One of the most anticipated and widely watched sporting events of the year is happening right now—and it isn’t a championship game or a playoff series or a competition of any kind.
Thursday night in New York, the NFL Draft—officially known as the Annual Player Selection Meeting—kicked off at Radio City Music Hall. Not a stadium or an arena, but a theater.
For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the spectacle, in some ways, isn’t much different from what happens on middle-school playgrounds all the time. One by one, each franchise announces the name of a college kid they want on their team. He comes to the front, gets a hat and a jersey, and often—this is where it gets different—the promise of a multimillion-dollar contract. Fans show up by the thousands and watch by the millions. While the first NFL game is more than four months away, many consider this the start to the new season.
It also signals the end to all the ridiculous and irrelevant speculation. The so-called draft experts on ESPN and elsewhere make coverage of the presidential primaries seem tame. Every day: a new “mock draft,” for every possible scenario. If Team One selects Player A, where will Player B wind up? And will Team Two trade with Team Three or Team Four to move up a spot to acquire Player C? [Pick One? Pick Two? Where would you put RG Three? (That’s Heisman winner Robert Griffin the Third.)]
The interest is only more intense in cities where hope—or if you prefer, desperation—reigns highest. After all, those teams seemingly most lacking in talent get to go first. “To each according to its needs”—in sports, that ain’t socialism; it’s parity.
It wasn’t always this overblown. In 1980, when ESPN first contacted the NFL about televising its draft, then-Commissioner Pete Rozell reportedly asked…why. Now, the draft is broadcast live on two networks, and set new records when it moved to prime time in 2010. That first night, its 8.3 million-viewer average beat out everything on TV, including every televised competition, except “Survivor.” Last year, some 43 million people watched at least part of the draft, at a time when the lockout meant the NFL technically wasn’t even in business.
No matter who the Chiefs wind up picking in the draft now underway, I’m sure it will be hotly debated. I mean, we still talk about that one time the Chiefs took some guy named Todd Blackledge while Dan Marino and Jim Kelly were just sitting there.
But then there are the picks nobody is talking about—the talent nobody will take an early chance on. By the end of the seventh round on Saturday, 253 players will have been drafted, with the last one earning the unofficial title of “Mr. Irrelevant.” In 2009 that honor went to Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop, Succop, of course, made the team, started every game, and tied the NFL rookie record for field-goal percentage. (And if you remember the 2009 Chiefs, you know they settled for a lot of field goals.)
The draft is just that—a draft, a rough idea of what tomorrow’s teams and superstars might look like. Which players will wind up with their busts in the Hall of Fame, and which ones are just busts? With each trip to that podium, winners and losers are being made, though it will take months and maybe years to know which is which.
Sure, being a sports fan is about getting lost in those exhilarating moments of competition at full tilt—but, really, those moments are few and far between. So mostly, when we’re not reminiscing about the past, we fans are dreaming—and arguing and conjecturing and worrying—about the future. The next pitch, the next game, the next season, the next…generation .
Taken from that perspective, the NFL Draft is still over-hyped and overblown. But hardly irrelevant.