Why the NFL Draft Is Bigger Than ‘Succession’

The NFL has aired its draft since 1980, and soon pro sports leagues realized they could sell rights to the event to emerging cable networks thirsty for content. In the four decades since, football’s rookie roll call has eclipsed its in-game peers, giving the NFL draft a popularity greater than the Grammys and HBO’s “Succession”.

For three days, a sporting equivalent of a football fest built on violent confrontations traffics in heartwarming tales and innocent fun. At last year’s draft, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell — a Braves former player — turned to congratulate 6-foot-3 linebacker Devin Lloyd, who had just been selected, and offered the customary handshake and hug. To Goodell’s shock, lloyd bent over and snatched His new boss fell to the ground so fast that Goodell simply reared his feet and started laughing.

Later, Lloyd’s mother, Ronita Johnson, said that he had asked her to do it on a whim. “I just wanted to see if he could,” she said.

Moments like these can’t begin to justify that the NFL draft, which begins Thursday in Kansas City, Mo., draws more than 11 million viewers each year for broadcasts across four networks. Even in the worst case scenario, the draft hits.

In 2021, when Goodell announced the pick from a podium in Cleveland, cameras cut to the first selected player, whose name had been expected to be called for months before. The player, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, watched from home, like the rest of America. More TV viewers saw what appeared to be a formality than when “Nomadland” won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year.

How did that kind of cultural pull get into pro forma sports programming? Part of the answer lies in the football bastions on our TV screens. Twenty-two NFL games were among the top 25 prime-time telecasts in 2022, making this game the most reliable destination to watch anything the networks might cook up.

While soccer’s viewership has been a major driver of its revenue, the league’s penchant for spectacle has turned America’s most popular sport into its most profitable. The NFL signed media deals worth more than $100 billion in 2021 and has since inked a $2 billion deal with YouTube for the rights to stream Sunday games. Amazon is paying $1 billion to stream games on Thursdays, and this year the NFL will add games played on Black Friday for the tech giant’s Prime shoppers. It will also air 75 hours of draft coverage on the league-owned NFL Network, with more footage streamed on NFL+, the NFL app, NFL.com and the NFL Channel.

“There is no other NFL,” said Jim Minich, a senior vice president of revenue and yield management at Disney Advertising. Minich runs the group that sells ad inventory for ESPN and ABC’s broadcast of the three-day event, more than 35 hours of programming, which has sold out this year and is expected to pull in $16 million for Disney. “There’s a lot of noise this time of year, and the NFL just gets cut off.”

As proof, Minich offered a statistic: The number of online searches for draft advertisers was 41 percent higher than for the average prime-time broadcast. He credited it to storytelling. The NFL schedules a pick every 15 minutes, and to fill the time between them the network airs brief biographies of the player who was just selected. Thus the audience goes on a brief emotional journey that leads to a satisfying conclusion (fat guys in NFL caps tear up and hug their mom and dad).

An ESPN spokesman said the network would produce 600 player highlight packages and plans were in place to zoom in on 50 live shots of prospects as they waited to hear their names. The sports media and pundits on bar stools and message boards have since spent three months speculating which team would want which player.

Along with award shows and beauty pageants, the NFL Draft gets really juicy when the cameras lock onto the contestants whose names are not called. When Aaron Rodgers was passed over for the top pick in 2005 by the San Francisco 49ers, the team he spent his childhood playing for, he spent four hours agonizing in front of TV cameras until the Green Bay Packers selected him with the 24th pick. Not taken with

“The Lord has been teaching me a lot about humility and patience, and he threw them both in my face today,” said Rogers, 21. Now 39 and a four-time NFL Most Valuable Player, he was recently traded to the Jets.

“It’s embarrassing,” he told ESPN after his long draft night. “You know the whole world is watching, your phone rings every two minutes and you’re hoping it’s a team calling. But it’s just your friends who are just having fun, and a situation like It’s hard to laugh in a world where you know everyone is laughing at you.

The sobbing of stranded players can provide a clear focal point for the buildup, while unseen coaches and clipboard-holders decide their futures. Although the league pays players’ airfare and hotels for the draft live shows, they are not paid to attend.

In some cases, agents advise against showing up, lest the player suffer the humiliation of an awkward, televised wait. Only 17 will be drafted of the 259 players who plan to attend the event and sit in the fenced green room/fishbowl. Those who attend will do so for roughly the same reason that college seniors sit through graduation speeches: The ceremony, as uncomfortable as it is, is a symbolic finish line.

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, who is projected to be the top pick in this year’s draft, said he expects the night to be “surreal”.

“To walk on that stage and hear your name, and I’m going to be able to experience it with my family, that’s a huge blessing and moment for me to cherish and be grateful for,” he said.

The vast audience for such a moment also provides a player with his first major opportunity to showcase his personality for mass consumption.

“A lot of these guys are really trying to make a name for themselves on draft night,” said Cam Wolf, a senior style writer at GQ, adding that sponsorship and branding opportunities await athletes who find the right sartorial style. make choices.

Wolf said a tipping point came in 2016 when Ezekiel Elliott, a running back who preferred to wear cropped T-shirts while warming up for college games at Ohio State, changed his baby blue shawl-collared suit jacket to a Opened to show tailored buttons. was abbreviated at the midriff. Elliot’s abs were soon going viral on the internet.

Viewers “watch it for the clothes, but not in terms of getting style inspiration,” Wolf said, adding that GQ has increased its coverage of the NFL Draft red carpet over the years. “They want to be part of the discussion, and costumes are an easy way to do that,” he added.

It’s very different from the X’s and O’s of conversation that muffles NFL game days, when the same athletes would be in uniform trying to stand out from a big catch or combative tackle. There is also a huge audience for that. The NFL now has games four out of seven days a week for six months of the season, which was extended an additional week in 2021.

And when there aren’t games to play, the NFL, like the Marvel franchise and the known universe, finds other ways to expand.

Ken Belson Contributed reporting.