RSS
How to fix the NFL draft
The league is testing America's appetite for football, and they may have found its limit
 
Imagine, a single day in April. It's easy if you try.
Imagine, a single day in April. It's easy if you try. (REUTERS/Adam Hunger)

The NFL draft has grown so large — with months and months of combines, workouts, mock drafts, predictions, and wild speculation — that it is practically an entire sport unto itself. As for the actual draft, it's a three-day, seven-round, 256-pick affair full of breathlessness and bombast that elates some fans while devastating others. (Sorry, sad Browns fans. They'll get it right this year, promise.)

Heck, there are sports prognosticators whose entire jobs consist of going on TV and guessing when players will get picked — and they're not even that good at it.

For the NFL, the desire to drag out the draft is understandable. Millions of people tune in to watch, pumping more ad dollars into the league's fat coffers. Moving the opening round of the draft to prime time in 2010 only garnered higher ratings, and thus more revenue. And since an expanded 18-game season remains a pipe dream for now, the NFL's next best option for flooding TVs with even more football is a protracted draft.

Yet in milking the event for every penny, the NFL has turned it into an unabashed money-grab that threatens to broach the limits of America's appetite for football. The news that Commissioner Roger Goodell is considering expanding the ordeal to four days — after already punting it 13 days later, from April to May this year — would only make it worse.

So here's a crazy idea to improve the draft: Make it one day, and hold it in April.

Perhaps the biggest criticism of the NFL is that it is a transparently self-serving league. That's not to say other pro sports leagues aren't, just that the NFL has a unique knack for putting itself first. Think of its continued foot-dragging on head trauma, or its determination to host games abroad and shoehorn others into weeknights despite complaints from players.

The draft is yet another extension of that mentality.

The league claimed it bumped the draft to May because of a scheduling conflict with The Rockettes. No one is really buying that. The more believable explanation is that a later draft extends the NFL's reach over a larger portion of the year and, crucially, gives it airtime in the thick of the NBA and NHL playoffs. Why let sports fans watch other sports when they could be giving their attention to the NFL?

No wonder the league also reportedly considered holding next years' draft even later. At this rate, the 2020 NFL draft will be a year-long production of Waiting for Godot.

The dawdling is a huge disservice to fans. It only elongates the stoking of their expectations with no added payoff. The later draft ensures there will be more mind-numbingly useless pre-draft analysis, but really, what is there to learn from the umpteenth story about how the Texans may draft Player X, but how they also maybe won't? Do we really need another talking head reminding us what Johnny Manziel ate for lunch, and debating whether that means he's a winner?

Draft coverage, already thin as stone soup, somehow grows thinner when you stretch it out for several extra weeks.

Then there are the detrimental impacts on teams and players. Some executives have complained that the new format has had an adverse impact on player evaluations, prompting scouts to nitpick such minute details as Teddy Bridgewater's skinny legs. A more concerning complaint is that the later draft will leave teams with less time to develop their rookie draft picks, both physically and mentally, for the pro level before the season begins.

Consolidating the draft and moving it back to April would alleviate all those concerns, and move the league away from the shark it is threatening to jump. The only good argument for spreading out the draft in the first place was that, with so many picks and so much hemming and hawing from team execs, it can become an interminable affair. But starting in 2008, the league shortened the time limit for first round picks from 15 minutes to 10, and shrank the window for second-rounders from 10 minutes to seven. By the later rounds, when teams are just tossing darts, picks come in rapid-fire.

The entire draft could surely be packed into one day-long affair. And if that proves too unwieldy — it would necessitate an early start time, which could irk West Coast watchers — a two-day draft would work just fine given the newly imposed time constraints.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has argued that the NFL is "10 years away from an implosion" because fans will become so jilted by the league's ever-growing greed they'll shun it entirely. "When pigs get fat," he said, "hogs get slaughtered."

Though a complete implosion seems farfetched give the league's unrivaled popularity and roughly $9 billion in annual revenue, there is indeed a threat of fans losing interest if the league keeps this up. If the product becomes too diluted and the league appears too self-interested, fans may no longer be content to simply watch while holding their noses.

Goodell has talked of moving the draft to Chicago, or Los Angeles, or another city. Fine. Just move it back to April. And shrink it back to a one-day affair. It's good for the fans and, in the end, may prove to be good for the myopic NFL, too.

 
Jon Terbush is an associate editor at TheWeek.com covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week