Image: NFL draft
Jason Decrow  /  AP file
Brady Quinn holds a jersey while standing with family members after being selected 22nd overall by the Cleveland Browns during the first round of the NFL draft last year.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/24/2008 9:57:05 AM ET 2008-04-24T13:57:05

When Hank Browning and his friends were students at the University of Michigan in 1995, they held their first NFL draft party. Since then the group has met annually in Minneapolis, Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere to watch the event on television.

”The draft is one of my favorite weekends of the year, and I have secured a lifetime exemption from my wife to attend, assuming others are still game,” said Browning, a Pfizer employee. This weekend, the Kalamazoo, Mich., resident will be perched in Hollywood, Fla., hailing or booing the picks of his favorite team, the Miami Dolphins.

Considering the gist of the event — the announcement of a college football player being chosen by a pro team every 10 minutes for 16 hours — the popularity of the draft, broadcast by ESPN and NFL Network, is stunning.

For ESPN, more viewers (about 30 million overall in recent years) flock to draft coverage than to any other event it broadcasts aside from NFL games themselves. The NFL Network even has a presenting sponsor for its draft coverage (Sprint).

Reebok, EA Sports and others are eager to buy commercial time. Nike, in addition to running ads, will also sponsor football clinics in Central Park, just down the street from the draft’s stage at Radio City Music Hall in New York, according to Brandweek. The National Football League  gets priceless publicity for its scores of new players, none of whom will play a regular-season down for at least five months.

”I think the NFL has done a brilliant job over the years in marketing itself, turning many of its non-action events into popular shows, and the draft is just one more component,” said Joshua Mills, a journalism professor at Baruch College/CUNY in New York. “The very high profile of college football gives NFL fans an awareness of prominent players, and the draft is a natural bridge between the college and pro game.”

The NFL has succeeded in making the draft a popular weekend even though, of the four major team sports, a football player has the least chance of turning around a squad. In basketball, with five players on the court, a Larry Bird or LeBron James can resurrect a franchise. A star rookie can help revive teams in hockey or baseball. But in football, with 11 players on offense and another 11 on defense, a first-round can’t-miss cornerback from Ohio State won’t turn a 4-12 squad into a .500 team.

Though the pro basketball draft earns solid television ratings, the event takes place soon after the championship series, before hard-core fans are aching for NBA news. Pro hockey and baseball drafts barely register among the populace, mainly because teenage hockey and baseball players are rarely seen on television, unlike their football and basketball counterparts.

The NFL draft shines above them all. “The draft is the oasis in the desert that is the NFL off-season,” Browning said. “It’s kind of like Christmas for your football team, as they each get six to 10 new presents in April.”

The first NFL draft took place in 1936, and for decades it was a sleepy affair. The emergence of the American Football League in the 1960s, and the battle between the two leagues for college talent, thrust it into the spotlight. But it wasn’t until then-fledgling ESPN, desperate for content, broadcast the event in 1980 that the draft started its march into prominence. The event got a boost when it was switched to a Saturday-Sunday format from its original Tuesday slot.

Today, aided by fans’ appetite for fantasy football and their desire to pluck a top rookie for next fall’s teams, it is must-see TV. ESPN will haul out at least 20 experts to analyze and opine on Darren McFadden’s moves and Matt Ryan's arm strength when the draft kicks off at a new time, 3 p.m. ET Saturday.

Browning will watch avidly, from Bill Parcells’ first big move as a Dolphin executive — selecting massive Wolverine tackle Jake Long as the No. 1 overall pick — until the anointing of Mr. Irrelevant, the final player taken on Sunday. The NFL shortened the draft this year (slicing five minutes off the time between selections), but he’ll get no less joy from hanging out with friends and discussing teams’ choices, both bold and boneheaded.

Says Browning: “The draft provides the one opportunity from February to August where something big is going on, and we talk pro football for 72 hours.”

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