How the NFL made the NFL Draft its 'off-season Super Bowl'


NFL beat reporters often say there is no real NFL offseason—news about the sport tends to continue unabated all year round, even when there are no games being played.

The NFL Draft, which has grown to become a bona fide spectacle, is glaring proof. And this year’s draft, taking place at massive AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex., is the biggest, boldest iteration yet.

“It’s designed to be their off-season Super Bowl now,” says Yahoo Sports NFL reporter Charles Robinson, who joined the Yahoo Finance Sportsbook podcast this week to talk about how the draft got so big. “There’s no time off in the NFL, except maybe mid-June to mid-July, and even then, there are contract extensions at the beginning of July. They’ve expanded the product so that it is really a 12-month-a-year, or at the very least an 11-month-a-year product.”

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It wasn’t very long ago that the NFL Draft wasn’t an attraction for anyone but diehard football fans: it consisted simply of Commissioner Roger Goodell announcing each team’s pick one by one as the player walked up for a photo-op. Only the first round of the draft even got televised.

This year, for the first time, all three days will air live on broadcast television, on a combination of Fox, ABC, NFL Network, ESPN, and ESPN2. That will give this year’s draft “its largest audience reach ever,” according to the NFL. Last year’s draft drew an average of 4.6 million combined TV viewers for ESPN and NFL Network.

So how did the league make the draft into must-watch television, or for the hundreds of thousands of fans who travel to watch it in person, must-visit sports tourism?

‘Philly did it in a way that blew your mind’

The NFL Draft took place in New York City each year for 50 years, until the league moved it to Chicago in 2015 and 2016. But it was the 2017 draft, in Philadelphia, that changed everything.

The action happened in multiple pockets around the city, most of it outdoors. Teams set up their tables surrounding the Benjamin Franklin memorial. More than 200,000 visitors flooded the city and spent an estimated $56 million in hotels, restaurants, and stores, according to a study from Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau and Temple University, contributing to a total $95 million in local economic impact. (To be sure, all estimates of economic impact from sports events should be met with a heavy grain of salt, cautions sports economist Andrew Zimbalist.)

“When they decided to move it out of New York is when it really became interesting,” says Robinson. “Philly did it in a way that blew your mind. There was a lot of the fan experience you’d get at the Super Bowl, which you really can’t do in New York. It was almost like a weeklong music festival. NFL owners, at some point they figured, ‘We have to have a tentpole in the offseason.’ And I think when they saw what happened in Philly, owners said, ‘That’s what we want.'”

AT&T Stadium, with its 100,000 seats, will likely deliver an even bigger spectacle than Philadelphia did. And NFL corporate sponsors like Anheuser-Busch InBev, Pizza Hut, and Nike will all set up tents and activities for fans outside the stadium.

‘They’ll take it to the saturation level’

Robinson predicts that after a few more years of successful NFL Drafts, the league will look to build the NFL Scouting Combine into its third spectacle of the year, turning the Super Bowl (February), Combine (March), and Draft (May) into a trio of blowout football events in the slow winter.

“They’ll take it to the saturation level,” says Robinson. “They’ll figure out what that ceiling is, and then try to figure out of they can adjust that.”

Indeed, the league has been accused of having already done the same with the product on the field. Amidst political debates over why the NFL’s primetime TV ratings declined last season, many fans and media pundits suggested the problem was simple, and apolitical: too many games.

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In a recent interview with Yahoo Finance, retired tight end Martellus Bennett said, “I think they have to be careful with over-saturating the world with the games, because now you don’t get that break to miss it. You got Monday, you got Thursday, you got Sunday.”

The NFL Draft isn’t yet at the point where people are complaining it’s all too much, but it’s easy to see how it could get there with too many over-the-top gimmicks, antics, and circus elements to keep people entertained. This year’s draft is packed with exciting quarterbacks like Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, and Sam Darnold, but as Robinson notes, “You can only see so many guys come across the stage and be entertained by that.”

One example this year of an effort to keep things interesting: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers plan to have a parrot announce one of their third-round draft picks.

“So someone’s life-changing moment,” Robinson says, “is going to be facilitated through a bird? Some of the places they’re going with this… it’s getting weird. I think it shows they’re in some uncharted territory.”

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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