. Agents will lay this out up front, crossing their fingers that a client is drafted in the first few rounds to justify the costs. Another month of training — which would no doubt be expected by the players — would end up costing guys close to half a million dollars per client. Some agents and agencies can cover these costs with no problem. Others, the smaller firms in particular, can’t. One agent told me, “Small school players will be hurt the most. Agents who’d usually be willing to spend the money to send an unproven player to a training facility might not be anymore.” Year after year, small school guys come out of the woodwork in February and March and end up getting selected in the NFL Draft. With agents tightening their wallets, those smaller school prospects might not get the same treatment they once did. They might not be worth the gamble of the up-front costs.
A month less time with the playbook and being put into the team’s offseason program is a month less time to make an impact on the field. Rookie minicamps help players get adjusted to their new surroundings and into their respective offensive and defensive schemes right away. Those will likely be gone. You take 30 days away from those players and there will be 30 days of progress lost. Furthermore, it’s 30 more days to be dissected, prodded and analyzed by pundits and GM’s. It’s also 30 more days to make a mistake off the field that can cost you. Remember, these are 21-year-old kids.
3. NBA, NHL and MLB
The nation’s three other major sports wouldn’t love it, that’s for sure. I’m confident an NFL Draft held in the thick of the NBA and NHL playoffs would get top priority on all major sports news outlets, regardless of the two teams playing in the conference semifinals or finals or what LeBron or Sid Crosby did. And May baseball? Forget it. It’d be buried way below the other three. The Draft — though no actual sports are being played — would own the month of May, both online and on TV.
4. NFL scouts
Scouts do the bulk of their work before the college football season is even over. By December, they’ve logged hundreds of hours of study and travel and have already organized the players they like into multiple lists and hypothetical tiers. In a typical draft year, scouts don’t gain anything from the months of March and April. If anything, they’re asked to justify their decisions and draft board orders of preference even more. Give them yet another month, and their expertise could be brought under question by the GM and his staff even more. I spoke to one scout at the Combine who said if it were up to him, he’d have the draft right after the Combine. “Like one day after,” he said with a laugh. “We have to get back on the road and start working on next year’s crop.” Unfortunately for him and his brethren, the NFL isn’t run by the scouts.
5. NFL media
I love the Draft. I’d have one every month if it were up to me. But I know I’m in the minority when it comes to NFL writers. The nation’s NFL Draft obsession — including countless mock drafts and smoke screen reports — drives a lot of guys and gals in this business crazy. To that, I say "Suck it up, fellow colleagues. And get started on those 2014 Mock Drafts. It’s only 11 — I mean 12 — months away."