Blame Chet Simmons.
After all, if Simmons, then president of an upstart cable television network named ESPN, hadn't persuaded NFL chief Pete Rozelle in 1980 that the professional football league's HR summit would make for interesting television, we would not be faced with the annual, over-the-top nightmare that is the modern NFL draft.
Thanks, Chet. Thanks a lot.
He was right, though. The draft has become a television ratings juggernaut, drawing a total viewership of 32 million first-round viewers earlier this month to rank as the most-watched program on cable on its first night. That figure is up 28% since 2013, making this year's the most-watched first round ever.
And it's not just about TV anymore. The NFL's digital media platforms reported over 14 million visits during draft week, which began on May 8, up 54% from 2013, with 9 million of those coming during Thursday's round-one coverage. More than 7 million tweets circulated about the event.
For New York City, which has hosted the draft since 1965, the event has become an annual ritual, an excuse to invite thousands of football fans to the city for several offseason days to eat, drink, and spend money like it's already Countdown to Kickoff. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's proposal to expand the draft to four days – adding to the already 50-plus hours of live coverage -- would theoretically only increase the spending, and the prestige, of the event.
That's why there are currently seven cities lobbying the NFL to host the draft once the league's contract with Radio City Music Hall expires after next year, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Boston, Philadelphia, Orlando, and Canton, Ohio, home of the NFL Hall of Fame.
"We're looking at how we can continue to make the draft bigger and better, more successful, more popular" Goodell told the Associated Press in April about the proposal to move the annual draft. "That includes maybe staying at Radio City or maybe even taking the draft on the road. We're looking at other changes that we think could be pretty exciting."
Whatever happens, it wouldn't be the first time that a city other than New York has hosted the NFL draft. The first organized draft was held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia in 1936, and the event bounced around between Chicago, Milwaukee, Washington, DC, and other cities before settling in the Big Apple. In terms of facilities, the Theatre at Madison Square Garden has hosted the most drafts overall with 10, though it hasn't hosted the event since 2004.
Draft as destination?
Not everyone supports Goodell's take on the "traveling draft" plan, however.
Dr. Patrick Rishe, an economics professor at Webster University in St. Louis and the founder of sports analysis firm Sportsimpacts, says that although the NFL draft has evolved into great theater and great TV for ESPN, he isn't convinced that it has much of an economic impact on the host city.
"Economic impact arises when you have visitors coming to a region and spending money in that region," he says. "That's new money; it's new dollars."
The problem for the NFL draft, he explains, is that although the stands are full of fans from all over the country, easily identifiable in their respective jerseys, we have no way of knowing if they actually traveled from out of town to get there. New York is a melting pot, and chances are good that those fans actually live in the city already, bringing their fandom with them.
"Am I to believe that most of the people that are in attendance have flown in to New York to attend the draft?" Rishe asks. "I'm sure there are some that do, but I would be surprised if even 20% of the people there traveled from out of a 200-mile radius."
The non-monetary upside
So why would other cities want to host the draft? And why would the NFL want to move the annual event?
It may not be economically driven. It may simply be an effort by the league to take the draft to the fans directly so that more people, even those that don't live near New York, can experience it. After all, placing the draft in a smaller, cheaper city that's more centrally located – like Indianapolis, for example – would make it easier and more feasible for fans to attend from out of town. Call it branding by boondoggle.
Time will tell if the NFL draft ends up moving or stays home in New York. But there is one undeniable upside of a non-Big Apple draft: fewer Jets fans in the crowd.
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