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How the NFL Draft became the original sports reality TV show

The NFL Draft has transformed from an administration exercise into a primetime television extravaganza. SportsPro looks at the history of the event and why it has become so appealing.

2 May 2023 Steve McCaskill

Getty Images

Even in a sports broadcasting market as vast and diverse as the US, the National Football League (NFL) reigns supreme. The NFL accounted for 82 of the 100 most-watched television broadcasts last year and any league that dares schedule a game at the same time can expect to be trounced in the ratings.

So it must be a relief that the NFL season is relatively short, lasting from September through to February. But the modern NFL is a year-round content powerhouse, comprising not just the regular season and playoffs, but also the trade window, the combine, training camps and preseason games, all of which generate fan interest, column inches and television time.

But nothing compares to the NFL Draft – an event that was once considered too boring to broadcast but is now a primetime extravaganza watched by more than ten million viewers on television and followed by millions more on digital platforms each year. 

This year’s event in Kansas City took over the entire city, with hundreds of thousands of attendees generating a festival like atmosphere across a 3.1 million square foot site that encompassed several local landmarks – including the Union Station.

Meanwhile, ESPN offered round-the-clock coverage from 3pm on Thursday through to the draft’s conclusion, ABC devoted two nights of programming to the event, and the NFL Network leveraged the league’s owned-and-operated linear and digital channels to offer an alternative.

It’s a far cry from the first NFL Draft in 1936, when the first overall pick Jay Berwanger chose employment at a Chicago rubber company instead of a professional contract. Professional football became a more lucrative career over time, but the draft still remained a parochial affair held in hotel ballrooms. It was an administration exercise, not a television spectacle.

But in 1980, the then-upstart cable sports channel ESPN requested permission to televise the draft, eager for anything NFL-related to fill its schedule. Team owners scoffed at the idea, believing such a parochial event would be of little interest to viewers. However, ESPN was convinced, as was then-commissioner Pete Rozelle, who told the channel to cover the draft as a news event, meaning there was nothing owners could do to stop them. 

The first broadcast was relatively low key, with teams at the draft in New York and at ESPN’s home in Bristol, Connecticut, with a few roving reporters around the country. However, the NFL and ESPN were happy with the experiment, initiating a relationship that would eventually lead to live matches on cable.

A foundation for the draft to become a piece of content in its own right was established, with the scale and coverage of the event expanding significantly over the past 40 years. ESPN would start to show every pick, while the NFL Network entered the fray in 2006. The draft moved to the iconic Radio City Music Hall in midtown Manhattan, allowing the public (and especially vocal Jets fans) to watch the action unfold and boo commissioner Roger Goodell in a pantomime fashion.

In the past decade, the draft has morphed once again. It now occupies a primetime television slot on Thursday and Friday nights and has moved away from New York City into a nationwide roadshow that generates millions in economic value for the host city. As many as 600,000 people watched the 2019 draft in Nashville – a world away from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in 1936.

Fans from all 32 teams attend the draft, creating a festival-like atmosphere (Image credit: Getty Images)

There are many reasons behind the draft’s success. The first is obvious: fans and media are desperate to see which college players end up at which professional franchise and both like to play ‘general manager’, poring over data and footage, debating potential picks and compiling mock drafts.

But it’s more than that. While the NFL Draft is ostensibly a sporting exercise, fans and media are equally interested in the human stories behind the players, their journey to the major leagues, and what it means to them and their families to play in the NFL. Scenes of jubilation are fairly common, but few forget the sight of the New York Jets’ new quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ display of dejection after being passed on by multiple teams before being drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 2005.

The NFL Draft is essentially the original sports reality television show and these myriad narratives explain why there is room for three separate broadcasts. Even though ESPN and ABC share the same parent in Disney, the former focuses on the sporting aspects of the draft, while the latter leans into the human stories.

In 2020 there was an unexpected human story – the pandemic. With even a hotel ballroom out of the question given lockdown restrictions in the US, the NFL did what the rest of us were doing and decided to work from home. Goodell conducted the draft from his own basement, with draft teams and prospects also dialling in via videoconferencing software.

The production received widespread critical acclaim and the lowkey presentation did little to reduce fan interest. Indeed, the 2020 NFL Draft was the most watched in history, securing 15.6 million viewers during round one – a 37 per cent increase on the previous year – and 55 million viewers across the weekend. Of course, the fact that everyone was at home and there was no live sport to compete with helped, as did a promising quarterback class.

Given today’s 24/7 sporting agenda, the prevalence of digital and social platforms, and appetite for behind-the-scenes, authentic sports content, it seems crazy that the NFL Draft wasn’t broadcast until 1980.

Virtually every sports property now wants their own Drive to Survive docuseries and direct-to-consumer (DTC) platforms are populated with original and archive content. But the NFL has been doing it for longer than anyone else, whether it was its own cable network, its films division, or even its Hard Knocks series.

But the draft remains the best example of how it sweated its assets to create something from nothing.

Is TNT going ‘all in’ on wrestling?

The 1990s were a wild time in professional wrestling, defined by the ‘Monday Night Wars’ – a real-life storyline battle between the WWF (now WWE) and WCW for supremacy during which their flagship shows went up against each other on Monday nights.

WCW initially had the upper hand, with Nitro on TNT beating WWF Raw in the ratings for 83 consecutive weeks between 1996 and 1998 before the WWF eventually emerged victorious. By 2001, various on-screen missteps and behind-the-scenes machinations meant the WCW ceased to exist. The main reason was that the newly-merged AOL TimeWarner decided professional wrestling did not fit its image and sold WCW’s assets to the WWF in 2001.

WWE, which rebranded from WWF in 2002, received a platform for expansion and had no major competition. This was until 2019 when upstart promotion All Elite Wrestling (AEW) arrived with a weekly show… on TNT.

While AOL TimeWarner might not have been hot on wrestling, its successor organisation Warner Bros Discovery now airs two weekly AEW shows and speculation persists that a major Saturday programme is in the works.

Its commitment to wrestling could become even greater. It has been suggested that should TNT lose the rights to the National Basketball Association (NBA), then WBD might look to the WWE to fill a void in its weekday schedule – even tempting WWE to move Raw from Monday nights.

It’s all speculation for now, not least because WWE’s existing broadcast partners USA and Fox have first refusal on renewing their deal which will expire in 2024. Plus, the NBA process has barely started. But the prospect of the two biggest wrestling promotions in the US sharing the same broadcast partner – and it being TNT – would be scarcely comprehensible to anyone who lived through the Monday Night Wars.

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