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American Football NFL Draft is now a spectacle all to itself

THERE was once a time when the NFL draft was a low-key affair. No live airings, no flashing lights or live audiences. 

Born in the 1930s, it was designed to give parity to a league in which the rich got richer. 

In the ’60s it morphed into a game of one-upmanship between the National Football League and the American Football League.

The process today effectively remains the same — a list of names being announced and assigned a new team. But the way we now get there is much more scenic.

The process has swollen to such a size that in 2010 the NFL announced that the draft would be held across three days instead of two and even boldly televised the first round in prime time to rival some of America’s most popular shows.

The switch worked, increasing ratings by 30 per cent and, in 2015, more people tuned into the draft’s first round than the final day of The Masters golf tournament — not bad for a process that started with not many people wanting to watch a bunch of executives in a New York hotel room on a new cable network.

Now it’s a showcase event on the NFL calendar with all the bells and whistles you can imagine. And it’s on tour, with the league uprooting the ceremony from Radio City Music Hall to take it to different venues across the United States. Because why pay a venue to host the event when you can have teams bid on it and create another avenue for more money?

Not only that, the three-day extravaganza is an encapsulation of where the NFL has gone since its roots in the Ritz-Carlton hotel from how the picks are made to how they are assessed to what they will earn and the expectations that come with that.

Nashville hosted the 2019 edition of the draft. There were no chalkboards, no small room filled with the General Manager from every team with little more than a place card to identify who they represented. This was entertainment.

Added layers of immersion have come with the uptick in coverage and exposure. Fans make their voices heard by cheering and booing the picks. A process that was specifically designed to give parity to the league and assess new talent has become almost a talent show with teams making their selections and fans giving their instant analysis with a selection of two noises.

Every major US television network had wall-to-wall coverage of the 83rd iteration of the draft. There were highlight packages and real-time analysis. 

We saw cameras in a team’s “war room” and live reaction from the players realising their dreams. They even paid homage to Music City with musical acts.

This was a stark contrast to 1980 when ESPN first proposed to televise the draft and it didn’t pique the same interest as it does now. Then, in 1984, they hired Mel Kiper to provide analysis throughout the process.

It pales in comparison with every network having its own panel of former scouts, GMs, Head Coaches and journalists analysing the picks and a smorgasbord of information available via the internet. 

And even before then, when in 1946 the first ever NFL scout was hired when then-Los Angeles Rams owner Dan Reeves hired people to read newspapers and drive around colleges, it was this move that saw the Rams win two NFL Championships in 1945 and 1951 — and featuring in a further two games in between. The evolution of social media has made scouting far from an intimate method.

Picture this with football. Imagine being let in on Manchester United vice-chair Ed Woodward’s latest splash into the transfer market and then it being announced on stage in front of the biggest networks in the country, with fans cheering or booing as Sky Sports rolls highlight packages of their greatest moments, biggest question marks and how they fit into the system. 

Then Noel Gallagher strolls out to play a jaunty tune while Manchester City are finalising the details of their latest big-money signing. It would be unusual, but you can’t say it wouldn’t be entertaining.

The draft has come a long way since the Philadelphia Eagles selected Jay Berwanger with the first ever draft pick in 1936. He never played a down of football, instead choosing to remain as a factory worker as he earned more money that way. 

Imagine that. 

In fact, only 24 of the 81 players selected from the first ever draft chose to play professional football. Of course, that was largely down to the Great Depression.

That isn’t the case now – even if the rest of the world is in recession the sports industry is booming bigger than ever with year-on-year profits almost taken for granted at this point. 

In 2018, first overall pick Baker Mayfield signed a deal worth $32.68 million (£25.04m) across four years.

In 2019 the process of selecting names to play for your team has become less about the practicality of it all and more of a festival. 

The NFL even produce small series following some of the top prospects, acting as hype packages for the main event. Fans from all over the world now converge on the chosen city to become a part of it.

The league has gone through many transformations on the field but the seismic change to the NFL draft represents one of the sport’s biggest shifts in identity. Now you don’t have to go seeking out the draft, because the NFL is bringing the draft straight to you.

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