The NFL Draft has become one of the biggest events in American sports

Big man needs a hug.
Big man needs a hug.
Image: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
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The National Football League may have seen its lowest attendance numbers since 2011 last season, but for a few days this week, American football will once again thrill millions of fans.

The NFL Draft, which kicks off on Thursday (April 25), is in some ways more interesting than the league’s actual season. Each year, Americans get to watch talented young football players—many raised in challenging circumstances—learn that they’ll become millionaires and achieve their dreams of playing the game at a professional level.

The format leaves plenty of room for melodrama. Here’s how it works: Teams select players in seven rounds, with each of the 32 teams getting one pick per round. But the teams are allowed to trade positions, so in reality a franchise might get three picks in one round and none in another, depending on various negotiations.

For the athletes, to be the first player chosen in the first round is a great honor. On the other end of the spectrum, to be passed over until a later round can be embarrassing, especially for players who expected to go sooner, and can make for truly cringe-worthy viewing.

Tom Brady, who won a record sixth Super Bowl last season and is widely considered the best quarterback of all time, suffered the humiliation of being the 199th pick in 2000. The chip he’s carried on his shoulder since then—in one interview, Brady teared up recalling the ordeal (video, 1:25)—has driven him to become the champion he is today.

All the life-changing moments help explain why the NFL Draft has grown into one of the biggest events in American sports, despite no actual sports being played. Last year, on average, there were 5.5 million viewers watching the draft at any given time—higher ratings than the Stanley Cup Final. It helped that the NFL put the draft on network TV for the first time in 2018, after years of it only airing on ESPN and the NFL Network. Its decision to do so stemmed from the event’s growing popularity.

This year, Disney-owned ABC will be the exclusive broadcast home of the draft. It takes place for the first time in Nashville, Tennessee, which is bracing for more than 150,000 visitors. The marquee first round will be held April 25 at 8pm ET. Rounds two and three will take place on April 26 at 7pm, while rounds four through seven start on April 27 at noon.

American football can at times be dull, dangerous, or downright ugly—sometimes all in one quarter. And the league is clearly capitalizing on the emotions of draft day. But even if you’re not a fan, have become a jaded one, or think you know better, you might find yourself surprisingly moved at times watching young athletes realize their dreams (video).

Of course, many of these players will go on to have disappointing stints in the NFL. Some will be cut from rosters after their coaches deem them unworthy after all. Others will fall to sudden career-ending injuries (or suffer more subtle, longer-term damage). Many will slide into obscurity. But the exhilaration and relief of being drafted is genuine, if fleeting, and full of compelling emotion.