When the NFL draft crosses the threshold into prime-time television Thursday night in New York's Radio City Music Hall, commissioner Roger Goodell will usher in a new era of marketing glitz. Never before has so much been made of a college athlete's future.
There will be more eyes on Goodell at the podium for his announcement of the first pick ("The St. Louis Rams select quarterback Sam Bradford of Oklahoma") than for any commissioner in the past, and a record 39 million viewers watched some part of the 2009 draft on NFL Network or ESPN.
The draft arguably ranks as the second most anticipated football event of the year behind only the Super Bowl, and not just in Baltimore, where 43,000 homes watched last year. It draws fans from every team to Radio City, from the Ravens to the Oakland Raiders. It can be downloaded and watched on NFL Mobile. It will be roaring through social media.
Coming two days after the unveiling of the 2010 schedule on prime-time cable television, it also serves as a launch point for the new season.
Make no mistake, the NFL has clearly seen an opportunity to expand its reach and increase revenue.
"I think I heard coming out of the commissioner's office that he was doing it primarily for the fans," said David Warschawski, the founder and CEO of Warschawski PR in Baltimore. "I don't discount that; I think there's some reality to that. [But] this is clearly a brand-building opportunity for the NFL. Roger Goodell wouldn't be doing this if he didn't know it would help them grow, strengthen the brand and make money."
The 75th draft will deliver a record 38 hours of live coverage on NFL Network, and 15 hours on ESPN and ESPN2. The first round will span more than five hours, and the Ravens likely won't make their first pick – the 25th overall – until after 11 p.m. The second and third rounds begin at 6 p.m. on Friday and the final four rounds unfold Saturday.
The draft has come a long way since 1935, when, in search of competitive balance, commissioner Bert Bell first conceived it. The first draft, in 1936, was held in Philadelphia at the Ritz Carlton Hotel owned by Bell's father. The actual meeting of the league's nine teams unfolded in Bell's hotel room.
From there, the draft has visited New York City, Chicago, Milwaukee, Washington, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles before finally settling in New York in 1965. It has gone from Bell's hotel room to ballrooms to Madison Square Garden and, for the last four years, Radio City.
"It's the golden age of the fan, of how far we've come from reading about the draft the following day to real time access to watch it," said Brian McCarthy, the NFL's vice president of coroporate communications. "Fans have that insatiable desire to talk, breath, and eat football. And we're able to feed that appetite in April."
The fans' feeding frenzy may be matched only by the NFL's ability to cash in with its slick public relations machine. The league has struck the mother lode for marketing ingenuity. Even in a bad economy, the league can find major sponsors for events throughout the year. Indicative of the league's marketing muscle is the fact the NFL announces when it will announce the season schedule – and then delivers the season schedule in prime-time cable shows on both NFL Network and ESPN.
With the immediacy of the Internet and round-the-clock coverage from television, the draft has become so popular that several cities – not all with NFL franchises – have pitched proposals to host the event, a move the league is examining.
Who could have forseen the draft as a celebratory event? Baltimore's Mel Kiper Jr., the longtime ESPN draft guru who started publishing draft evaluations in 1979, knew how important the draft was, but even he didn't envision this.
"This is the most important part of the process in building a team," Kiper said. "Thirty-two years ago, it was something that was obvious to me, something fans should have had a keen interest in. The interest is unbelievable right now. Thirty-two years ago, who would have ever thought there would be a prime-time draft? Back in the day, the NFL didn't want it televised."
How to explain this marketing phenomenon?
The first domino toppled when Chet Simmons, then president of fledgling ESPN, told then NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle in 1979 he wanted to televise the draft. Rozelle was reluctant and the owners voted against it. But in 1980, ESPN nevertheless televised the first two rounds.
If the original vision belonged to Simmons, he was able to transfer it to Rozelle quickly.
"[Pete] just could not believe the American sports fan would have any interest in watching this, but obviously it's gone bigger than anybody could've imagined in the early days, except for Chet. … It was really the perfect storm, the growth of the NFL tied with the growth of ESPN," said Robert Gutkowski, vice president of programming at ESPN from 1981 to 1983 and now a partner at Innovative Strategic Management.
The draft achieved good ratings and a solid following on ESPN, but it wasn't until the dawning of the Internet and the league's decision to move the draft to a Saturday-Sunday format in 1995 that the top blew off.
Prior to 1988, the draft was held on one or two weekdays. From 1988 to 1994, it was a Sunday-Monday affair. But 1995 marked the start of the Saturday-Sunday draft and the debut of nfl.com. With that, the floodgates opened and the sporting landscape has not been the same since.
The explosion of the Internet allowed fans to see the draft in new and more timely ways. It has grown in leaps and bounds since then. Total viewership increased 66 percent from 2001 to 2009 (from 23.5 million to 39 million). Last year's first-round coverage topped the viewership of a New York Yankees- Boston Red Sox series, as well as the NBA and NHL playoffs.
Warschawski understands the value of going after the Thursday night market and the implications for future NFL endeavors.
"Thursday night is the most popular, most watched evening on TV," he said. "They're very smart going after it. Imagine what the stories will be if the NFL takes out Office or 30-Rock [in ratings]. Goodell is a smart commissioner, a guy that understands things like this. He wouldn't be making a strategic move like this if it wasn't brand-building."
Staff writer David Zurawik contributed to this story.