Thursday, March 12, 2009

Why Mock?

In an episode of the TV show Sports Night, the character Dan Rydell, an anchorman in the eponymous show, poses the question while reporting the NFL Draft, "Why should we care?" For an athlete, being selected as a 1st round pick as opposed to being picked in the second round represents a difference of millions of dollars....so the athletes definitely care. But why should we care—we couch potato sports fans who will never see the field of play in an NFL game let only the money—at all?

Why do we care so passionately if some young linebacker from BYU ends up going to the Colts at the end of round 2, or to Carolina in a trade-up in the middle of round 3? Why do some of us spend useless hours writing up drafts, months and months before the actual draft takes place? Why do we then post it to a message board only to have another mock draft fanatic hurl abuses at us for our stupidity? And when the actual draft day comes, none of our picks is anywhere close to the target. The futility is limitless.

And it’s not just the layman who’s questioning the passion for the draft. Professional sportswriters (including some who work for ESPN, the host of the draft) are not just expressing confusion over the Draft’s popularity, they are outright claiming that it’s stupid, boring and pointless. Mike Lupica has repeatedly ripped the NFL Draft both in print and on ESPN’s The Sports Reporters. On February 20th of this year, George L. Jones of the Selma Times-Journal published his “top 5 reasons to hate the draft,” which has since made the rounds on the Internet. And Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post wrote: “I hate the NFL draft. I realize that saying anything against the draft amounts to blasphemy, but somebody's got to do it…. I love pro football, but I hate the draft. I hate being asked, ‘Who is so-and-so going to take’ because not only do I not know, I don't care.”


The Super Bowl? Hah.
Here’s a statistic. Last year's NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers had an estimated average viewing audience of just under 9 million people per game. By comparison, over 30 million people watched the 2008 draft. Bizarre, no? Because while the NFL Draft is fantastically long—two full days, clocking in at over sixteen hours—not one point is scored. The draft is homework rather than great hits, paper-shuffling rather than explosive breakaway runs. It's 2 full days of "sports entertainment" that doesn't have a football, a field, or a scoreboard. What it has is men putting names on a bulletin board. It has the assistant NFL Commissioner and little-known kids dressed up in suits and caps.

Yet, ESPN broadcasts each and every second of it, up to and including the final, 7th round. And, those 30 million people at home, more likely than not, are on the web commenting on each of the selections on NFL message boards while thumbing through magazines covering draft prospects and with full mock drafts sold by Street & Smiths, Lindy's, The Sporting News, Pro Football Weekly and ESPN (among others) for eight dollars or more. For the truly obsessive draft fan, the Ourlads.com "complete draft package" is available for “only” $55.00.

The NFL Draft, according to CNNsi.com’s Tim Layden, “…is the biggest sporting event in America.” He adds:

“It is not a two-day event. It's a three-month event. NFL Nation (that's everybody) begins talking about the draft before the Super Bowl broadcast signs off.”

From early February into late April, fans talk endlessly about the draft, watch and listen to shows about the draft and hammer Web sites devoted to the draft. In March, I went to dinner with a group of New York Giants' fans who worship football, the Jints and the draft. Great guys, all of them. But I've got to say, their knowledge of the draft was vaguely scary.

The hype is endless from the dead of winter into the middle of spring. Give me another event that can match this. The Super Bowl? Hah. Two weeks of hype. Period.

But why? Sixteen hours of conference room tables and talking heads trying to fill the dead time between picks does not sound like the recipe for thrilling sports entertainment. Yet somehow it is.


Why Would You Want To Do That?
For years and years, the NFL Draft took place in a nondescript hotel conference room filled with cigar-chomping men who looked like overweight Mike Ditkas and the results were published in the newspapers the next week or so, if anybody cared.

Then in 1980, ESPN, a fledgling new network that needed something, anything, sports-related to broadcast, saw the perfect time-eater in the NFL Draft. ESPN figured, while the draft was definitely not scintillating TV, it filled a lot of hours, and it was better than high school curling, which took up most of ESPN's broadcasting at that time. So they went to then NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and asked for permission to broadcast the NFL Draft in its entirety. Rozelle said, "Why would you want to do that?"

Funny thing happened though. This event that no one ever thought to broadcast and defies every logical tenet of sports entertainment—there's no competition, no violence, no drama—became a phenomenon. A cult audience grew. And grew. And then grew some more. Soon, people were waiting outside all night for a chance to watch the draft, live. By the end of the 80s, loud, raucous groups of fans (many of them, irate Jet fans who always hate whatever pick their team makes—usually with reason) came to cheer and jeer. Niche experts gained a niche popularity, building entire enterprises based solely on this one day. No one is more famous to draft fans, or “draftniks,” for his prognostications than Mel Kiper, the bouffant-sculpted 30-year guru of the NFL Draft.


