As more watch, NFL sees chance

The Baltimore Sun

Indianapolis -- On the NFL's ever-more crowded calendar, what's going on at the RCA Dome amounts to New Year's Day.

With the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts barely having had time to polish the Vince Lombardi Trophy, the league's 32 teams are busy at the NFL scouting combine, taking the measure of hundreds of college players in preparation for April's draft.

And though the combine is hardly new, what is different is the public attention the event generates. Utterances from news conferences here lead the news on ESPN. On NFL Network, the league's broadcast arm, the event is being aired over nine days through Wednesday, including 27 hours of live coverage of running, throwing, weightlifting and agility drills.

But the combine is just the first episode, if you will, of what has become an unending soap opera of which every notable event in the NFL is offered for public consumption.

Next month, it will be the NFL owners' meetings in Phoenix - and NFL Network will be there.

Then, there's April's consuming obsession known as the NFL draft, covered by both the league network and ESPN. And before training camps open in July, count on TV coverage of minicamps though the spring.

"I'll take a deep breath on that one," Colts president Bill Polian said, contemplating the prospect of televised minicamps. "But that's absolutely true. ... That's the obvious outgrowth of all this."

While the game itself, for decades, has proved to be eminently great theater - a quick-paced, action-packed sport on a rectangular canvas just perfect for the TV screen - less obvious is how the offseason has become appealing, even profitable, entertainment fare.

"We have the ultimate reality show," Polian said. "If reality shows on television are welcomed by the public, ours are not contrived in any way. It's right out there for everybody to see in a highly competitive and highly physical atmosphere. It's obvious that appeals to the public."

A key to making the NFL a 12-month spectacle has been the introduction of NFL Network. Debuting in November 2003, the network has increased its reach from 11 million homes to 40 million.

This past season, the network televised eight regular-season games but so far, it has been its coverage of the NFL's offseason that has created distance between the in-house network and other sports media outlets.

"The NFL has always been a 365-day business. And for a long time, it has been that the fortunes played out on those 16 Sundays and through the playoffs have actually been decided, to a great degree, in February, March and April," said Charles Coplin, the NFL's vice president of programming. "And I don't think people understood that completely until the NFL Network."

That sports fans can be engaged to follow even what many would consider relatively tedious NFL events, such as the owners' meeting ("You telling me I'll have to stay awake," joked Polian, who sits in the sessions for the Colts), might say something about America's voyeurism regarding pop culture.

"People want the inside story," said Bob Leffler, owner of a Baltimore-based sports advertising firm. "That's why something like luxury boxes are so popular among people who can afford them. They have that feel of replicating the owner's box. ... People are always hungry for the inside story on something that's exciting like the NFL."

Mike Nolan, coach of the San Francisco 49ers, said the public's interest in the incremental doings of the league is actually rooted in self-interest.

"I think fantasy leagues have created another interest in the league. People want to know about the individuals, people want to know about the players because of when they draft them for their own teams," Nolan said.

The effect of fantasy leagues, the 49ers coach added, is that they create another layer of rooting interest for fans beyond the home team.

"They've branched this thing out in so many areas to involve the fan at so many different levels," Nolan said. "I think that's really why it has taken off and accelerated so much; there are so many facets of the game."

When ESPN officials brought the idea of televising the draft to then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, the league executive thought they were crazy. How many people, Rozelle wondered at the time, would want to watch names being called from a podium?

As it turns out, millions.

The draft is so anticipated and closely followed on TV because it combines the suspense of the Academy Awards with the element of opening gifts on Christmas morning for fans who can then begin to chew on what the new crop of talent will mean for their teams' futures.

Without providing an immediate payoff for fans as the draft does, the combine poses its own challenges as a TV event. Shuttle drills, after the first few minutes, can get old. But NFL Network hopes to create drama by building story lines around the famous and not-so-famous college prospects, using news conference excerpts and flavoring it all with observations from expert pundits.

The telecast of the event has worked to the league's advantage in another way. Players appear to be more willing to attend and participate because of the exposure.

"They weren't getting the top players at the combine," NFL spokesman Seth Palansky said. "But the lure of the camera, the attention [the players] get and building tape all had an effect. They began to think, 'If he's going to run, I better run. If he's going to be there, I better be there.'"

And, if millions more at home want to be there, the NFL figures, that's even better.

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