Prime time for football

Prime time for football

April 20th, 2010 by David Paschall in Sports

Thursday night has been a television powerhouse for a generation, with network hits spanning from "The Cosby Show" to "Seinfeld" to "CSI."

Now it's having to make room for the National Football League draft.

The 75th draft in NFL history will be the first to kick off in prime time, as ESPN will televise Thursday's first round from New York City's Radio City Music Hall beginning at 7:30. Last year's NFL draft drew a record 39 million viewers on ESPN, ESPN2 and the NFL Network, and overall viewing of the draft has increased 66 percent since 2001, when 23.5 million tuned in.

"Just on the ratings, it's going to have a huge impact on Thursday night," said ESPN draft producer Jay Rothman. "It's a largely viewed night in prime time."

Friday's second and third rounds also will be televised at night by ESPN before coverage shifts to ESPN2, with the second round starting at 6. Coverage of the fourth through seventh rounds Saturday begins at 10 a.m.

The NFL draft has taken place on a Saturday and a Sunday since 1995 and was a Sunday-Monday event from 1988 to '94.

League commissioner Roger Goodell believes the draft will be more accessible to fans by starting on a Thursday, but how will it affect the 32 teams? Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden thinks the biggest difference will take place after the opening round.

"You'll see a little more aggressiveness -- possibly some more trades at the start of day two and day three," Gruden said. "I like the idea of the format. The way it was, that first round felt like three weeks at the end of the day.

"I can see with what's at stake, with what a commodity these first-round draft choices are, to take a break after the first round and reconvene in the morning after they've had a chance to think things over."

Longtime draft analyst Mel Kiper said teams now have more time to re-evaluate, check on players and check with agents. He equates the new format to a college student getting extra time to prepare for a final exam.

"When you're talking about the draft ending at 11:30 on Thursday and not starting up until the next night, that allows for a lot of time," Kiper said. "Day three will still start in the morning, so it's a normal scenario there, but for the more critical rounds in terms of the money you have to pay out, I think it's important. I don't think any decision will be based on somebody being rushed or fatigued."

ESPN is certainly doing its share to dress up the opening night. There will be 14 projected first-round picks attending at Radio City Music City Hall, where before there were eight, and Rothman said there will be several more cameras and vantage points as well.

The cable network first approached the NFL about televising its draft in 1979, and league representatives rejected the notion by a vote of 28-0. A year later, the league reluctantly agreed.

"It's amazing how the whole draft process has evolved," Kiper said.