I’ve been a Green Bay Packers fan since age 9, but only began paying close attention to the NFL Draft during my teen years. This was the early 1980s, however, and back then you followed the draft by reading in the following day’s newspaper who your team selected.
That was back when there were like 37 rounds (OK, just 12) and some of the players still wore lame, single-bar facesmasks like Bart Starr’s. All the better for punching each other.
Some 30 years later, however, we have only seven rounds, helmets and facemasks are reinforced to discourage punching (and to help prevent concussions), and the NFL Draft is officially an event. As in, a rent-a-tux-and-limo-and-go-be-photographed-by-paparazzi kind of event. In fact, it’s become the biggest non-sporting sports event (yeah, that phrase made me go temporarily cross-eyed too) in America.
The draft, which began in 1936 as a way of ensuring every team had a shot at getting talented players, wasn’t televised until 1980. And until 1995, it was held in hotel ballrooms with minimal audiences and fanfare. But much like TV’s The Jeffersons, the draft has moved on up.
Last year, according to SI.com, a combined 8.1 million viewers (including myself) watched the first round of the draft televised live from Radio City Music Hall. Folks, that’s a lot of viewers. By comparison, the season finale of “The Walking Dead,” one of the most popular shows on television, last month drew 12.4 million viewers.
Furthermore, two NBA playoff games that were played on the same night as the NFL Draft round one last year drew only a combined 1.8 million viewers. We’re talking playoffs here, people. And the NFL Draft, an event with no actual live sports involved, beats it by more than 6 million viewers? (Somewhere, I think I just heard David Stern sob.)
In fact, according to online ’zine The Guardian, the combined total viewership of the draft grew by nearly 100 percent between 2001 and 2010. The Super Bowl, for comparison’s sake, has seen its viewership increase by only 28 percent since 2001.
Yeah, the NFL Draft is definitely an event now. Be honest, how many of you out there would consider missing your daughter’s piano recital if it was going to be held this Thursday night? I know I would. Luckily, I don’t have a daughter.
Well, Packers fans, the good news is the NFL is paying attention to your loyalty, and is ready to reward you. For your viewing pleasure this year, they’ve implored NFL staffers not to tweet draft picks prior to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stepping to the podium to make the announcement on live TV. There’s more drama this way; now you can sit, frozen, greasy chicken wing clutched in your fingers, mouth agape, a trickle of beer moistening the corner of your lip, as you await the next pick.
In addition, we, the NFL Draft viewing public, will be learning the draft choices at the same time as Chris Berman and John Gruden – thus, they can continue speculating right up until the moment Goodell says, “With the 26th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Green Bay Packers select …”(Yeah, we all know Ted’s probably going to try and trade that pick. Work with me here.)
But how do they manage to get the damn graphics up so fast when a pick is made? Well, the producers of the show do get the picks between 30 and 60 seconds before they are announced. But they have to cross their hearts and swear on their mothers’ graves that they won’t tell the “talent.” All for you, Packers fans.
And this will also mark Year Four of Goodell hugging all the draft picks. Wiley ESPN reporters figured out that Goodell officially began showing us his man-panties with the third pick in the 2010 draft. No. 3 pick Gerald McCoy from Oklahoma, upon being called to the stage, shuffled over to Goodell and wrapped him up in a 300-pound man hug that seemed to go on forever. It was truly a tender moment.
And with that beautiful, live-TV love-fest, hugging first-rounders became a Goodell draft tradition. (For the record, the last first-round pick to not get hugged was Ndamukong Suh. Sorry Ndamukong. Maybe Roger was just waiting for you to make the first move.)
So when Thursday night rolls around and you’re hunkered down in front of the TV, your Clay Matthews jersey proudly trumpeting your team loyalty, Doritos, cheese cubes, wings and tacos lined up on your coffee table, and a cooler full of your favorite swill next to your chair, remember that the NFL has maximized this event for you, the fan.
That said, don’t be afraid to jump up and down when Goodell announces that the Packers have drafted Menelik Watson or Matt Elam or, heck, even Eddie Lacy. Don’t hesitate to cheer when Ted Thompson trades that third-round pick for two fifth-rounders, a seventh-rounder and a bag of used cleats. Don’t feel ashamed if you get teary-eyed when Goodell hugs the newest Packer.
And above all, don’t be afraid to throw a Goodell-style man-hug on your buddy, that guy whose been sitting next to you for every first round since Tony Mandarich, the NFL’s most offensive tackle, smashed your hearts. Because, goodness knows, you’ve both earned the right to enjoy this Thursday night NFL event.
How will you celebrate the NFL Draft this year?