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.

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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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Goodell on the clock: Where should future NFL Drafts be held?

(Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports)
(Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports)

The 2014 NFL Draft is just a few days away, but one of the biggest subplots doesn’t involve any of the prospects. According to the New York Daily News, the NFL Draft may not use Radio City Music Hall as its venue starting as early as next year. Even though Radio City Music Hall contains 4,000 seats, the facility early on could not accommodate all of the fans trying to attend the draft live. Other New York venues such as Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center can’t provide a yearly guarantee to hold the event because of potential conflicts with the NBA and NHL playoffs.

That’s why Commissioner Roger Goodell has begun to explore other venues for the biggest event of the NFL offseason. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel for one has already been making an aggressive push towards landing the spectacle in their city. Any place would be lucky to have the publicity and local business boost that the NFL Draft brings.

So, what locations would make sense for the NFL Draft?

Los Angeles

Los Angeles, like New York, is one of the top media markets in the country, if not the world. While it may not have an NFL team yet, Los Angeles is the home of the NFL Network and NFL Media. It would save the league a lot of money if it didn’t have to move a large production cross country for this event. The spotlight would shine on the major prospects and give the draft a Hollywood feel. Additionally, having the draft outside in great weather could be a fresh idea that intrigues the commissioner’s office.

London

One of Commissioner Goodell’s main objectives is to globalize the NFL. London already hosts one football game each season, so why not give international fans a bigger taste of the NFL experience? London has all of the amenities needed to host a large scale event, and holding the draft there even once could whet the appetites of current and future NFL fans in the United Kingdom.

One drawback would be the difference in time zones. The first round of the draft has always been on prime-time television on the East Coast. Would the NFL be willing to start earlier in the day in England to ensure that East Coast viewers don’t fall asleep by the middle of the first round?

The Defending Super Bowl Champion’s City

Sure, the Super Bowl champion already gets the perk of having its home stadium as the location of the first NFL regular season game. But why not reward that team even further by allowing it to win the offseason by hosting the draft?

It would send an unmistakable message to NFL prospects about the importance of winning a Super Bowl for your city. Seeing that location in a frenzy would speak volumes about how important a team is in boosting civic morale.

Las Vegas

If the NFL truly wants to make its draft an experience, you can’t do much better than Vegas. The larger-than-life atmosphere would attract crowds from all across the country to attend the NFL Draft. The city has shown by hosting the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl and two college basketball conference tournaments (Pac-12 and Mountain West) that it’s a fun location for a sporting event.

However, the NFL has repeatedly taken stands against legalizing sports betting nationally, and it’s historically been uneasy about any association with Las Vegas.

Canton, Ohio

Who says the NFL has to move its draft to a major city? The NFL Draft would conceivably draw well at any location, so why not give it an added nostalgic element? The league was founded in Canton in 1920, and it’s where the NFL Hall of Fame is located. The surrounding greatness of the area would humble the prospects and show that the NFL isn’t always focused on the glitz and glamour, but rather on its grassroots. Aside from the annual Hall of Fame Game and ceremony, Canton doesn’t get a lot of national publicity for being the home of the NFL. Perhaps hosting the draft there would be a nice way to bring NFL fans to the Hall of Fame to celebrate the league’s stars of the past and future.