Draft goes prime time, three days

The NFL draft didn't always have the hype that it experiences these days. In fact, it wasn't always on television (insert gasp here). Big changes are ahead in 2010.

It seems like a lifetime ago, and in many ways it was. The year was 1980 when Chet Simmons, the president of the fledgling network ESPN, approached NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle with a bizarre idea: Televising the NFL Draft.

Rozelle thought Simmons had a screw loose somewhere, but he figured, "Why not?"

With hardly any highlights of players, that first draft was telecast with ESPN anchors George Grande and Sal Marchiano along with former NFL general manager Joe Thomas in New York; Leandra Reilly in the balcony interviewing fans and ESPN anchor Bob Ley, along with former Eagles wide receiver Vince Papale, Upton Bell, son of former NFL commissioner Bert Bell, and yes, yours truly, then with The Sporting News, at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn.

Little did we know then what the future would bring. Later that decade, ESPN got broadcast rights to an NFL package, while the draft was moving from Tuesday to Sunday/Monday to Saturday/Sunday. Mock drafts, of which there were very few back then, now overwhelm the Internet, with some sites posting mock drafts for the next year the day after the draft has ended.

The evolution of the NFL draft into a made-for-television event has been a staggering one. The first 50 NFL drafts, held between 1937-1987, took place over one or two days and were hardly reported, much less broadcast on television. Some of these drafts were 17 rounds and held in February.

Now, in no way a surprising move, the first three rounds of the draft are going prime time and the entire seven-round process will be spread out over three days. This comes after this year's draft had 39 million people watching on ESPN, ESPN2 and NFL Network. The total viewership has increased 66 percent from 2001 to 2009 and this year's first round attracted 6.3 million viewers, more than all baseball, basketball and hockey televised that weekend.

Said Commissioner Roger Goodell: "We continue to look for ways to make the draft more accessible to more fans. Moving the first round to prime time on Thursday night will make the first round of the draft available to fans on what is typically the most-watched night of television."

ESPN and NFL Network will each broadcast the draft. The question is whether the league has bitten off more than it can chew with spreading the process over three days. With the first round beginning at 7:30 p.m. ET time on Thursday, April 22, a monstrous audience is certainly expected to tune in.

Rounds four through seven will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, making that just one more round than what was conducted this past year on Sunday. The big question, and where the league has taken the biggest risk, is Friday evening. That's when the second and third rounds will be telecast, beginning at 6:30 ET.

A previous attempt to make the draft more television-friendly had cut the length of time allowed for each pick from 15 minutes for first-round picks and 10 minutes for second-round picks to 10 and seven minutes, respectively. This was in response to the record six-hour, eight-minute first round of the 2007 draft. The 2008 first round, with the new time restrictions, was cut to roughly three hours and 30 minutes.

NFL executives have not been notified of any change to the minutes allotted for each pick in 2010.

Separating the draft into three days may make for more dramatic television. NFL decision-makers will have Thursday night and much of the day Friday to ponder their next selections and, potentially, make more deals.

The break between the first and second day of the draft in recent years provided a natural time for teams to discuss trades. Last year, for example, the New York Jets packaged their third-, fourth- and seventh-round picks to the Detroit Lions to move up and select Iowa running back Shonn Greene with the first pick of the third round.

Will the new setup be too disjointed and anti-climactic? Aside from those draft followers that would watch the draft if it were on at three in the morning, how much excitement will there really be for the second and third rounds, numerous hours after the first round and on a Friday night? Of course, this will be the first time teams will have the draft broken up over three days, but they will adjust.

The answers to these questions won't be known until next April, but we also know nothing is forever. While there could be some changes after the 2010 draft, it appears clear a first-round prime-time draft is here to stay. In addition, the first pick in the second round will suddenly seem a lot more important, or at least noticed, than before.

Surely, in the time between the end of the first round and the start of the second, there will be another round of updated mock drafts.

Somewhere right now, Rozelle and Simmons are probably together smiling.

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