29 April 2016

Wheeling and dealing in the NFL Draft


The National Football League Draft is one of the world’s greatest feats of television marketing. Somehow, the bosses of American Football have devised a sporting event, stretched over three days, which contains no actual sport.  Instead it consists of a variety of men in suits walking up to a podium, and reading out the names of college football players – 256 names in all.  And millions of people gather around their televisions to watch. In 2014, 45 million of them tuned in.

Despite sounding like an unlikely televisual hit, the Draft, which began this morning at 1am UK time and concludes on Saturday, is full of drama. No moment in the footballing calendar has the potential to dictate the fortunes of a team more.  Each of the 32 clubs are given seven selections (plus a few extra as compensation for players lost to other teams in free agency).  With these seven picks teams can either stand pat and select one of the hundreds of available players graduating from the college ranks, or they can use it as currency to trade up and nab someone better or a player they covet already on another team.  It’s upon these high stakes deals that careers are made and ended, dynasties are founded and the seeds of years of failure have been sown.

Considering the now glitzy big stage show, in front of a packed crowd in Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre, the Draft had rather humble beginnings. The first one was held behind closed doors, in a room at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia in 1936.  There was no media coverage, no one had scouting departments back then and so the team owners took it in turns to pick players based on newspaper reports.  The pleasingly named, Jay Berwanger, was the first player ever to be selected but he failed to negotiate a contract and never played a game.

For years the mid-week non-event trundled on until in 1980, a new upstart sports TV network called ESPN, asked the NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle for permission to broadcast it. Rozelle did not believe it would make good TV but he agreed and a television phenomenon was born.  In 1988 the Draft moved to weekends which saw viewing figures grow and in 2010 it became a three-day event with the first round taking place on Thursday nights.  Over the years the NFL has tried to jazz up the formula but it’s hard to make reading out, largely unknown names, from a podium all that exciting. To keep the fans entertained they’ve experimented with getting ex-players to read out the names, they’ve let the fans to do it themselves, they’ve even got rid of the podium and had the names read out by army personnel from military bases in Iraq.  But despite the mundane formula people keep watching, mainly because you never know when a team is going to do something crazy.  In 1999 New Orleans Saints Head Coach, Mike Ditka, traded his entire slate of draft picks, as well as his 1st and 3rd round picks from the next year, to move up seven spots and pick running back Ricky Williams.

This year we saw two blockbuster trades before the Draft had even begun.  The Los Angeles Rams, freshly rebranded having relocated from St Louis this off season, are in need of a young Quarterback to be their ‘face of the franchise’. So they jumped up all the way from number 15 to the top of the Draft in a trade with the Tennessee Titans, owners of the first overall pick as a reward for their league-worst performance last season. The Titans traded it along with their 4th and 6th round picks to the Rams in return for two 1st rounders, two 2nds and two 3rds. Not to be outdone, the Cleveland Browns, last year’s second worst team, netted a fine haul for the second overall selection in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Browns received two 1st round picks, a 2nd, 3rd and 4th to drop down six places to the eighth spot. Fans of the hapless Browns, known as the Factory of Sadness such has been their error strewn drafting in previous years, will have to hope they can make a better fist of it with this new bounty.

But these two don’t come close to matching the most famous, and lopsided, trade in NFL history; the Herschel Walker Trade, aka the Great Trade Robbery.  In 1989 the Dallas Cowboys were so bad that first year coach Jimmy Johnson decided they would be better off trading their only star player, running back Herschel Walker, and undertaking a total rebuild.  After a bidding war between the Browns and the Minnesota Vikings, the latter agreed to terms.  The Cowboys sent Walker, two 3rd round picks, a 5th and a 10th rounder to Minnesota. In return the Vikings ended up giving the Cowboys three 1sts, three 2nds, a 3rd and a 6th rounder.

The Cowboys used those picks to help them build a dynasty, turning one of the worst teams in the league into a three-time Super Bowl winner by 1995.  As for the Vikings, after two and a half mediocre years from Walker they released him.  He bounced around as a journeyman player and in an ultimate irony, eventually wound up signing back with the Cowboys four years later before retiring.

Over the next two days of the Draft fans won’t know if the names being read from the podium will be setting their teams up for years of success or of failure. But we do know they will be watching, in their millions.

Joe Ware is Communications Manager at Christian Aid