Is there a more flagrantly overhyped spectacle in all of sports? The draft — when NFL teams make their picks from the pool of eligible college players — was once a quiet little event, held in hotel meeting rooms: no cameras, no live coverage, and the results simply reported in newspaper sports pages the next day.
Then, in 1980, ESPN, seven months after its launch, covered the NFL draft live (“A Neat Experiment,” the Hartford Courant said). Now we have a three-day, Thursday-to-Saturday extravaganza, awarded to a different city each year, covered live on three TV networks. The much-anticipated first-round picks are made on opening night; last year’s opener drew 10 million viewers, winning that week’s ratings.
Like a good TV drama, the draft is infused with suspense and human interest stories, as college stars learn which struggling NFL franchise they’ve been designated to salvage.
It’s a tribute to the NFL’s marketing genius, as well as to the eternal optimism of football fans: No matter how badly your team did last season, the draft offers hope for the future. But it’s also a prime example of the national obsession with forecasting — our addiction to the big buildup.
Consider the Academy Awards. Entertainment reporters now start the Oscar drumbeat months ahead of time: scrutinizing the fall film festivals for early Oscar indicators; handicapping the chances of the top contenders; deconstructing the Oscar campaigns of the big films; and, of course, once the ceremony is at hand, making their impeccably clued-in predictions.
The irony is that the advance hype has exploded in almost inverse proportion to the sagging interest in the awards show itself. Viewership of the annual Oscar ceremony has plummeted from more than 43 million viewers as recently as 2014 to just 18.7 million viewers for this year’s show.
The anticipatory overkill is even more obvious, and consequential, in politics. The presidential race, it is now abundantly clear, no longer has an offseason: The polling, punditry and prognostications begin the day after the last election — coverage so intense that Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, can be hailed as a comer and dismissed as a no-hoper at least two or three times without even declaring his candidacy.
Nowhere, however, is the art of the buildup on finer display than in sports. Surely the maddest part of March Madness, the NCAA’s national basketball tournament, is “Selection Sunday,” when commentators spend an hour or more setting the stage for the unveiling of the brackets — who’s going to play whom and when. For a few college teams on the cusp of making the Big Dance, there’s a modicum of suspense. But, for the most part, it’s a reality show whose big reveal is a scheduling grid.
Why the infatuation with the big drumroll? If news can be defined (as a journalism professor of mine once did) as anything that reduces our uncertainty, then much of this is fake news — speculation that does little but fill up airtime, and satisfy the human need for drama, even when it has to be manufactured.
But it also reflects a desire to peek behind the curtain, to erase the line that separates insiders from everybody else. In the walk-up to the NFL draft, even casual football fans become armchair scouts. (Can this running college quarterback adapt to a pro offense? Will that linebacker’s speed make up for his lack of size?) During Oscar season, the ordinary moviegoer can feel like a Hollywood player, privy to the backstage buzz on who’s up and who’s down. And that saturation of political commentary on cable news and social media has, in a sense, leveled the playing field. We’re all political pundits now.
Even if we can’t go to the party. For draft day in Kansas City, a stage will sit outside the city’s landmark Union Station, with a red carpet for players escorted from the Liberty Memorial across the street. On the surrounding streets there will be live bands, an “interactive football theme park” and a chance to pose for selfies with all 56 Super Bowl rings.
And, presumably, a lot of excited football fans watching at home. Just don’t count on that rookie wide receiver until next season. If ever.