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NFL Draft went from meager start to TV royalty

In 1970, the NFL Draft was a low-key affair run by Pete Rozelle — who oversaw the first televised draft in 1980.

FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS

In 1970, the NFL Draft was a low-key affair run by Pete Rozelle — who oversaw the first televised draft in 1980.

The state of the National Football League is a hot-button issue at the moment in part because it exists in a space with so many conflicting and in some cases heavy topics: violence, athleticism, teamwork, employee health, and more violence. But even a cynic about the league and its motivations must recognize that at the core of the NFL’s massive popularity is a singular sentiment: hope.

There is not another professional sports league in the United States that more effectively sells the enticing premise of the unknown to its fans. The anticipation of discovering the next big thing, the next big star, is intrinsic to the fabric and structure of the league. It’s not just hope about what might happen this season, but also in the seasons to come.

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It’s why Patriots fans would stay up late into the fourth quarter of Friday night’s preseason game with the Carolina Panthers, long after Tom Brady and the rest of the varsity had called it a night, just to get a glimpse of rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

A second-round draft choice out of Eastern Illinois, a distant college football outpost, Garoppolo has earned increasing raves for his poised and athletic performances during the three exhibition games so far.

Never mind that much of his success has come against men who will be updating their résumés once final roster cuts are completed, or that his presence on the field for any significant length of time this season means something has gone horribly wrong. It’s easy to watch Garoppolo and dream on what he might become.

That process, whether it’s with Garoppolo here or some other intriguing young player in another NFL city, begins long before fans catch themselves staying up way too late for a meaningless exhibition game. It starts with the NFL Draft in April, the league’s annual talent replenishment from the collegiate ranks that has become an event as major as the games themselves.

The draft offers more than just hope. Instant gratification is possible. In a given football season it’s not unusual for four or more rookies to make a noticeable contribution on a 53-player roster. But the appeal is the daydream, occasionally fulfilled, of finding that next generation’s star in the first round or a steal of a lifetime in a later round.

Perhaps Garoppolo will be regarded in such a way someday. The Patriots have hit draft jackpots before. Brady, the 199th choice in the 2000 draft, is on a very short list of the greatest selections in league history. He stands as a testament to the irresistible hope the draft provides, a reason it continues to grow in magnitude.

Becoming a big deal

The NFL Draft has long been established as one of the most anticipated events on the sports calendar. It has evolved from its humble beginnings as ESPN filler programming during a weekday to a prime-time ratings juggernaut that airs on two cable channels, ESPN and the NFL Network, over three days. The first round airs on Thursday night, the second and third rounds on Friday night, and rounds 4-7 on Saturday afternoon.

It’s not just a television program now. It’s an annual mini-series, and soon, a road show. The draft, which has been based in New York City since 1965 and for the last nine years held at Radio City Music Hall, will be hosted by either Los Angeles or Chicago in 2015. A decision is expected before the regular season begins early next month.

When announcing the finalists in mid-July, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said 12 cities expressed interest. Mayor Marty Walsh, whose athletic pursuits on Boston’s behalf include interest in hosting the 2024 Summer Olympics, has been vocal about wanting to bring the draft to the city as soon as possible.

Spokesperson Katie Norton said Walsh’s feelings have not changed after missing out on being a finalist this year. “The mayor would love to see the NFL draft come to Boston,’’ she said. “He’s a long-time Patriots ticket holder. As he has said previously, Boston has the resources and the infrastructure to host the draft here, and we would welcome the opportunity.”

It’s hard to imagine there’s a city that wouldn’t. Which makes the NFL Draft’s modest beginnings 34 years ago all the more amusing.

Humble debut

During his transformative tenure as NFL commissioner from 1960-89, Pete Rozelle built a résumé of accomplishments so enduring that his legacy is that of the most revered executive in the history of professional sports.

The Super Bowl, the grandest of American sports spectacles, was born on Rozelle’s watch. He navigated the merger between the NFL and the upstart American Football League. And he was a particular visionary in building the symbiotic and lucrative relationship between professional football and television.

But even Rozelle’s prescience had limits. When he was approached early in 1980 by Chet Simmons, then the president of fledgling cable sports channel ESPN, with the idea of televising the NFL Draft for the first time, the commissioner reacted with bemused skepticism. Even a visionary couldn’t foresee the appeal of putting a mundane annual event on the air.

As recalled in “Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN” by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, when Rozelle asked Simmons, a longtime friend, “why in the world people would watch the damn thing,’’ Simmons responded with a smile: “Let that be my problem.”

There were no grand expectations among ESPN personnel. Bob Ley, one of the hosts of the April 29, 1980, telecast and still a respected ESPN host, recalled that Simmons told him that if it were going poorly, they could cut to other programming at a moment’s notice. The graphics were rudimentary and the picks were announced in a less-than-suspenseful manner. Rozelle stood at a podium in a hotel lobby and read the chosen player’s name off an index card.

ESPN’s motivation is obvious in retrospect: In the days before it was established enough to compete for rights deals to broadcast the major professional sports, it desperately needed programming beyond college basketball games and ancillary sports such as Australian rules football to fill airtime. And aligning itself in even a minor sense with the NFL was a savvy business move.

According to “Those Guys Have All the Fun,’’ Bill Fitts, charged with executive producing the day-long draft, expressed concern to Simmons that there was no substance there.

