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Tuesday, April 17, 2001
Updated: April 18, 9:32 PM ET
Draft gurus' niche becomes big business

By Darren Rovell
ESPN.com

From Michael Vick to Bamikole Ayi and from Florida State to Hinds Junior College, they rank them all.

There's no question that today's crop of "draftniks," primarily ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. and Pro Football Weekly's Joel Buchsbaum -- both of whom started penning their draft books in the late '70s -- provide the substance behind the major event that the NFL draft has become.

The two, who could be classified as the most recognized prognosticators of the televised draft era, make their year-round living predicting where players could be picked by NFL teams. They pen newsletters, books, and articles for trade publications or Web sites. Their material is studied by personnel directors looking for a consensus on a questionable talent, used by agents to leverage their client's draft position and, of course, read by fans across the country.

Should NFL draft hit the road?
The NFL draft typically has been confined to hotel ballrooms and most recently the Madison Square Garden theatre, but draft guru Mel Kiper said he thinks moving the draft around the country might be a good idea.

It is an idea the NBA has implimented in recent years. Over the past five years, in fact, the NBA draft has moved from East Rutherford, N.J. to Charlotte, N.C. to Vancouver to Washington to Minneapolis.

"If I were making the decisions, I would think about rotating the venues," Kiper said. "Maybe give it to the Super Bowl champion or to the team that has the first pick in the draft."

Kiper said he regularly receives calls from fans asking how they can get tickets to watch the draft. Moving the event around would "give as many fans as possible a chance to see what it's like," he said.

NFL draft-related revenue could count as a small industry, since it brings in several million dollars annually. Kiper and Buchsbaum's annual guides sell for $25.95 and $19.95, respectively. Gary Horton, a former NFL scout and college coach who founded the War Room, a company that produces the draft guide for the Sporting News, says his draft guides are better sellers than his preseason preview magazines. And there's more than a sprinkling of entrepreneurs like Anthony Pauline of TFY Draft Preview and 22-year-old Matt Gambill of All-Pro Scouting Services, who make a decent living selling their scouting reports tailored for the agent looking to ink the draft's sleeper pick as a client.

While the NFL draft beat has become somewhat of a cottage industry, it's ironic that it is not a money-generator for the league itself. ESPN has had broadcasting rights to the draft since 1980. Unlike the NBA, which has charged fans an average of $13 a ticket to attend the draft over the past couple years, fans lucky enough to squeeze into the 4,000 seats at the Madison Square Garden theatre watch the event free of charge. Licensing revenues generated from the draft are also minimal, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.

Broadcasting the draft has provided the perfect platform for the draftnik. Over the years, real-time pick-by-pick analysis has evolved from filler information to insightful commentary. And the draft, which is merely the formal announcing of player's names, has became as exciting to some fans as the games themselves.

"It's political intrigue, theatre, spectacle, the Roman Coliseum, "Millionaire," "Jeopardy" and reality television drama all wrapped into one event," said Bob Ley, who anchored the first nine NFL draft broadcasts for ESPN.

"I think that there is no question that this is better than the Super Bowl," said Palmer Hughes, who published his 25th-annual draft guide this year. "It's a competitive battle, all the players are out there and every team is involved."

Kiper considers Draft Day the start of the season, and says that fans pay close attention to it because they realize the great pick this weekend could soon pay dividends for their team.

"What happens on Saturday and Sunday is going to dictate which teams end up in the playoffs or even in the Super Bowl. Look at where Baltimore got with Jamal Lewis and what a player like Brian Urlacher -- even though the Bears didn't necessary win -- meant to his team."

The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat can be heard in the moans and groans of those in the draft's audience.

"The reaction from the Giants or Jets fans when their picks are announced at the draft is the same reaction that is going on all over the country," said Cliff Christl, author of "Sleepers, Busts and Franchise Makers," a book chronicling NFL draft history. "It's going on in bars and at Lambeau Field in Green Bay and it's going on in Seattle and Dallas and in every NFL city."

The draftnik has roots that extend to days long before the draft became the televised event that it is today.

Ray Byrne, who managed a funeral home in Pittsburgh during the '40s, is believed to be the first person to publish the names of players available in the draft, Christl said. It was a simple list of names, nothing like today's in-depth chronicle of a players' weight, height and workout data. Nonetheless, Byrne was hired by the Steelers to rank players for the 1947 draft.

Joe Sullivan was not far behind. He began ranking players with his brother in 1941, and was eventually worked for five NFL teams over his 25-year career in the league. The Sullivans were soon replaced by another pair of list-making brothers -- the Morascos, who eventually gave way to new generation of talent evaluators, Joe Stein and Palmer Hughes.

The science of player analysis has evolved over the years, and with it has fans' interest in the most intricate of detail. Still, some fans watch the draft to find out where their college's best player ends up, while others enjoy the challenge of forming their own opinion among friends or on the Internet.

"They question how a team can take this guy after they've read all the draft books," said Howard Balzer, the national columnist for Pro Football Weekly who served as an ESPN draft-day analyst from 1980-1989. "Every fan thinks that they can draft just as good as the people who are doing it for the teams. You can act like the GM for the day and you can't often do that, because there aren't too many trades in the league and the everyday strategy is beyond most fans."

The satisfaction of predicting correctly at the beginning of his career was what encouraged Buchsbaum to make it a career. While attending Brooklyn College in the mid-'70s, Buchsbaum wrote articles for Football News. "I did an article on Anthony Davis for the 1975 draft," Buchsbaum said. "Everyone was saying he was a big name and I said that he couldn't hold Walter Payton's jockstrap." Payton was drafted fourth overall and became the game's leading rusher, while Davis was drafted 33 picks later by the Jets and only had a 15-game career.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn.com