How a sporting event with no sport became one of the biggest nights in American sports

All spectacle.
All spectacle.
Image: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle
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At the NFL Draft, football players replace their pads and uniforms with exquisitely tailored Armani and Versace suits. A boisterous crowd fills the bleachers, but they don’t cheer or jeer plays made by the athletes—they react, overzealous and histrionic, to personnel decisions made by team executives behind closed doors. Millions of Americans fanatically watch this all unfold on television and across social media, just as they would any other live sporting event.

The night totally lacks the energy and grace that makes sport exciting, and yet it’s no less of a spectacle.

Tonight (April 28) is the first round of the 2016 National Football League Draft, the first of three televised days when all 32 of the league’s teams select players coming out of college. In these young men—many of whom cut their undergraduate educations short to pursue a professional football career—fans put their hopes, their worries, their dreams for the future of the sport.

The draft will air simultaneously on ESPN and NFL Network at 8pm eastern time in the United States. It’ll also be available to stream on several apps on phones, tablets, and gaming consoles. It’s broadcast on the radio, in both English and Spanish.

Rounds two and three will air tomorrow night (April 29), and rounds four through seven will air Saturday (April 30). In the hours between, ESPN and NFL Network will air nonstop draft coverage—expert analysis, reviews and previews, interviews, highlights, predictions, and more.

The draft is probably the biggest American sporting event after the Super Bowl. Certainly, it’s the biggest sporting event that involves no actual sport. The 2014 draft tallied 45 million total viewers for the three days of coverage. That’s roughly in line with the number of Americans who watch the AFC and NFC championship games, the games that decide what teams meet in the Super Bowl.

It will be the most watched cable TV program of the night, crushing the NBA and NHL playoffs—which are actual, high stakes games being played—that are set to air at the same time.

How it got to be this way is the result of a perfect storm of factors.

Jets fans 2015 NFL Draft
Happy New York Jets fans at the 2015 NFL Draft.
Image: Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini

The first draft was held at a hotel in Philadelphia in 1936 and the sports media couldn’t have cared less. The names of players were written on a chalkboard. It didn’t really achieve any level of prominence until ESPN began putting it on TV in 1980. Even then, it was a tawdry affair. “It felt like we were doing it with two tin cans and a string,” ESPN personality Chris Berman told the Chicago Tribune.

But the televised draft arrived at a great time. In the years since, ESPN has monopolized the sports media industry, with the draft as one of its cornerstone broadcasts. Due in no small part to ESPN’s rise, the NFL has become, as a company, one of the most powerful organizations in the US, and, as a league, unquestionably the most popular sport in the country.

A cynical history of the NFL Draft would say its popularity is the direct result of ESPN’s public relations machine—one that devotes more time to covering the niche goings-on of the NFL (training camps, off-field drama, and, naturally, months of draft analysis) than it does the actual outcomes of NBA, NHL, or MLB games, let alone sports like soccer, lacrosse, and tennis.

That explains a lot of the draft’s surge in popularity, but not all of it. Another element fueling the draft’s popularity is the same thing that allows Kim Kardashian to develop a $100 million app: reality television.

The draft is no less a reality TV series than Survivor or American Idol. ESPN and other networks closely follow the young athletes’ moves from the moment the college season ends. Off-field incidents are scrutinized, dramatic interviews are conducted, and gossip is spread.

The pièce de résistance is the NFL Scouting Combine—a week-long exhibit where coaches and scouts watch and evaluate prospects performing a series of athletic tests, like the 40-yard dash and the bench press. You can watch the coaches watch the athletes on the NFL Network, where the Combine has aired since 2004. Or, of course, you can watch the highlights and get in-depth analysis on ESPN.

Melvin Gordon, Roger Goodell NFL Draft
Image: Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini

None of that would have happened without the proliferation of social media or the rapid transformation of television. From 2001 to 2014, TV ratings for the draft increased an extraordinary 262 percent. Ratings for the Super Bowl, watched by 112 million people this year, increased only about 30% over the same period.

The players are all on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, posting pictures of the draft process and documenting their metamorphoses from relatively unknown college students to multi-millionaire superstars. Reporters and analysts, too, are on social media, discussing scenarios amongst themselves and with casual fans before, during, and after the draft.

Some of these reporters receive word of the teams’ selections minutes or even seconds before they’re announced on live TV, but this year, the NFL and ESPN will not allow its employees to “spoil” the picks on Twitter. Yes, like Game of Thrones, the NFL Draft is something that can be spoiled.

The draft, perhaps more than any actual live game, benefits from the advent of internet-connected screens. It’s not something that needs to be seen in great, big quality. It doesn’t matter if you miss a few selections, as long as you see who your team picks. It’s designed to be consumed in nuggets, on any device, in any room of your house. It’s a series, not an episode, and each season of this hit show offers viewers its own unique twists and turns.

And, thankfully, there are no concussions on draft day, only smiles. Americans have first-hand access to lives being changed in an instant, usually for the better. If only the game itself could boast the same.