“I said ‘Chet, there’s nothing there, there’s just some people on the phone, and they’re not even football people. They’re just relatives — relatives of relatives! How can I do an all-day television show?’ And he says, ‘Well, if you have to sign off early, that’s OK,’ And I started to say, ‘But Chet,’ and he says, ‘Look, you don’t understand something. It’s the NFL. Figure it out.’ ”

Migration effect?

It would be easy to say they figured it out beyond their wildest expectations, but no one expected it to have major appeal as a fan-attended event.

The NFL has cited scheduling conflicts with Radio City as a reason the draft will be held in another city. Goodell told reporters in mid-July that the league had been informed dates were not available in April or May. But the cause didn’t necessarily lead to the effect.

“It’s a little bit of both,’’ said Hans Schroeder, the NFL senior vice president for media strategy and development, when asked if the draft would eventually have moved even without the nudge from Radio City. “It’s an idea that’s been bounced around from time to time, but we also had tremendous success in New York. We also had a great home in Radio City and it served well into building the draft into what it is. I would think over time there likely would have been the opportunity to look elsewhere. But I think the situation with Radio City probably accelerated that.”

Taking the draft to other cities is a logical way to share in the oversized NFL experience — especially for cold-weather cities that are unlikely to host a Super Bowl any time soon — and perhaps grow the league’s massive footprint even more.

“The NFL certainly hasn’t been shy about wanting to move this thing around,” said Seth Markman, a longtime senior coordinating producer at ESPN who oversees the network’s NFL studio programming, including the draft. “The only thing that I worry about, and maybe this is New York bias showing, but there’s something special about Radio City and the history when you walk in the building. If it ended up in Boston, for instance, will that become an event that’s completely packed with Patriots fans? And will that take away from the feeling that we’ve always had at the draft, that all 32 [teams] are equal? If it’s in one spot, I can see it being all about that team.”

No shortage of opinions

The appeal of the NFL Draft may have left Rozelle initially puzzled in 1980, but it is apparent many times over now. One significant factor is the popularity of college football. Because of their high-profile accomplishments in college, some players are certified stars, even household names, before the NFL comes calling.

“The drafts that we’ve seen that have been the most popular ones have been where there’s Johnny Manziel or Tim Tebow or a star that has already been on the scene in college, whereas in some of the other sports the picks are guys who aren’t household names,’’ said Markman.

Sometimes that familiarity or status breeds unreasonable expectations. In July, Eagles coach Chip Kelly told MMQB.com’s Peter King that the draft is the worst thing about the league. “The hype that goes into the draft is insane,’’ said Kelly. “Totally insane. The biggest thing for me is that everybody thinks whoever you drafted or whoever you signed is now gonna be a savior . . . If you take a job at Wells Fargo when you get out of college, your first day of the job they don’t say, ‘He’s our first-round draft pick, he’s the savior to the company.’ ”

But that’s part of the fun — the mystery in trying to identify who will succeed and who will be out of the league and scrambling for a cushy television job in three years. No one — not even draft “experts” such as ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. and the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock — knows how the players will fare. But everyone has an opinion, and the draft is the rare occasion when every team has reason for optimism.

That has proven a recipe for staggering ratings. The first round of this year’s draft on May 8 averaged 12.4 million viewers — approximately 10 million on ESPN and 2.4 million on the NFL Network — making it the most-watched program on cable and the second-most-watched on television that night, trailing only CBS ratings powerhouse “The Big Bang Theory.”

More than 45.7 million viewers tuned in during the three days of NFL Draft coverage. The first round had greater viewership than any NBA or NHL playoff game this year, and slightly more than 1 million more viewers than last month’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game on Fox.

Following the model

It’s no wonder the other major professional sports attempt, with small fractions of success, to emulate the NFL in making the draft a must-see event. The NBA does it best — its two-round broadcast on ESPN in June was the most-watched basketball draft since 1995, averaging 3.2 million viewers. That is a strong number, yet it’s approximately 9 million fewer viewers than the NFL Draft drew for the first round. Talk about different leagues.

The NBA Draft does have an instant gratification aspect. Just not as much as it used to, with so many top prospects, such as this year’s No. 1 overall pick, Andrew Wiggins, playing just a single season of college basketball.

“When I was in college,” said ESPN’s Jay Bilas, who played four years at Duke in the mid-’80s, “Michael Jordan left North Carolina early. He was a junior. And everybody said, ‘Oh my god, he’s leaving early.’ If he were playing today, he’d never make it to his junior year. You got to know the players so much better then.”

The interest in the Major League Baseball and National Hockey League drafts is stunted by the reality that the vast majority of even its best prospects are seasons away from having an effect at the highest level, if they make it at all. The result: modest ratings.

NBC Sports Network’s simulcast of Canadian sports channel TSN’s coverage of June’s NHL Draft averaged 337,000 viewers, which was actually up 14 percent from last year’s coverage. Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft the same month drew an average of just 232,000 viewers on the MLB Network.

The question isn’t whether another sport’s draft will ever approach the magnitude of the NFL Draft. That’s not happening. The more pointed question is whether the NFL Draft’s popularity ever reaches a saturation point.

“I do worry about that sometimes,’’ said Markman, who noted that there have been conversations about turning it into a four-day event. “As much as we like to say, ‘hey, everybody loves the draft,’ there have been many examples in TV history of shows where it was said, ‘The public can’t get enough of that, let’s put it [on] three times a week.’ And then it loses a lot of popularity.

“We don’t make the decisions here when it comes to what the NFL wants to do. But I think the format the way it is really works, and I believe taking it on the road will only enhance that. We’ve hit the sweet spot.”

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.
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