The first round of the National Football League draft kicks off tonight at 8 p.m. ET and will dominate the ESPN airwaves through Saturday. Not a lot happens during the draft – it’s a full weekend of name announcements and hugs from Roger Goodell.
But that doesn’t stop millions of viewers from tuning in. The first round of last year’s draft was the highest rated ever, netting a combined 25.3 million viewers for ESPN and the NFL Network – an 18.4 percent increase over the year before, according to Nielsen.
It may seem inexplicable to the non-football obsessed, but there are a lot of good reasons the draft has become a prime-time staple over the years. Months after the Super Bowl, and many more months away from even the first preseason game, NFL fans are starved for action. There’s relatively little else going on in the national sports landscape – baseball just started, and the National Basketball Association playoffs are just getting under way. Draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. and his ageless hair are always fun to see, and ESPN is masterful at making trivial things seem terribly important.
But last year’s draft had some added help: The players themselves were highly regarded and very well known. The top two picks, Andrew Luck from Stanford and Robert Griffin III, spearheaded what many were calling the best quarterback draft class in nearly three decades. Luck was considered the surest bet at the position since Peyton Manning. Griffin had a slew of endorsement deals before one of his Olympic sprinter-caliber toes hit the NFL field.
This year? Not so much. Most of the top projected picks are in strength positions – offensive and defensive lineman, rather than glamorous skill positions like quarterbacks, wide receivers, and even running backs. West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith is the only first round possibility at his position, and he could go as early as second or fourth overall, or drop all the way down to the bottom of the round.
The last time a quarterback wasn’t the first overall draft pick was 2008 (and Matt Ryan, now the franchise player of the Atlanta Falcons, was picked third). The last time a quarterback wasn’t in the top five? The year 2000, long before the draft's leap to prime time. Back then, the draft started at noon on Saturday.
That means that the prime-time drafts have benefited from having marquee college names at the top of the board – players who got national exposure as Heisman Trophy finalists, or competing for national championships. That’s not the case this year, and many analysts have posited that this could end up being the worst draft class in over a decade. There’s no telling how a draft so bereft of stars will do with viewers, and it could be the broadcast’s first viewership decline since the prime time shift.
But the 2013 draft has potential to be must-see TV in other ways. For starters, the No. 1 pick isn’t a sure thing. Most mock drafts are predicting that offensive tackle Luke Joeckel will go to the Kansas City Chiefs at No. 1. If he doesn’t, projected draft boards will fall apart, and nearly every pick will be a surprise. If West Virginia's Smith, too, falls further than fourth, the wait to see just where he lands will be a suspenseful one.
And there’s a chance that the later rounds could hold viewers for longer than previous years, as many of the better-known names will probably go later. That includes senior quarterbacks from national college powerhouses (like EJ Manuel from Florida State), but also the only household name of the lot: Manti Te’o, whose fame as a Heisman Trophy finalist and national title hopeful with Notre Dame was steamrolled by the hoax of his dead, fake, Internet girlfriend earlier this year. Even if he goes on to have a decent NFL career, he’ll always be the guy who brought the term “catfishing” into the lexicon.
So the 2013 draft has some major entertainment value, even if it’s not the kind we’ve come to expect over the years. We’ll see how the ratings shake out.