Those partners in prime time, the NFL and ESPN, are about to elbow their way into the sports spotlight with a sports event that isn’t really a sports event—the NFL draft.
There is no actual competition involved in this big orchestrated fuss. No winner or loser. No consequence of any sort for months—perhaps years—down the road. Yet the NFL draft is the most scrutinized, monetized, oversized affair on the sports calendar this side of the Super Bowl.
Newspapers, magazines and Web sites—not to the mention the self-promoters on ESPN’s many platforms—already are flooded with mock drafts, endless speculation and overwrought analyses by battalions of experts considering the possibilities of the first few dozen picks.
It’s all just educated guessing, infused with an air of sophistication, though certainly far removed from the league’s first draft in 1936. Then, no team had a scouting department and Wellington Mara, son of New York Giants’ original owner Tim Mara, took on the aura of a drafting genius simply by subscribing to magazines and out-of-town papers to build dossiers of college players across the country.
The first NFL scout wasn’t hired until the Los Angeles Rams paid a fellow named Eddie Kotal in 1946. And, until ESPN president Chet Simmons, in 1980, convinced a wary Pete Rozelle, then the NFL commissioner, that fans actually would watch a televised draft, team representatives simply gathered in a hotel ballroom—usually in Chicago, Philadelphia or New York—and relayed their picks via telephone. Mostly to be reported in the small print of the following day’s papers.
I first covered the draft in 1977. Neither the Giants head coach, John McVay, nor their No. 1 pick, USC defensive lineman Gary Jeter, were anywhere near the New York hotel draft headquarters. Both—McVay from the Giants’ New Jersey base and Jeter from his home in Los Angeles—spoke briefly by phone to a handful of reporters.
There was no “No. 1” jersey unfurled in front of Jeter for the cameras, no smiling commissioner high-fiving and hugging Jeter, no perfectly coiffed Mel Kiper breathlessly updating which team was “on the clock” and which college players still were “on the board.”
Now, teams undeniably put an enormous amount of time and money into the effort. But what the draft show ultimately pedals to the public is the process of general managers being hoisted on their own petard of having Too Much Information.
Last year, a 538.com analysis found GMs to be “victims of their own obsessive pre-draft preparations—their skill level has increased so much that only the effects of chance remain….[and] much of what each team gets from its draft picks….is determined by pure chance.”
Since 2008, academics Cade Massey, now a Wharton economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Chicago’s Richard Thalen have been updating “The Loser’s Curse” study, which paints NFL general managers as regular victims of their own overconfidence.
Massey and Thalen have documented that the best value in the draft comes somewhere between a late first-round and early- to mid-second-round choice, because teams—-so convinced they know more than the next guy—-routinely pay too much money for the highest picks. In reality, there is virtually equal knowledge of player talent throughout the league, Massey and Thalen found, with “no observable differences in [draft] skills across teams” and therefore outcomes that are “95-plus percent chance.”
So the aggregate effect of the whole exercise is fairly trivial, just another version of a televised Survivor or The Voice. Decidedly not a sports event. No matter; the most significant impact of the draft is to assure there is no off-season in pro football, that aggressively marketing another aspect of the NFL operation is a way to steal the thunder from the NBA and NHL playoffs and push ever-present baseball into the shadows at will.
According to sports economist Roger Noll, NFL teams in fact use the draft to collectively “eliminate competition for the best rookies, thereby reducing salaries” to the highest picks. My friend Jay Weiner, for years a chronicler of sports business, called the draft “as much a sporting event as the slave trade was a job fair.”
Give the NFL this, though: Its draft is very 21st Century. It is audience empowerment. Interactive. Real fantasy football. Like the Super Bowl, it is profoundly exaggerated, all razzle dazzle and hyperbole.
But, at least with the Super Bowl, there is a final score.