The NFL draft used to be a way to build teams. Now, it has become a way to build the NFL.
So the draft cannot stay the same. That's the first thing we all need to understand. The issue is not if it should change. The issue is how much it should change.
The concept of an evolving draft is not new. Just 34 years ago, the draft was not even deemed worthy enough to broadcast. Just 27 years ago, the draft was held on weekdays at times when most potential viewers were at work or in school. Just five years ago, the draft started at noon on Saturday. Most people found out whom their teams picked when they watched the 11 p.m. news that night or read the Sunday paper.
Now? The draft is a bigger event than any regular season football game. A record 45.7 million viewers watched on television over three days. You could have enjoyed the draft in the UK (Sky Sports 1), Canada (TSN 2) or Rio (ESPN). Johnny Manziel jerseys started selling on draft weekend like new iPhones on the release date. The draft was the subject of a motion picture starring Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner. And anecdotal evidence suggests draftniks now outnumber switchboard operators in North America.
Forbes reported that during the first round, people tweeted 7.1 million times about the draft, or 5.6 million more than they tweeted about the next most tweeted about subject during that time period, The Voice. The next most tweeted about sports event that night, the Thunder-Clippers NBA playoff game, was tweeted about only 496,000 times.
And we are not at the mountaintop of interest in the draft. In fact, from this view we are closer to the base. Fans who love the NFL but have yet to be hooked by the draft are out there in the millions, just waiting for the bait.
The first issue to be considered by a newly formed league working committee will be the timing of the draft. What NFL teams would like most is a draft right after the combine and before free agency. The NFLPA will not allow that to happen because the union knows teams that fill their roster holes with young, healthy, promising draft picks will be less inclined to overpay for older, less healthy, flawed veteran free agents.
So the realistic options appear to be late April, which is the sweet spot so far as NFL teams are concerned; early May, when it was held this year; and late May. Many of the league's foot soldiers will resist a later draft because it disrupts the rhythm of the offseason that they have grown accustomed to. For a while at least, a draft in late May might feel a bit like an ice storm at that time of year. But once everyone knows it's coming and how to prepare, it might not be so bad.
Having a later draft would enable the league to dominate the sports calendar for another month. It would eliminate a dead period for the NFL, other than the quick, catch-your-breath moments between the end of minicamps and the start of training camps in July.
More time between free agency and the draft means more draft coverage. People in the media can and will talk about the draft, analyze the draft, speculate about the draft and repeat lies about the draft for as long as the microphone is hot. We can provide mock drafts like automatic firearms. And there are eight million stories on the naked draft board.
The league would like to be sensitive to its lifeblood -- the players, the coaches and the front-office men who turn seeds into salads. Certainly, the timing of the draft can impact their ability to evaluate and prepare for a season. A later draft would mean scouts may suffer paralysis by analysis. Coaches would have their post-draft teaching time and vacation time reduced. And rookies would be thrown into the cold NFL waters without the benefit of a toe-first acclimation.
So anything other than an April draft will be met with indignation, complaints and excuse-making. But, ultimately, a commodity with the potential of the NFL draft cannot be ruled by small thinking. The league's scouts, coaches and players will adjust to whatever they need to adjust to just as scouts, coaches and players have been adjusting for close to a hundred years. The best NFL minds will find ways to make a later draft work to their advantage. And remember, as much as it has become the center of so many universes, it still is only football.
The other issue is the location of the draft. The NFL draft and the Big Apple have gone together well for 50 years. There is a mystique about staging the draft in the shadows of Manhattan skyscrapers, at the theater where Rockettes kick and Sinatra sung.
But for the draft, Radio City Music Hall has gotten to feel like last year's shoes on a 12-year-old -- a little tight in the toes and heels. An event that appeals to millions should not be held at a venue that seats 6,000. Not when it could be held at massive McCormick Place in Chicago, on the grounds of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, or at Jerry World in Arlington, Texas. The draft could become a bigger spectacle if it is moved from location to location, like the Ringling Brothers circus. Communities around the country would get lathered up about hosting the draft. While not every NFL city can host a Super Bowl, every city could host a draft. And the brand could benefit.
Dream a little, about the 2020 NFL draft: We are at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles in late May. Most of the $1,000 tickets went to corporate partners and VIPs. Surrounding the facility are party tents with overflowing bowls of thick shrimp, trays of strawberries covered with milk chocolate and white chocolate drizzle, and cold beer on tap from one of the many sponsors. There is live music from the likes of Katy Perry and One Direction.
Chris Berman is out. Ellen DeGeneres is in. The number of draftees on hand is eclipsed by the number of celebrities. And 32 of those stars announce a selection. Each pick is greeted by a laser show and fireworks. A major network paid millions for the rights to broadcast the event over three prime-time nights. In addition to ESPN and Sports Illustrated being issued credentials, so are media companies from the E! Network to O Magazine.
It might not do much for you, or for the team general managers who have criticized change. But it would do something for the NFL.