The NFL draft was once a nerdy little satellite of football: A lonely, barren moon upon which asthmatic, bespectacled geeks pored over magazines and spiral notebooks, newspapers and mail-order draft guides. Once a year, all the rough-and-tumble Real Fans would pour in from the big blue planet of bleachers and bars and run hollering through the place.
NFL fans of a certain age (mine) saw the contrast play out over and over again: Awkward, scholarly ex-commissioner Paul Tagliabue nervously taking some grand Broadway stage while vicious boos rain down from gilded balconies. Hundreds of thick-necked pigskin lifers chanting for their favored gladiator while the camera hovers two feet away from a flop-sweating team intern and a comical prop phone. Bill Tobin’s incensed call-outs of Mel Kiper.
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The draft wasn’t a great TV product back then. It existed because fans demanded it exist. Our will to know, to see, to cheer our team’s new rookies was an irresistible force. Materializing in the abhorrent vacuum between the end of one football season and the start of the next, the draft is the NFL’s only competition.
Here’s the secret of the draft’s success: It’s a competition everybody wins. Every single team gets better in the draft. Every single team adds talent. Sure, teams miss out on their top targets or reach for need or blow a trade. Sure, teams end up with poor draft grades—but even teams everyone agrees did an awful job just got less better than everyone else.
Insidiously, the draft allocates the most hope to those fanbases that need it most. With enough top-five picks over a long enough time, even the Detroit Lions can pile up enough All-Pros to make the playoffs. No matter how bad your team is, how directionless the franchise, how perennially barren their draft harvests have been, it only takes one hit at the top of the draft to turn everything around.
Fans for whom the 2014 season was bitter and disheartening get reason to believe it’s all going to be different. Fans for whom the 2014 season was a joyride to Awesomeville get no reason to believe anything will be different. The draft is engineered to keep all of us addicted to the NFL all offseason long.
But the draft is changing.
Back when the draft came into its own as a weekend festival of offseason action, all the excitement, all the drama, all the intrigue, it all came from the football. If you didn’t know anything about the prospects, or the teams involved, it wasn’t much to look at.
Sure, fans held Saturday draft cookouts, and packed bars en masse, but after the first few picks came off the board, and the local team turned their card in, that was it. Interest waned. Except for the highligher-toting pencil-necks, fans would tune out everything but the “incoming selection” alert tone and the voice of the commissioner.
As David Barron of the Houston Chronicle (and many others have) noted, the draft is the NFL’s own reality show. Well-dressed, talented, good-looking people being put through an artificial competition with cash and fame as prizes. The pathos and intrigue of green-room languishers like Geno Smith even serves as a reverse vote-them-off-the-island mechanism.
Today’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, has never shied away from calling NFL football a TV show, and the draft is increasingly being packaged as such. Instead of a weekend thing to put on and ignore, it’s a three-day, two-night primetime gala event. Instead of fans and cameras being cramming into a theatre’s balcony to watch 32 team representatives answer phones and fill out cards, in 2015 the team representatives will be in a park across the street. Instead of coming for the football, the fans will be there for the show: Pomp, circumstance, hugs, tears.
Draft coverage used to be about giving the slide-rule crowd as much information as possible in between picks—but with the Internet having turned the draft into a year-round cottage industry, we don’t need to be told that stuff. We already know.
The hardcore fans whose demand for more draft info willed the TV coverage into existence are watching with a second screen (and probably a third), consuming analysis and grades for each pick before the commissioner even reaches the podium.
The draft works on every level, now. It satisfies every NFL fan. There’s enough research, quantification and projection to satisfy even the wonkiest of football dorks, and more emotion, fashion, glitz and glamour then you’ll see anywhere else in the game.
Maybe most importantly, it follows all of its own rules. There’s a set order, and everybody takes their turn. There’s a countdown clock that never stops. The draft can’t turn on a missed assignment, a bobbled snap or a debatable rule interpretation. There isn’t even a scoreboard.
The draft is fantasy football without points, and every team’s a winner.