It Started Out As A Hobby
How does one become a guru of a noncompetitive wing of a violent and popular sport? During an interview with ESPN, Mel Kiper explained how we got started:

I was a big fan of the NFL and college football. I saw the impact of the draft then. It was the only way you could improve your football team from year to year. There was no free agency, there were very few trades.

I always thought, if this is the only way to increase your talent base, there should be huge interest in this. I thought any college or NFL fan should crave the kind of information that I was interested in. The GM of the Baltimore Colts at that time, Ernie Accorsi, was a good friend of mine, and he basically encouraged me. He told me that fans would crave that type of information, that I should take it public and turn it into a business.

And Kiper was not alone. The late, great Joel Buchsbaum of Pro Football Weekly became involved with the draft even earlier than Kiper. In the early 70s, Buchsbaum was set on following in his father's footsteps and becoming an attorney. That is, until his hobby of writing scouting reports on college football players—imitating the scouting reports of Carl and Pete Marasco in Pro Football Weekly—eventually took over, and he left his career path to follow the NFL Draft full-time. As Buchsbaum later said: "It started out as a hobby and became a job."

And for thousands and thousands of people out there, the NFL draft is not just a hobby, but a job. And for some, it’s not just a job, but an obsession. Google "NFL Mock Draft" and you'll see that there are thousands of sites—featuring mock drafts, personal opinions and more—all amateurly run, all for little more than the love of the draft.

I think after the Super Bowl, it's the second biggest event, not just in the NFL, but in sports.

So says Scott Wright, owner and sole proprietor of www.draftcountdown.com, the world's most popular NFL Draft site. The site is completely free as well, which is amazing, considering that Wright maintains the site as a full-time job, year-round. That's right, all year round. The day after this year’s NFL Draft, Wright's site will begin the march to the 2010 NFL Draft (if it hasn't started already). For Wright, the NFL Draft is not just a hobby, it's his career.

I just became interested in it in high school, started messing around, making my own site. And it took off from there. Now I get to say, I get to work on the NFL Draft full-time.

Colin Lindsay of www.gbnreport.com also works full-time on his own NFL Draft web site. He started following the draft because: "...in the late 1970s there was absolutely no coverage of the actual draft up here in Canada, so I would take a day or two of annual leave from my job, but still go into the office, spread out my rating sheets and call the old sports ticker every 5-10 minutes to get the latest picks and followed the draft pick by pick that way."

Both Lindsay and Wright know that they aren't alone in their interest in the Draft and it's popularity. Lindsay says, "The interest in the draft is very real; indeed, it's become a year round thing, and for a lot of sports fans draft weekend has become the #2 'holiday' on the calendar after Christmas."


Those Who Can't
So still the question remains: Why would so many people devote such time over what is essentially a job fair? Says Lindsay:

I believe for many sports fans the NFL draft provides the best opportunity to play along at being GM for a day---and how many NFL fans don't fantasize about being general manager of their particular team.

Is that it? A fantasy football-like "Let's Pretend we're a GM." Perhaps. Instead of pretending to be Peyton Manning or Brian Urlacher, people are pretending to be Mike Tannenbaum or Scott Pioli. With fantasy football's popularity and the growing communities on the web of amateurs, "draftniks" abound on the web.

One such draftnik is Robert Bryant who not only follows the NFL Draft on a self-run web site, but on two. Bryant owns and runs NFLDraftDog.com as well as NFL-Draft-Site.com, both comprehensive sites that he frequently updates in addition to having a full-time job as a police officer for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. He writes on his site that he: "...personally scouts NFL Draft prospects by analyzing hours upon hours of game film and has multiple contacts within the industry, including current and former NFL Scouts, coaches, current and former players, experienced sports writers and other Draftniks."

There's that old much-abused saying, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." Perhaps there's something in that for the draftniks. Since Wright and Lindsay and Buchsbaum and Kiper and Bryant and the 30 million other people who watch the draft can't run a 4.3 40-yard dash or throw a laser spiral into triple coverage, to become a part of the game they love, they do what they can do. And that is, obsessively watch game after game after game, analyze, form strong opinions of what they see, and pretend that they have a say in the future of their team.

So this April, old men, young men, fat men, thin men, all sorts of “men who can’t” will sit around, either in New York City at the actual draft, or on their couches in front of their TVs, or on their computers linked to other “men who can’t,” all cheering or booing, full of opinions and tirades, and watch hour after hour to see if their teams pick the way they guessed they would, trying to be a part of the sport they love.

And what’s wrong with that?

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