An NFL draft handled remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic is the latest twist to an event that has become as popular as any professional football happening, short of the NFL Super Bowl.
On Thursday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell alerted NFL teams in a memo that the dates of this year’s draft are to remain April 23 to 25, and the eight owners who comprise the NFL Management Council Executive Committee unanimously endorsed moving forward as planned.
So next month’s draft, originally set for Las Vegas, is to have a pretty much spartan look.
“All clubs should now be doing the necessary planning to conduct draft operations in a location outside of your facility, with a limited number of people present,” Goodell told the teams.
The draft is to be televised and, given the scarcity of sports offerings, the ratings for this “selection meeting” could be impressive — as is the history of the draft.
It began because Bert Bell had been burned and sought a way to get even. His creation, the NFL draft, has become an industry unto itself.
Bell owned the Philadelphia Eagles in 1933 and was hot to sign Stanley “King Kong” Kostka of the Minnesota Gophers.
All collegians were free agents back then — college football was far more popular than the pros — and Bell saw the bruising fullback/linebacker as a building block for his team, but Kostka signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers — yes, that was a football franchise back then.
Never mind that Kostka only lasted one season in the NFL, Bell had a calling.
“I made up my mind that this league would never survive unless we had some system whereby each team had an even chance to bid for talent against each other,” he later told reporters.
With some negotiating and arm-twisting — Bell was so good at that he soon would become NFL commissioner — he persuaded the club owners to try a draft.
The team with the league’s worst record would pick first and the rest would go in reverse order of their success in the standings.
On Feb. 8 and 9, 1936, in a Philadelphia hotel owned by the Bell family, the draft was born, with the Eagles (2-9) having the first selection.
The grab bag for talent was not a big deal — whether staged in Philadelphia, New York, Washington, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Los Angeles or Chicago — but then television stepped up.
In 1980, a new TV entity called ESPN offered to broadcast the proceedings.
Desperate for programming, ESPN hired Bill Fitts, who had worked games on CBS and NBC, as producer.
“I would say at the beginning it was like with our golf coverage,” Fitts said. “Look what it went to.”
The extravaganza elements are not to be present next month, but it is not an exaggeration to say that the draft has exploded beyond the selection meeting tag the league hung on it.
In 2018, a stadium was the site for the first time. After the AT&T Stadium, the draft headed to Music City, alongside the honky tonks on Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee — which was by far the biggest smash hit in its history.
Even in these times when it has wisely been scaled back, the NFL draft is a major event.
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