June 6, 2023

The NFL has televised its draft since 1980, and soon after, professional sports leagues realized they could sell the rights to their roster programs to emerging cable networks hungry for content. In the four decades since, football’s rookie roll-call has far eclipsed that of its peers, making the NFL version as popular as the Grammys’ headliners and bigger than HBO’s “Succession.”

For three days, a sport built on violent clashes holds what amounts to a football festival that deals in heartbreaking storytelling and innocent fun. At last year’s draft, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell—a muscular former player himself—turned to greet Devin Lloyd, the six-foot-tall linebacker who had just been selected, and offered the usual handshake and hug. To Goodell’s shock Lloyd leaned in and snatched his new boss off the ground in a move so fluid that Goodell simply put his feet back and burst into laughter.

Afterwards, Lloyd’s mother, Ronyta Johnson, said she told him to do it on a whim. “I just wanted to see if he could,” she said.

Moments like that don’t justify why the NFL version, which begins Thursday in Kansas City, Mo., draws audiences of more than 11 million people each year for broadcasts across four networks. Even in the worst case, the draft is a hit.

In 2021, when Goodell announced picks of a Cleveland podium, cameras turned to the first player chosen, whose name had been expected to be the first to be mentioned for months. The player, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, watched from home, as did the rest of America. More TV viewers showed up to witness that formality than saw “Nomadland” win the Academy Award for Best Picture that year.

How did pro forma sports programming get such cultural appeal? Part of the answer lies in the stranglehold of football on our TV screens. Twenty-two NFL games were among the top 25 prime-time broadcasts in 2022, making the sport the most reliable viewing destination of all the networks could come up with.

Football’s viewership has been a major revenue driver, the league’s talent 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 signed a $2 billion deal with YouTube for the rights to stream Sunday games. Amazon pays $1 billion to stream games on Thursdays, and this year the NFL is adding a game 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 streaming on NFL+, the NFL app, NFL.com and NFL Channel.

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

As proof, Minnich offered a statistic: The number of people searching for draft advertisers online was 41 percent higher than that of an average primetime broadcast. He attributed this to storytelling. The NFL schedules a pick every 15 minutes, and to fill the time in between, the networks air short biographies of the player just selected. In this way, viewers go on a short emotional journey that leads to a satisfying denouement (big boys in NFL caps tearing up and hugging their moms and dads).

An ESPN spokesperson said the network would be producing highlight packages for 600 players and had plans to zoom in on 50 live shots of prospects as they waited for their names to be called. This after experts in sports media and on barstools and bulletin boards spent three months predicting which team wants which player.

Similar to awards shows and beauty pageants, the NFL draw gets really juicy when cameras capture the contestants whose name is are not called. When Aaron Rodgers was passed for top pick in 2005 by the San Francisco 49ers, the team he spent his childhood chasing, he spent four hours agonizing in front of TV cameras until the Green Bay Packers caught him with the 24th pick .

“The Lord taught me a lot about humility and patience, and he kind of threw that in my face today,” said then 21-year-old Rodgers. 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 night shift. ‘You know the whole world is watching, your phone buzzes every two minutes and you hope it’s a team calling. But it’s just your friends who are joking, and it’s hard to laugh in a situation where you know everyone is laughing at you.”

Writhing stranded players can provide a tangible focal point to the buildup, while unseen coaches and clipboard holders determine their future. While the league pays for players’ airfare and hotel expenses to make the journey to the draft live show, they are not paid to appear.

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

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

“Walking across that stage and hearing your name called, and I’m going to be able to experience that with my family, that’s a great blessing and a moment for me to cherish and be thankful for,” he said.

The huge audience for such a moment also provides the first major opportunity for a player to showcase their mass consumer personality.

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

Wolf said a tipping point came in 2016 when Ezekiel Elliott, a running back who liked to wear cropped T-shirts while warming up for college games at Ohio State, opened his baby blue shawl-collar suit jacket to reveal a custom button that was abbreviated in the diaphragm. Elliott’s abs soon wallpaper the internet.

Viewers “look at it for the clothes, but not for style inspiration,” Wolf said, noting that GQ has ramped up coverage of the NFL’s red carpet in the years since. He added, “They want to be part of the discourse, and the outfits are such an easy way to do that.”

It’s all so different from the conversation of the X’s and O’s that dampens NFL game days, when those same uniformed athletes will try to stand out with a big catch or flammable tackle. There is also a huge audience for that. The NFL now has games on four of the seven days in a week, for the six months of the season, which was extended for an additional week in 2021.

And when there are no games to play, the NFL, like the Marvel franchise and the known universe, finds other ways to expand.

Ken Belson reporting contributed.