“We had two franchise quarterbacks, seventy-five wide receivers, five high-powered left tackles, a draft board half full of defensive ends, and a whole galaxy of tight ends, punters, free safeties … and also some cornerbacks, kickers, a bunch of middle linebackers, a pile of nose tackles, raw fullbacks and two dozen offensive guards. Not that we needed all that for the season, but once you get locked into a serious draft addiction, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.”
Apologies to Dr. Hunter S. Thompson for perverting his famous lines, but he was a serious pro football addict like me and if he were alive today he’d be on the phone from his Colorado fortress with his buddy, eccentric Colts owner Jim Irsay, screaming about quarterbacks and trades and bats and delivering apocalyptic vengeance upon the Raiders.
But, alas, Thompson is gone. The NFL Draft is not, and this year it’s in Las Vegas. Thompson, whose fame skyrocketed thanks to Sin City, was among the millions who tune into the draft every year, particularly for Day 1’s drama, fanfare, farce, trades, and a tradition like no other: Fans lustily booing Roger Goodell, and Jets fans booing everything including their team’s picks.
Formally termed the Player Selection Meeting, the draft since its 1980 TV premiere on ESPN has followed the rest of the NFL into becoming a television viewership heavyweight in its own right, part of the league’s dominance of the American sports landscape.
“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the NFL Draft began to take hold.”
The NFL’s procedural and bureaucratic mechanics have become monetized fan-fodder. The start of free agency. Schedule release day. Minicamps opening. Franchise tag deadline day. Legal tampering period. The combine. Annual owners meetings. The Mock Draft Industrial Complex. Fans dig this stuff, and the league capitalizes on all of it, via its own NFL Network or its media partners.
They’ve also turned the wildly popular draft into a three-day football Disneyland that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors and their wallets to the rotation of draft cities. Cleveland got 160,000 visitors last year amid COVID-19 restrictions (2020’s draft was entirely virtual), but in 2019 Nashville enjoyed 600,000 fans over the three days. Dallas and Philly got a couple of hundred thousand in-person fans as host cities, too. Vegas predicts 600,000 attendees, with chamber of commerce types boasting of fantastical economic impact figures.
This year’s draft – sports capitalism’s anti-free market labor spectacle to some – kicks off at 8 p.m. Thursday from Vegas, which got the three-day event after it was canceled as an in-person extravaganza two years ago. Round 1 airs live on ABC, ESPN, NFL Network and ESPN Deportes.
As my colleague Richard Deitsch noted in his must-read draft viewers guide this week, the 2022 draft is without clear-cut franchise quarterback talent, which may rob the event of some of the casual viewership.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, who took Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence No. 1 a year ago, have the top pick again after a dumpster-fire season. So we know a passer isn’t going first. But maybe a blockbuster trade puts a QB-needy club first? Dumber things have happened! That’s part of the drama.
The other teams in the top five draft order this week, barring trades, are the Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, New York Jets and New York Giants. The latter two teams are in the nation’s top media market, so that doesn’t hurt ratings potential for the early round.
Maybe the mystery of who goes No. 1 will bring in viewers. We’ll see.
How has the draft’s opening-round TV viewership fared in recent years?
Those are excellent numbers for what amounts to people reading names off a card. The 2020 draft set the draft viewership record. Those numbers are not too far off from 2021 NFL regular-season games, which averaged 17.1 million TV and streaming viewers. That was the best average since 2015 – but with a huge asterisk because Nielsen didn’t measure out-of-home viewership until 2020, and OOH can add sizeable audience numbers for NFL games.
If this week’s opening round averages, say, somewhere in between the 2020 and 2021 TV numbers, it would put the broadcast among the most-viewed programs on U.S television this year, on par with several nights of the Olympics, a Browns-Steelers game from January, and the men’s Elite Eight UNC-Saint Peter’s game.
The draft was first televised by ESPN when the network was still in its infancy, and it remains a non-exclusive part of parent company Disney’s broadcast rights package with the NFL (the latest of which costs the Mouse $2.7 billion annually over 10 years and begins in 2023).
The 2020 #NFLDraft is about to kickoff!
Check out the opening to the 1980 @NFLDraft – the first televised on ESPN #TBT pic.twitter.com/7jWuQQO0wt
— ESPN PR (@ESPNPR) April 23, 2020
For history buffs: The Detroit Lions took running back Billy Sims with the No. 1 pick in 1980.
The league’s inaugural draft was in February 1936, held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia, and taken first was University of Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger, a Heisman Trophy winner who never ended up playing in the NFL Amusingly, the third pick also opted for a non-football career: Notre Dame halfback William Shakespeare, who also skipped out on the NFL. He went into business, not play writing.
There was no live coverage, even on radio, of the draft in those days. The results maybe showed up in local newspapers. The event has evolved many times of the ensuing decades, in terms of the number of rounds and days and location, which the current format of Round 1 on its own day followed by two days of later rounds beginning in 2010.
Every pick was televised for the first time in 1993.
Las Vegas spent a reported $3 million to get itself ready for the upcoming spectacle, an astonishing number from a town already known for flamboyancy and steady tourism. The theme park-like NFL Experience will be there for fans, and a floating stage was built atop the famed Bellagio Fountain. Picks will be announced from the “Draft Theater” adjacent to the 520-foot Ferris while by the LINQ Promenade and the Caesars Forum.
And that’s that about the NFL draft on TV.
