Roger Goodell got at least one thing right as commish in his transformation of NFL draft

PHILADELPHIA – It won’t take long at Thursday’s NFL draft for fans to begin booing and heckling Roger Goodell. The league commissioner is unpopular for various policy decisions, antics and botched investigations. Many of them are indefensible. Philadelphians have never been known to hold back their opinions.

It’s part of the fun.

Yet the mere fact that he will be here in Philly to be booed, here specifically at an oversized television set on the Art Museum steps made famous by Rocky Balboa as a backdrop, here in primetime on a Thursday, is a testament to his one, and undeniably smart, legacy decision.

The Rocky Balboa statue will figure prominently in this week's NFL draft in Philadelphia. (AP)
The Rocky Balboa statue will figure prominently in this week’s NFL draft in Philadelphia. (AP)

The commissioner has turned the NFL draft into something incredible, a traveling circus that is more viewer friendly, spectacular and capable of commanding excitement than ever imagined. What was once mostly an oddball, marathon procedural event with some television cameras surrounding it, is now – quite surprisingly – one of the biggest events on the sports calendar.

Goodell became the league’s sixth commissioner in August of 2006. His first draft, in 2007, began at noon on a Saturday. It was held, as almost always, at Radio City Music Hall in midtown Manhattan. The stage and theater were grand, everything else was bland and depressing.

The fan setup was clunky, with too few seats and bad visuals. To go to the draft – or watch at home – meant giving up a spring Saturday to watch a sluggish process play out. That morning, about 10:30 outside Radio City, a couple of Eagles fans were seen standing on a street corner trying to knock down tall boy beers, hidden in paper bags, without any police seeing them.

This was what passed for a tailgate, a reinforcement for the marathon to come. It wasn’t pretty.

Then came the picks, with 15 full minutes between each selection. The day dragged on and on, with the first round finally ending at 6:08 p.m. in front of what was by then a mostly empty theater. It then immediately kicked into the second round, testing the mettle of even the biggest draft junkie.

Goodell looked as bored as everyone else at the pace and tired of listening to too much analysis of prospects. He stood on the stage and made a promise.

Never again. He called for a “new, streamlined” event.

The draft, whether watched at home or live, was still fun and commanded good ratings in a football-mad America. It came with an unnecessary tradeoff of self-dignity though – did you really spend an entire day watching that? Did you need to chug mid-morning beers in a Manhattan street to make attending more palpable?

The first order was to cut the time between picks from 15 to 10 minutes, a huge development in not just speeding things up but creating momentum. The NBA manages to have just five minutes between its first-round picks – and two in the second. The NFL certainly didn’t need the extra time. The second move was pushing the start of Day 1 back to 3 p.m.

Boom, the 2007 first round was completed in just three hours and 30 minutes. In one year it went from the longest in history to the fastest since 1990.

The NFL made its presence felt at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. (AP)
The NFL made its presence felt at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. (AP)

Suddenly the possibilities were open. With the first round no longer taking an unworkable six hours, Goodell spoke of moving it to primetime on a weeknight, which would dramatically change the feel of the event.

In 2009, the start was pushed back to 4 p.m. on Saturday and the NFL brought in cheerleaders to make it more of a celebration than a cattle call. The 2010 draft was a big one – first round on Thursday night, Rounds 2 and 3 on Friday night (a brisk seven minutes between picks) and Saturday at 10 a.m. still reserved for the late-round die-hards.

“We continue to look for ways to make the draft more accessible to more fans,” Goodell said at the time.

It was a huge hit. The move changed the feel of the event and made it easier for more fans to watch the entire draft, not just jump in for the hour or so when their favorite team might be picking. A record 7.9 million tuned in, up nearly 50 percent from the previous record.

Scheduling issues with Radio City Music Hall sent the league out of New York two years ago. When it comes to atmosphere, there is something undeniably big about Manhattan, but the break changed everything. Two years in a theater in Chicago showed that the television product wasn’t impacted, while it allowed the draft (and all that came with it) to play to fans in a different city.

Grant Park hosted an NFL Experience, and charity work and Play 60 events were held all over the city. There was a curiosity from the locals.

Now comes Philadelphia, which isn’t stuffing it inside. It instead will play out on one of the city’s most iconic settings, a likely grand visual for television.

By putting it outside, no one is entirely sure how many fans will show up over the weekend – not just to watch but also to take in the NFL Fan Experience nearby. Estimates run north of 200,000, though, over three days. This has become a traveling celebration of the NFL.

As for the future, the league has no set plans for next year and is taking proposals from other cities. It will likely move annually now, a mini-Super Bowl. The draft could be used as a promotional tool to bolster new franchises in Los Angeles or Las Vegas. It could go international and hit London or Mexico City. Unimaginable spots such as Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, has bid.

Preferably, in my opinion, it could get out into the heartland for some longstanding NFL communities which will never host a Super Bowl but would put on a huge show for the draft – Cleveland, Buffalo, Kansas City, Green Bay, etc. The scope of the event is now limited only to the vision of city planners.

Thursday night should be something, draft picks getting called on the Rocky steps with thousands and thousands of fans cheering into the primetime Philadelphia sky. It’s a long way from a drawn out Saturday afternoon a decade ago.

Score one for Roger Goodell. Which doesn’t mean you’re barred from booing him though.

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