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Sacco Sez: The NFL Draft and TV

Posted Feb 17, 2018

Jim Saccomano explains how TV played a massive role in making the NFL Draft what it is today.

There can never be too much conversation about the National Football League Draft, and it can never start too early.

This year's draft will be held in Dallas, and it will run from April 26-28.

And recently the NFL announced that "Thursday Night Football" will now be a property of FOX, with games produced and televised by that network. Part of the agreement with FOX also gives the network the rights to show the NFL Draft as well.

FOX and the NFL Network will join forces to produce the telecast, and the resulting presentation will be shown on each network.

In addition, of course, ESPN will also televise the draft.

It is the greatest non-game, made-for-TV event in American sports history. Now a three-day affair due to television, the draft is complete with a red carpet, green rooms, innumerable behind-the-scenes shots. As a result, it is watched by many NFL fans.

Last year, more than 9.2 million viewers watched the opening round of the draft. And with today's technology, it is so easy to think that these things were always with us.

But not so fast. As always, there is history behind the present.

There have always been big cities and small ones, and so too was the NFL composed in the early years. And naturally the big cities got the best players, which was not ideal for competitive balance.

So at a league meting in May of 1935 commissioner Bert Bell proposed a draft to guarantee some degree of competitive parity. All teams agreed and the first draft was held in 1936, without much coverage.

When the American Football League came along in 1960, coincidentally the first year of play for this year's draft hosts in Dallas, the scramble for players became greater and even though technology was in its infancy it began to be utilized for scouting purposes.

The drafts from 1936 through the 1950's were largely "scouted" on he basis of hearsay and limited print media.

In fact, the first Denver Broncos' general manager, Dean Griffing, conducted Denver's first draft in 1960 largely on the basis of information from "Street and Smith's College Football" magazine.

George McFadden was public relations director of the San Francisco 49ers for 14 years in the 1960s and 1970s, and he once told me that, "We conducted the draft by telephone, with no media in attendance at all. When the draft was over I typed up a press release with all the names of the players we had taken and sent that out to the papers in hopes that they would a least print a listing of the guys."

I personally remember the first year when any draft reports were on the radio in Denver. It was 1967, the first year of the AFL-NFL common draft, when the Broncos selected Floyd Little. Broncos play-by-play man Bob Martin was at the Broncos headquarters and the radio station broke into their programming when the Broncos selected, so even that coverage was limited to a few minutes at a time and only when the Broncos chose a player.

When Bert Bell died and Pete Rozelle became commissioner — in my opinion, still the greatest commissioner in American team sports history — one of his first orders of business was to move the NFL headquarters from Philadelphia to New York City, the center of the advertising and television universe.

Starting in 1965, the draft was done out of New York.

Broadcasting pioneer Chet Simmons, was the man in charge of ESPN, which had not yet completed its first year on the air in 1980 when he approached Rozelle with the suggestion that his network televise the draft.

Rozelle was not convinced that people would watch in the millions, but he immediately gave the go-ahead to Simmons to put it on TV and find out.

Thus, from 1980 to the present, the NFL draft has been a television fixture and the single most watched non-game in American sports and television history.

Not only did TV bring the draft to the public, but the volume of reports on players aided teams in gathering information on prospects. There was no longer much speculation on how tall or fast someone rally was, as it is harder to hide the truth from the eyes of dozens of reporters watching every game.

But before the new deal with FOX, before it was on the NFL Network, ESPN and FOX, and before DenverBroncos.com covered it extensively, it once was almost completely ignored by the media.

In 2018 those days are long behind us, but they remain part of the foundation of how we watch the draft today.