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Inside Slant: Impact of big May draft ratings

5/12/2014


NFL draft fans presumably disgruntled by a two-week delay did nothing this past weekend to motivate a return to its late April home. Idle complaints are one thing, but tangible results are another.

I hate to break it to you, but if anything, record-setting television ratings might justify not only a permanent May date but also a rumored expansion into a traveling four-day event as part of a larger offseason reorganization.

I’m not sure how else to interpret the significance of the most-watched NFL draft in history, one whose popularity rose measurably even when compared to its most recent incarnations. There are plenty of ways to evaluate the success of an event, but when you remember that the NFL is a big business with its eyes trained closely on key metrics, it’s difficult to ignore the impact of a draft reaching 45.7 million people -- topping the 2010 figure of of 45.4 million in 2010. (Combined ESPN/NFL Network ratings rose 28 percent Thursday night, eight percent Friday night and 17 percent Saturday.)

You might consider that bump a one-time boost from Johnny Manziel, whose first-round fall created intense drama for nearly three hours Thursday night. (Indeed, ratings for the first round alone on ESPN rose by 49 percent.) It's also fair to point out that the usually soulless Saturday affair was punctuated by the anticipation of history; Missouri defensive end Michael Sam remained on the board until eight picks remained in the seventh and final round.

Those factors, however, are but educated guesses that must be fleshed out through focus groups and other research. Regardless, the specific attribution isn't likely to dissuade the NFL from its path.

First, it's silly to assume there will never be another Manziel, and the NFL sure won't forget. If I'm sitting in the NFL office basking in the glow of a ratings bonanza, I'm wondering whether Manziel-mania wasn't fueled in part by an additional two weeks of buzz. Maybe Manziel was simply Tim Tebow with more pre-draft marketing.

Before you laugh at that possibility, consider how NFL Media executive vice president Brian Rolapp described the draft during an interview Monday morning on CNBC's Squawk Box.

"It's actually a way for fans to come out in the offseason," Rolapp said. "They love it. There's this pent-up demand, I think, for football, and that hits this time and people are looking for a release. They find it in the draft."

It's clear the NFL wanted to see what would happen if it pushed the draft into May, which would be the first step in reorganizing the NFL offseason to maximize marketing over a 12-month period. Perhaps the "pent-up demand" created even more interest, but clearly, no damage was done despite the anecdotally unfavorable public opinion. Fans might have been annoyed but not enough to dissuade their viewership. The ratings, in fact, support those within the NFL office who would like to continue expansion.

How could that happen? NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has floated the idea of cannibalizing -- er, extending -- the draft into four days. (A two-day first round? One night for each round?) Both he and Ralopp have spoken openly about moving the draft to another city. If I'm envisioning an Oscars-like Hollywood event in Los Angeles, then I'm sure they are already ordering the red carpet. To be sure, from a business standpoint, the draft appears to have plenty of expansion possibilities.

What about the football side? (Ha!) It wasn't difficult to find protests from general managers who prefer an April draft. The most substantive issue is a two-week delay in getting rookies their playbooks and beginning the transition process. But if I'm a league executive who smells expansion and higher revenue, I'm noting that those rookies will still get the same amount of work on the field -- via organized team activities and minicamps -- as they would in April. In fact, there could be a slight benefit given the NFL/NCAA rule that limits rookie practice participation until after a player's school has completed its final semester/quarter.

In an interview Thursday with ESPN Radio, Goodell noted there are "pluses and minuses" in delaying the draft but was careful to note two positives. First, teams with new general managers or coaches received extra time to evaluate their rosters while preparing for the draft. Second, the timetable could allow more rookies to graduate on time. "Not many people think about that," he said.

Goodell also noted discussions about moving the late-February scouting combine back to perhaps March, which he said would give players more time to prepare. Teams that traveled deep into the playoffs would also benefit. A March combine would also, of course, leave more time to build buzz and provide better spacing from the Super Bowl.

So if you're hoping for a return to an April draft, my guess is you'll be disappointed. Realistically, the 2014 draft needed to be a disaster for the NFL to reverse course. Far from it. Based on the immediately available data and its evolution into a television show above all else, it was the most successful draft of all time. April showers bring May flowers. Or something like that.