NFL draft grows into must-see TV

Fans watch the from the outside of the NFL Draft Theatre during the second round of the NFL foo ...

It was 1980, just a few months after ESPN went on the air.

After the inaugural “SportsCenter,” the fledgling all-sports network with the strange acronym aired a men’s slow-pitch softball game pitting the Milwaukee Schlitz against the Kentucky Bourbons.

Rather than leaps and bounds, ESPN was growing by baby steps.

Teeny, tiny baby steps.

But buoyed by the success of having televised some early round NCAA basketball games that unwittingly launched the career of Dick Vitale, it began looking for another signature event.

A call was made inquiring about the NFL draft. ESPN referred to it as pro football’s “player selection meeting.” It wanted to televise it.

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was dumbfounded. He said you can’t put the draft — or the player selection meeting or whatever you called it — on TV. It’s just a bunch of guys nobody knows talking on the telephone about college players most of whom nobody has heard of.

Who would watch that?

Catching a draft

Fast-forward to last year, when an average of 6.1 million (and 12.6 million on opening night) tuned in to the 2021 NFL draft that was shown on the NFL Network, ABC, ESPN, ESPN Deportes and ESPN digital channels.

(If ESPN8 — “The Ocho” — actually existed, it’s a lock the dodgeball playoffs would have been pre-empted for additional draft coverage.)

The three most-watched drafts in NFL history have occurred the past three years, topped by the 2020 edition for which 8.3 million tuned in on average. That was during the onset of the COVID pandemic when there was nothing to watch on TV except guys racing cars in video games and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell reading from a teleprompter in his well-appointed man cave.

On Monday, the Walt Disney Co. (which owns ESPN and its many tributaries) issued a news release outlining its multiplatform coverage of the draft— “viewers will have five different options, with five different sets of personalities and insights,” which, I think, is supposed to be a good thing.

ESPN’s blanket coverage will last more than three days. It will conclude when the 49ers, who have the 262nd and final pick, select some guy, probably from a school with a direction or ampersand in its name, who forever will be known as Mr. Irrelevant.

That’s how big the NFL draft has become. Even the last man taken off the board is bestowed with a nickname and becomes famous for a little while.

Multifaceted coverage

“It is an event that really is part of the DNA of our company” said Seth Markman, ESPN’s vice president of production, who overseas both of the network’s broadcasts — big brother ABC’s will be geared to the more casual fan, focusing on the journey and the human interest side of the players; ESPN’s will be based on 40-yard dash times and how the selections fit in with their new teams, catering to more hardcore football enthusiasts.

“Because we kind of had the idea to do this and watched it turn into what it is today, I think it’s one of the events at ESPN that people take so much pride in. Every year it seems to get bigger and bigger, and now that it’s in Las Vegas — a place that I don’t think any of us saw coming — we’re kind of fired up to see what next week is all about.”

It has been more than 40 years since Bob Ley, who helped anchor the first televised draft, prepared for it by poring over Joel Buchsbaum’s NFL draft guide the day before the show. But there was a Vegas reference of sorts from the very beginning.

In a perfunctory five-paragraph news release announcing that it would televise “the opening day of the National Football League Player Selections,” ESPN used the names of possible first-round selections to entice potential viewers.

One of those mentioned was Notre Dame running back Vagas Ferguson.

ESPN spelled it “Vegas” by mistake.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.