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.
thing is beyond unbelievable," says Rothman. "But it is the ultimate in
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.
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."
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
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.