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NFL Draft Has Turned into a TV Hit

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NFL Draft Has Turned into a TV Hit

Sports

NFL Draft Has Turned into a TV Hit

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The National Football League's annual draft of college players is this weekend. What once was a gathering of middle-aged men in dark suits and thin ties in a hotel conference room has morphed into a glitzy television extravaganza, and it's likely to attract more viewers than an NBA playoff game or a NASCAR race this weekend.

Joining us now is sportswriter Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal. Welcome back, Stefan.

Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (Sportswriter, The Wall Street Journal): Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: The draft lasts two days, 12 rounds - 255 players will be selected. But for fans, this has become more than just an announcement of who's going to which team.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah. Forty years ago that's exactly what it was. The change began in 1979 when this new television network called ESPN suggested to the NFL that it televise the draft. And the initial response from Commissioner Pete Rozelle at the time was why, why would you want to do that?

But within a few years, the NFL was pressed to move the draft from the middle of the week to Sunday, Monday and then to Saturday, Sunday. Now, it's a vacation for thousands of fans who've come to watch it live at Radio City Music Hall. The NFL this year had to post a notice on its Web site, telling fans that they couldn't start lining up for the free tickets before 5:00 in the morning tomorrow. They've been getting there the night before and camping out.

ESPN is going to show 18 hours of coverage. The NFL Network is going to show 20 hours of coverage this weekend.

SIEGEL: And it isn't just a one-day phenomenon. Sports fans have been reading and hearing about the draft ever since the Super Bowl.

Mr. FATSIS: And it really parallels how the league operates. February, March and April maybe downtime in terms of games, but they are the busiest and most intense months of the year for NFL executives. Players in the NFL have to produce quickly. They don't last very long. Careers are short, so a lot does ride on who teams select.

And now, you can't argue that the draft is totally over-hyped because ultimately, all that really matters is who does get picked, not who anyone thinks is going to get picked. But fans love it. They love to play general manager. They love to agonize or rejoice in whoever their teams selects. One of my favorite Web sites is a site called Kissing Suzy Kolber, which is a funny and a little bit profane blog about the NFL.

One of its writers this week responded to one of those media broadsides about the draft by writing: Pardon me for getting excited about how new players come to my team. Sorry for being a fan.

SIEGEL: Well, the Oakland Raiders have the first pick tomorrow. And according to all of those draft projections, it appears that they'll select quarterback JaMarcus Russell from Louisiana State. What is the track record actually for top picks?

Mr. FATSIS: In the last few years, it's not so great. My colleague, Allen St. John at The Journal has a piece in today's paper, examining whether the draft is a good predictor of NFL success. Now, he looked at the 80 players who were named All-Pro in the NFL for the last five years. Forty-four percent of them were not drafted in the first round, and only one of the last five top picks, Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts, was an All-Pro.

Now, the four teams that Allan found that were best at drafting future All-Pros are the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburg Steelers, San Diego Chargers and Indianapolis Colts - and those are all recent playoff teams, and the two past Super Bowl champions.

SIEGEL: Now, some future NFL players will be affected by a decision yesterday by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. A decision to prohibit schools from sending cell-phone text messages to potential recruits. That's a total ban, correct?

Mr. FATSIS: Total ban. This rose out of complaints from athletes and parents that recruits are getting 50 or more text messages a day at all hours from coaches, and then were spending hours in running a big phone bill in replying. Coaches have used texting as a way to circumvent rules against telephoning recruits. They'll text a recruit and say call me back, so it did need to be controlled.

But if you look at the way kids communicate today, an outright ban seems kind of lud-eye(ph). Now, the NCAA said it couldn't find a way to regulate the time and the frequency of messages, the way they do for other forms of contacting recruits. And coaches were clearly pushing the limits of this to the point of abuse so they just banned the whole thing.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Stefan.

Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal, who joins us on Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports.

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