Today, you can find a thousand mock drafts at the click of a few buttons. People study and compare them endlessly. While technology has made that explosion possible, a closer inspection of the historical record shows this wasn’t a chicken-egg situation where the increased coverage by outlets like ESPN created interest in the draft. The interest was there, incubating as the league grew in popularity in the 1960’s and ’70’s, waiting for a match to ignite the flame into public spectacle.
That match came in the form of a fledgling 24-hour sports network moving into a void, and putting it on television.
ESPN, less than a year old, televised the NFL Draft for the first time in 1980, representing a seminal moment in the rise of the draft craze. An AP article at the time, “ESPN lines up expert staff to analyze draft on television,” outlined how the network undertook the process.
It seems unfathomable now when the NFL owners seemingly squeeze every last dollar out of everything, but in 1980, the NFL did not charge ESPN any rights fee to broadcast the first draft.
“ESPN, which is spending some $100,000 on production costs, is not paying the NFL anything. The league views it as a news event, whether an organization covers one minute or the expected eight hours,” the AP reported.
That first draft show was hosted on site by broadcasters George Grande and Spencer Ross, with commentary from former Baltimore and San Francisco general manager Joe Thomas. Bob Halloran and Linda Sutter were reporters on-site, while former Patriots GM Upton Bell, Howard Balzer of The Sporting News, and Vince Papale (of “Invincible” fame) were in studio in Bristol.
“For the uninitiated, watching the draft of college talent is a lot like sitting in the gallery of Congress,” the AP wrote. “There are some moments of frenzy and many moments of people milling around and others of just plain snoozing.”
The frenzy, though, when it came to passion and interest in the draft, had been growing over time. We see it today, reflected and mixed with conveniences of modern technology We can measure it, produce it and coordinate it at lightning-quick rates. Why does everyone do mock drafts? Because people read them, in large numbers, plain and simple, and that thirst is not new.
“Everyone, it seems, is a draft expert. From sportswriters to radio and television men to just plain fans, everyone has their own in-depth, comprehensive, never-before-seen draft analysis.”
That quote comes not from 2017, from a time when every thought in every community is available to find on the Internet, but rather from before the 1984 draft, in an article by Steve Herrick of the Elyria (Oh.) Chronicle Telegram.
That, by the way, was written just before someone by the name of Mel Kiper, Jr. first made an appearance on ESPN, during coverage of the 1984 NFL Draft.
WHO THE HELL IS MEL KIPER?
You can’t tell the story of the rise of the NFL Draft media madness without Mel Kiper, Jr., who as a teenager began his draft business in Baltimore in 1979.
Kiper, now 56, began attending Baltimore Colts’ training camp when he was 16 years old, where he met the team’s general manager, Ernie Accorsi. Kiper began writing the first of his draft guides during the 1978 season, for the 1979 draft. Initially, he submitted them to front offices around the league.
“That was really the driving force behind the books, was the encouragement I got from people in the league,” Kiper told The Big Lead. “Ernie Accorsi said, ‘Hey, don’t just send this stuff out to me and writers. Make this available to the public, this could be a helluva business for you.'”
Kiper cited several others who gave him encouragement early and drove him forward, calling Jack Faulkner (long-time coach and front office man with the Los Angeles Rams) “one of the best friends I had in the league,” in a relationship that began in those early days. He also got letters from the likes of Don Shula, Bill Walsh and Tom Landry, which he still has at his home. “They didn’t know how old I was, they probably thought I was 40,” Kiper quipped.
Kiper went public in 1981, selling his draft guides to subscribers. “I finished ’81 with 130 people buying the book, I think it was,” Kiper said, “and then it grew significantly, substantially, every year.”
When did Kiper know that the mock drafts were going to be huge? Well, unlike today, when you can see metrics and incoming traffic and viewership data, it came from a more direct source: the readers (and some now-famous reporters) reaching out.
“For the mocks, I’d get letters. People back in those days, they called you and told you what part of the report they liked,” Kiper said. “Mock drafts were always something they wanted — ‘give me a second-round projection, give a third-round projection, can you give me every round?'”
“I remember Adam Schefter used to call me, he was with the Denver Post then, and Adam would go through every pick the Broncos had up through the seventh round and wonder who I thought the Broncos might take in every round, and he did that every year. Adam was one of the first writers to ever do that with me.”
Kiper came along at the right time, in terms of the advent of ESPN and the interest in draft coverage starting to swell, but he also succeeded because of his savant-like recall of players and minute details about them, and his willingness to grind relentlessly to succeed at something that was for many a hobby.
He described 20-hour workdays when the business was growing, going to bed at 2 or 3 in the morning and getting up again to begin the next day at 6 a.m. Kiper answered the phones when customers would call in (“My father always said ‘they don’t want to talk to me, they want to talk to you.'”). He spent two full days each week calling schools to get basic stats on players, because unlike today, those numbers weren’t readily available in-season. He did radio shows–20 to 25 at their peak–to promote his books. He talked to his network of connections around the league on a daily basis. At a time where the fanaticism for the draft was coming into view, he was the lead fanatic.
“Fans, even when I started this in the late 70’s and early 80’s, always wanted that. It was something they had a craving for,” Kiper told The Big Lead of draft projections and analysis.
Who the hell is Mel Kiper, as Bill Tobin famously asked in 1994 when Kiper criticized his Trev Alberts pick with the Colts? Someone who is still able to recite the obscure stats on players on command, and the living embodiment of the draft craze, spanning from the early days of television coverage to the current boom.