NFL Draft Blows Competition Away Once Again
Snow cones in Haiti. Porsches in a used-car lot. Class to Donald Sterling.
Is there anything that the NFL couldn’t sell these days?
But for three days in New York this week, the No Finer League will outdo itself. It will create the loudest buzz in sports and not have to play a single down to do it. All commissioner Roger Goodell will do is introduce a bunch of college kids named Clowney, Ha Ha and Johnny Football, exchange man hugs at the podium then smile to the cameras. He’ll do this in the dead of the baseball season. While the NBA playoffs and the Stanley Cup playoffs are in full swing. Two networks will televise the seven rounds, while more than 1,000 real media members cover it. Do you realize that’s more than twice the number who attend Major League Baseball games on a given weekday?
Thirty-two million people watched the first round, 28 percent more than last year. Know how many tuned in to Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals? Twenty-six-point-three.
Why, the NFL Draft has become so popular that ESPN demoted the Brooklyn Nets-Miami Heat playoff game to ESPN2, its Triple A affiliate. That was LeBron James and the defending champion Miami Heat, mind you. Now comes word that the event may be headed to other locations around the country in the future. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel wants it almost as much as two victories against the Green Bay Packers next season. Los Angeles is another possible destination – and it doesn’t even have a team. As the media center of planet Earth, New York isn’t a bad fall-back option.
“From our standpoint, it’s another two weeks that people are talking about the draft,” Goodell said the other day. “What would be good from a fan standpoint obviously has to work from a football standpoint in order to make the even bigger and more popular.”
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban will tell you that the NFL hype machine will blow a gasket before long, and he’s right in a way. Not even George Blanda could last forever. But until then, Cuban and critics like him have two choices -– hop aboard the freight train or get the hell out of the way.
See, the NFL doesn’t want to merely dominate the sports world. It won’t be content until it owns the whole dang thing 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Don’t be surprised if it has an 18-game regular season, a 16-team postseason tournament and a franchise in Europe in two years. With the first pick in the 2016 NFL draft, the London Monarchs select . . .
Like almost everything else, the NFL Draft is so far ahead of the competition that it would take a search party to find it. It’s reality TV at its best, the Mr. Universe competition, All-Star Celebrity Apprentice and The Price Is Right rolled into one. I mean, so many grown men cried in public, you would have thought Rudy had been drafted in round one.
Compared to the NFL Draft, the others could bore the paint off a fire hydrant. For one, it means more than than any other sport. Because college football is the best feeder system around, teams simply can’t afford to make mistakes especially in the early rounds. Yet at least one organization is sure to make a Ryan Leaf-sized boo-boo that can set it back for years. And another like the 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers may have the kind of talent haul that can turn a bad team into a good one or a good one into a great one.
For another, even lukewarm fans have heard of many of the candidates in the early rounds. Unlike those in MLB and the NHL, they’ve actually seen them play before. The MLB draft is big on high school kids and lasts longer than a head cold. It also lacks imagination — no trades allowed? — which sucks the fun out of it. The NBA version is loaded with freshmen and foreign imports. And if you know someone outside Canada who follows junior hockey closely, then you’re probably the only one.
You want cool? This year the NFL will allow draft picks to choose the songs to be played on their way to the stage. (I’ll give a Ken (The Snake) Stabler rookie card to the first guy who requests the album version of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida – all 17 minutes, five seconds of it.)
This is not the way Philadelphia Eagles owner Bert Bell drew it up 79 years ago.
The year was 1935, and Bell and his fourth-place Iggles were down on their luck. Because every college player was a free agent, they had almost no chance to land any of the best talent and improve the team. Shrewd guy that he was, Bell had an idea. Why not have the nine teams select the college players in reverse order of their records? The future NFL commissioner didn’t have to twist many arms. The have-nots welcomed a more level field, while for the better teams, salaries would become more affordable. The first draft was held after the season at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Philadelphia.
At the time, a number of teams made their selections based on what they had read in football magazines, a practice that the Detroit Lions swear by to this day, apparently. At the first pick, the Eagles selected Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger, as ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. would have predicted in one of his 24 mock drafts, no doubt. Trouble was, Bell didn’t have the benefit of sitdown with Berwanger, who demanded $1,000 per game after the fact. Why, the nerve of some athletes!
So the Eagles traded Berwanger to the Chicago Bears, whose tight-wad owner George Halas believed he could sweet-talk the University of Chicago halfback into a deal. When Berwanger held out for a reported two-year, $2,500 agreement, talks broke off. He became a foam rubber salesman and wrote sports columns in his spare time, never to play an NFL game. Meanwhile, the Eagles failed to sign any of their eight draft picks. But hey, it was a start.
Eight decades later, the snowball has turned into an avalanche. Heck, Kevin Costner even was brave enough to take the role of Cleveland Browns general manager in the movie Draft Day, and I know at least one football nut who probably can’t wait to see it.
That would be Mark Cuban, of course.