“We can’t stop here. This is Mel Kiper country!”
MORE FOOTBALL: How did USFL 2.0 fare in Week 2 on television? It lost nearly a million viewers.
The opening weekend had some solid numbers for what’s basically a third-tier sports product aimed at filling network airtime at a low cost. Initial curiosity typically inflates the initial games for a new league or sport, and then it tapers off. That held true for this league, which is owned and operated by Fox Sports.
Here’s how Week 2 went:
That’s an average of 657,000 viewers for the weekend, which was again dominated by strong NBA playoff audiences and NASCAR’s Geico 500 that got 4.7 million viewers. In Week 1, the USFL’s four games averaged 1.56 million – and that was likely depressed a bit because one game had an hour rain delay, and another was bumped a day for weather. They USFL’s average audience dropped by 903,000 for the second weekend, or about 57 percent.
How that’s compare to the last two spring pro football attempts? The Alliance of American Football’s Week 2 viewership in 2019 fell 69 percent and XFL 2.0 in 2020 dropped 34 percent, per Sports Business Journal’s Austin Karp.
So other than that million viewers on Saturday afternoon, the networks are not popping champagne bottles over these Week 2 numbers – but they’re probably not shocked. Yes, the games are airing against an NBA playoff season that’s the best in several years for TV viewership, but there isn’t much of a window in the springtime that isn’t facing strong legacy sports TV properties such as March Madness and The Masters.
On the plus side for the USFL, its four games out-drew all but one national MLB game last week. That one was the Brewers-Phillies at 7 p.m. Sunday that averaged 1.1 million on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” – another Ángel Hernández umpiring special. And yes, MLB has far more TV inventory than the USFL, so it’s natural baseball games average fewer eyeballs.
Fox Sports’ strategy guru Mike Mulvihill, in a short tweet thread, provided some insisght on network expectations, namely that it wants the USFL TV numbers to generate what “Sunday Night Baseball” and F1, NHL, and Premier League games average. “That’s the company we want to consistently be in as far as viewership,” he wrote.
USFL Week 2 viewership and comparable live events:
Sun Night MLB – 1.11m
USFL Sat Fox – 1.06m
Formula 1 – 1.03m
USFL Sun NBC – 812k
NHL ABC – 774k
EPL NBC (Tottenham) – 631k
EPL USA (Liverpool) – 624k
NHL TNT – 433k
USFL FS1 – 402k
— Michael Mulvihill (@mulvihill79) April 26, 2022
Fox has committed $150 million to the enterprise to finance its first three seasons, but if the viewership continues to bleed, the cord could be cut after Year 1.
The network hasn’t disclosed what specific success metrics look like for the USFL, and they include more than TV ratings, so we’re left to speculate – an even more difficult task because of the seismic changes in the TV industry that’s made everything a bit of a chaotic wild west.
We’ll have a better sense of the new development league’s popularity – I watched a few games and was left mostly impressed – as the season grinds on, and when we see the TV numbers for the three playoff games in July.
MUST-SEE MIGGY TV: Miguel Cabrera’s 3,000th hit on Saturday aired locally on Bally Sports Detroit, and the broadcast averaged 182,892 viewers and a 3.9 rating, per Nielsen. By contrast, the Tigers have averaged 93,753 viewers on the network each of the past two seasons.
Cabrera, who became just the 33rd MLB player and third Tigers player with that many hits, reached the mark with a first inning single of a 1:10 p.m. ET start, so viewership may have declined a bit as casual fans turned to something else once the feat was accomplished. The Tigers beat the Rockies 13-0 and routs don’t help viewership, either.
What a special moment as Miguel Cabrera gets hit No. 3,000 in front of #Tigers fans, his family and friends! #Rockies pitcher Antonio Senzatela and catcher Elias Diaz are fellow Venezuelans so it is incredible for them, too. #DetroitRoots@MiguelCabrera pic.twitter.com/Le6UqdQfJZ
— Bally Sports Detroit (@BallySportsDET) April 23, 2022
MLB Network cut into the game to air Cabrera’s at-bats live, but that viewership data wasn’t available from the league.
Cabrera, 39, is the first player to 3,000 career hits since Albert Pujols reach the mark on May 4, 2018. Three other players reached 3K in the three seasons prior to that: Adrian Beltre (July 30, 2017), Ichiro Suzuki (Aug. 7, 2016), and Alex Rodriguez (July 19, 2015). No one else is expected to reach 3,000 hits for several more years.
Official in-person attendance for Cabrera’s historic game – delayed from the night prior because of rain but played on a sunny, warm day in Detroit – was 37,566. That’s technically a sellout because premium seating like suites isn’t counted for sellout purposes at 41,083-seat Comerica Park.
The Tigers are averaging 21,282 fans per game this season, so Saturday was an outlier. The team is among the best for local primetime TV ratings in all of MLB when contending, but has been rebuilding for years. A decade ago, the Tigers averaged a 9 rating or better when they were spending huge sums to try to win their first World Series since 1984.
COMING UP: Next week, a closer look at how the NBA playoffs are faring on TV. Other major live sports viewership events in the near-term include the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs starting May 2, the Kentucky Derby (May 7) and the Preakness (May 21), the PGA Championship (final round May 22), and the Indy 500 (May 29).
All viewership data is from Nielsen and Adobe Analytics, and other metrics via the TV networks, Nielsen, Sports Media Watch, ShowBuzz Daily and the leagues.
(Photo: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)