NFL draft raised ESPN's credibility

2010-04-16T00:00:00Z 2012-06-11T12:08:07Z NFL draft raised ESPN's credibilityMedia views > Dan Caesar dcaesar@post-dispatch.com, 314-340-8175 stltoday.com

The NFL draft, once such an afterthought league commissioner Pete Rozelle was said to have asked in essence "Are you crazy?'' when the idea of televising the event live was proposed to him, has become such a TV force that it will be broadcast in prime time for the first time when the first three rounds are held next Thursday and Friday.

In fact it has grown so big that two networks cover it — ESPN, which will show the proceedings for the 31st time, and NFL Network, which will do it a fifth time. The audience watching at any given point of the first round last year was a record 6.3 million, and more than 39 million tuned in at some point of the draft coverage, also a record.

The draft has become one of ESPN's most important events and was instrumental in the network establishing credibility in its early days as it first showed the event in 1980, about seven months after going on the air.

Bob Ley, who was one of the anchors that day, said he still has a full-page ad from the New York Times promoting the draft that carried the ESPN and NFL logos.

''It was immensely important for us to be aligned with the National Football League,'' Ley, who still is with ESPN but not working on the draft, said this week. "It was inestimably important and valuable beyond how many people were watching, just in the community of opinion leaders and advertisers and sports business people that we were aligned with the NFL.''

ESPN had no major live sports at the time, and the draft was its first ticket to the big time, although skeptics abounded. One was Rozelle, generally regarded as the best commissioner ever in U.S. sport, when he was approached by ESPN executive Chet Simmons about the network showing the event.

"Pete was as smart as they come, and supposedly the answer Pete had was, 'Why would you want to do that?'""'' Ley said. "Now, 31 (drafts) later, I think we have answered the question.''

The evolution

Chris Berman, who will anchor ESPN's telecast as he appears on the coverage for the 30th time, has seen the production move from a Tuesday morning affair to weekends and now to prime time on a Thursday — one of TV's most-watched nights of the week.

"The first few years a lot of people didn't know what cable TV was, so a lot of people (who had it) would call in sick" to watch the draft, Berman recalled this week. "A lot of bosses couldn't figure out why. 'This on TV?' It was your little secret. When we started hearing that, we thought there was some potential."

Compared to the high-tech production ESPN and NFL Network will air next week, the early years of draft coverage look like something out of the stone age. Ley recalled putting info on index cards in his apartment the night before that first draft telecast.

"It was as state-of-the art as anything could be then. But if you pulled the tapes now you'd say Fred (Flintstone) and Barney (Rubble) are at work.''

Those days provided a key pillar in the emergence of ESPN.

"It was a parable for the growth and the achievement of our network,'' Ley said. "Now, 31 years later, the draft is its own solid industry, from (analyst) Mel Kiper and Mel's hair to (fellow analyst) Todd McShay to 'Boomer' (Berman), it has become a way of life. Who knew?"

Missing McGwire

Timing issues led to Fox Sports Midwest missing Mark McGwire's much-anticipated introduction at the Cardinals' home opener this week, FSM general manager Jack Donovan said.

Just as new Cards hitting coach McGwire was about to step out of a truck and onto the field in front of the home-town crowd for the first time since he admitted using performance-enhancing substances, FSM cut to Jim Hayes talking to Cards outfielder Joe Mather. It soon returned to the introductions with the welcoming of McGwire's assistant, Mike Aldrete — leading some fans to think there was a cover-up in case McGwire was booed.

That wasn't the case, Donovan said, saying FSM's timing was off because the ceremonies were at least five minutes behind schedule. He said FSM didn't air several commercials because of that, costing it significant revenue.

"There was no conspiracy; you've got no time to react,'' he said. "You just do what at the second you think is best. We did cover Mark coming into the stadium — normally we would have covered him more.''

FSM executive producer Kevin Landy said the Mather interview had been prearranged.

"The Cardinals gave us an opportunity to put (Hayes) on that truck, and we thought that was a great element,'' Landy said.

But it came precisely when McGwire was being introduced, superseding one of the biggest moments of the pregame festivities, something one would think would have been a major priority.

"It was by far not perfect for us, but we're covering a live event and at live events things happen,'' Donovan said. "... We're mildly amused that people jumped to the conspiracy thing because that is way out of a spy movie. It was nothing along those lines.''

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