When NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced Mario Williams as the Houston Texans’ first overall pick, he signaled not just the start of the 2006 NFL Draft, but also that the draft itself had become a standalone event. That 2006 draft was the first one held at Radio City Music Hall, a coronation of how far the NFL has come both as a business and as a cultural phenomenon. It’s going to seem impossible as you watch this Acadamy Awards-level production in primetime tonight, but there once was a time when nobody even knew the draft happened.
The First Draft
The draft’s evolution from business meeting to months-long obsession had been a long time coming. The first draft, held in 1936 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia, consisted of nine rounds and was essentially uncovered by the media. Most newspapers around the country didn’t even publish the results, not to mention scouting reports or mock drafts.
During World War II, the NFL stopped calling it the “draft” since there was a different draft underway, instead referring to it as the “preferred negotiations list,” a much more professional term that would fit in well amongst modern NFL legalese. Considering a lot of football talent was being sent to war—the skills required to be a good football player and soldier overlap considerably—the league expanded to 30 rounds, assuming most of their picks would end up in Europe or the Pacific instead of the gridiron.
After the war, as American life returned to normalcy and the NFL’s popularity slowly grew, so too did coverage of league news. Newspapers like the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times ran occasional brief scouting reports (Frank Finch’s semi-regular reports in the Los Angeles Times often began with “Dear Diary,” going on to provide snippets such as, “The backs are okay...but prospects up front are none too promising”), but the revelation of the time was publishing comprehensive draft results, usually breaking down the first ten rounds by team selections.
Starting in 1947, the NFL experimented with a bonus pick, in which the first overall pick was given not to the worst club, but to a random team via lottery (although no team could get a bonus pick twice). This practice lasted 11 years until the league recognized it for the terrible idea it was.
The AFL Draft Takes on the NFL
Like football itself, the NFL draft wasn’t an intriguing affair until it got some competition. Starting in 1959, the burgeoning American Football League held a draft in competition with the NFL’s, often selecting the same players who would then get to choose in which league they would play. “Our big inducement of competition with the National Football League is that we can just about guarantee a job to the players we draft,” Max Winter, General Manager of the Minneapolis-St. Paul team told the Los Angeles Times in November of 1959. (Ironically, this team would stay in the AFL for only one season before switching to the NFL and becoming the Vikings.) The AFL chose to hold their draft prior to the NFL’s, a bold but necessary move for the new league to attract players. Likely in response to this, the NFL reduced the number of rounds to twenty.
For the next several years, the AFL and NFL jockeyed to incentivize college players to sign with their respective leagues. The AFL offered an advantage by holding their draft in November during the collegiate football season (to the NCAA’s chagrin) while the NFL offered, as LSU star Billy Cannon articulated, “the better players and more security.”
The 1960 NFL Draft illustrates just how far the draft had come in terms of preparation and production. According to the Christian-Science Monitor, the draft took 11.5 hours “as coaches took their time making selections. They went to the telephone almost every round to call players and ask them, (1) will you play pro football, and (2) will you come to the NFL rather than the AFL.” This is a far cry from the modern draft, a year-round scouting process in which GMs ask players weeks in advance if they’re gay or if their mother is a whore.
As teams found they had more to consider on draft day, the draft itself took longer, lasting 19 hours in 1963 (still shorter than the three-day modern draft). For some reason that isn’t clear from newspaper accounts, the NFL decided to hold the 1964 draft via telephone and teletype, foreshadowing the millions of fantasy drafts held over the internet decades later. The 1965 draft, once again held in person, took an absurd 31 hours to complete, making recent drafts appear brisk by comparison. Meanwhile, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle accused the rival AFL of holding a “secret draft” in three of the previous five years in an effort to procure college talent. In a classic move of antagonism, the AFL then rescheduled their draft for the same day as the NFL’s.
The Merger...and ESPN
Soon after, the antagonism ceased and the two leagues merged, forming the basis for the NFL we know today, eliminating the competition which formed most of the draft’s intrigue. Nevertheless, the draft continued to grow in popularity, largely because the sport did so as well. In 1977, the draft was moved to late April or early May and reduced to 17 rounds. But the biggest and perhaps most significant change to the NFL draft occurred in 1980 when it was televised by ESPN for the first time.
The 1980 ESPN broadcast is barely recognizable from the effervescent glow you’ll see this April, partly due to technological changes, but also because of the draft itself. The 1980 version was held in the New York Sheraton’s ballroom with team officials huddling over each other, with barely enough elbow room to lean over and cough. In retrospect, the 1980 draft seems more like a middle school group project than a professional sports league; you could easily imagine a delegate from each team assigned with trying to overhear other teams at adjacent tables.
In 1984, Mel Kiper Jr. and his perplexingly consistent haircut became the first dedicated draft analyst, kicking off the age of year-long draft obsession. Today, the draft is televised on ESPN and NFL Network. Player workouts are broadcast live on ESPN weeks before the draft while analysts debate whether what we’re watching actually means anything with respect to the player’s draft position, which will then later be debated as to whether it actually means anything. This is to say, the draft has become so big that we don’t even know how much it matters anymore. In a way, everything has come full circle, just with a lot more talking.
All photos courtesy Getty Images