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Tim Layden
April 30, 2007
Imagine the sales pitch that might have been delivered in the long hallways of a Ministry of U.S. Sports Culture not very long ago: O.K., how about this for a television event. The commissioner of the NFL stands at a podium in the middle of a stage. Every few minutes he reads out, in a businesslike monotone, the name of a collegian who has been selected to play for an NFL team. "With the first pick ..." and so forth. No music, no special effects. Just the commissioner and the microphone. Trust me. It'll kill.
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April 30, 2007

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By further comparison, the average audience for an ESPN prime-time men's college basketball game is 1.0 and a Saturday-afternoon college football game on ESPN averages a 2.0. Monday Night Football averaged a 9.9 in 2006, which means that the first hours of the draft draw more than half the audience of prime-time NFL games. And none of those numbers include the NFL Network's live draft coverage, which was not rated by Nielsen (it will be this year), or the vast number of fans following the selections on the Internet.

"The whole thing is beyond unbelievable," says Rothman. "But it is the ultimate in reality television."

Fair enough. Viewers are aware that in the age of unfettered free agency, the salary cap and mammoth rookie contracts, the draft has never been more important. "With the money in the game right now," says Polian, "you simply cannot make a mistake at the top of the draft, or there's a very good chance it will set the franchise back years and cost you your career."

This larger drama is underscored by dozens of smaller ones each year: Eagles fans booing the choice of Donovan McNabb over Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams in 1999, Aaron Rodgers's stunning greenroom free fall in '05 ("Our ratings spiked until the Packers finally took him," says Rothman. "Bad for him, good for us") and even last year's dramatic decision by nine teams to pass on Leinart. Reality TV, indeed.

"I remember when ESPN first came to the league and proposed putting the draft on television," says Accorsi. " Pete Rozelle, as much a visionary as he was, said, 'Why?' Now we know."

INFORMATION OVERLOAD

Draft gurus are nothing new. In the winter of 1969 Frank Cooney, then a 22-year-old football writer for the San Francisco Examiner, developed an in-depth rating system for NFL players. Before the draft that spring he likewise evaluated collegians. " NFL teams started getting a hold of me," says Cooney, "and I was freelancing for any publication that would allow it. There was a following right away."

Cooney found himself part of a small network of draft zealots, including Carl and Pete Marasco, who published their draft musings in Pro Football Weekly (where they were succeeded by the tireless Joel Buchsbaum), and Palmer Hughes, a schoolteacher who began publishing his own hand-typed draft chart in 1975. They lived in a shadow world of heights, weights and statistics. "I once ran into Pete Marasco at a Rutgers-Hawaii game in New Jersey," says Hughes, with more than a little pride.

Cooney, now 60, operates a wide-ranging sports publishing company that includes nfldraftscout.com, which he says gets "a couple million hits a week." Hughes, 72 and living in Sarasota, Fla., still publishes three draft books each year. "Interest seems to be increasing," he says daringly.

So are the opportunities. Four years ago Mike Mayock, a onetime NFL journeyman, auditioned for an analyst's job with the NFL Network. Instead Mayock, then 44, found himself breaking down coaches' tape. He now does it for a living as a draft analyst for the network.

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