Drafting a new course for the NFL

(Jerry Lai/USA TODAY Sports)
(Jerry Lai/USA TODAY Sports)

The NFL Draft begins Thursday night, the off-season highlight — if there is an off-season anymore — and a shot in the arm for NFL fans. The draft used to be an afterthought, a good way for ESPN to occupy a couple of slow weekend days with soft programming. But with the continual increase in interest in the NFL, the rise of draftniks and fantasy football, and effective marketing by the NFL, the draft is now a mid-May staple of the sports world.

The most important move was to move the first round of the draft from a weekend event to a Thursday night event in primetime — the most lucrative night of the week for advertising. Changes were also made from the programming side in 2009 to increase the pace of the draft (reduction of time on the clock to 10 minutes in the first round, seven minutes in the second and five for the remaining rounds). The impact of marketing efforts, program adjustments and changes in audience interest have paid off handsomely — the audience for the first round in 2013 brought in 7.7 million viewers per Nielsen, up 22 percent from 6.3 million in 2009, the last year the first round was a Saturday event.

The payoff is greatest for ESPN, however, with over three quarters of the draft’s TV audience tuning into their coverage. The NFL Network, of course, is the other major television outlet covering the draft wall-to-wall, capturing most of the remaining audience. And therein lies the rub: The NFL as a media business (NFL Network, etc.) is often outshone by the partners to its content business (licensing coverage of the games and league activities).

Some ask what is the next step for the draft? Are there ways to improve even further on a property that has increased its TV audience by 25 percent the last five years? Some of the answer is structural, but a lot depends on the evolution of the NFL’s strategy as a media business.

Strictly from a structural standpoint, it would seem there is little incentive to extending the draft to provide more content. The NFL has already taken steps to speed up the draft, and it provides content for seven rounds over three days. Would people really care about who is picked at No. 225 or No. 250? Would the teams want to spend the time and money to research and pay signees in such low rounds? If anything, the draft should probably be shortened to make the remaining rounds even more important – but then the union might not be happy about reduced opportunities.

From a media strategy standpoint, if new draft content is developed, should the NFL concentrate on using it exclusively for its own network, license it exclusively, or share with broadcast partners? Clearly, a big strategy shift came earlier this year when the NFL apparently decided that foregoing exclusivity for its Thursday night game package (by partnering with CBS) was better for its business. The other strategy decision is whether new draft content should be focused on television, as most NFL content has in the past, or be designed as primarily a digital offering.

With that in mind, here are a few ideas to further leverage the draft:

  • Create a reality show around hopefuls with interesting back stories who have little chance to be picked in the main draft (those from lower division schools, those who didn’t attend college, etc.). Whittle them down to a few by the draft, then create a selection show around who is picked in a heart-warming end to the series — and provide teams who pick with an exemption of some type so their participation wouldn’t impact their regular draft selections.
  • Similar to the above, but on a global scale. With the NFL’s intent to extend its brand internationally, bring in prospects from around the world that may have skills that could be developed by NFL teams — soccer kickers, of course, but also rugby players, etc. Have them compete, get trained, share their stories – and then perhaps get picked in a supplement to the draft. The teams might get a useful player, but the NFL is certain to gain good publicity in the participants’ home countries.
  • Develop some type of direct fan input to the draft using digital properties. The personnel people on the teams would likely scream, but let’s face it — almost everyone picked lower than the third round is a crapshoot anyway, so why not let the fans get involved?

The best option would be to have a great player or two in every draft, but that is something even the NFL cannot control. Nonetheless we can be certain of one thing — whether or not the NFL tries to power-boost the draft, its audience will continue to increase.


David Tice is a senior vice president at GfK, a top five global market research company, and has specialized in media- and sports-related research for 20 years. The opinions expressed are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer or his clients.

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