If Jerry Jones is looking for talking points about the Cowboys’ success in hosting Texas’s first NFL draft, he can point to television ratings. This year’s edition of what is ultimately a business meeting was the most-watched in the league’s history, buoyed by the fact that all three days aired on ESPN, Fox, ABC, and the NFL Network. At any given moment from Thursday night to Saturday afternoon, an average of 5.5 million people were watching as teams deliberated over which college player they’d claim the exclusive rights to. On television, this all plays pretty well. The early rounds are full of drama—who’s going to end Josh Rosen’s slide?—as the commentators speculate, inform, and speak authoritatively about the prospects of the men about to be drafted. Mini-documentaries on the players break things up, giving us a glimpse into the lives and struggles of the athletes who hope to spend their Sundays on television for years to come.
In person, though, spectators’ draft experience is mostly staring at an empty stage for five to seven minutes at a time while a DJ plays “Feel It Still” and top 40 hip-hop to keep people from falling asleep. The NFL requires teams in the early rounds of the draft to wait at least five minutes before turning in their pick, ostensibly so the whole event doesn’t end after 45 minutes. On television, that time is filled with high production. But for the thousands of fans who witnessed it in person in Arlington over the weekend, it’s a lot sleepier. The stretches of inactivity are broken up by brief flurries of excitement—a trade announcement, or NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell arriving on stage to give an incoming rookie the ball cap of the team he’ll be playing for, or Michael Irvin and Colleen Wolfe coming out to banter briefly—before the cycle repeats.
The NFL markets the draft around the theme that these young players might be the ones to turn things around for bad teams, or to cement the dynasties of good ones. Springtime is a time of renewal; there’s new hope that last year’s crappy team can turn it all around because of the arm of a young quarterback, or the prowess of a pass-rusher. It’s an important part of what the NFL needs to sell every year. The draft’s slogan is “The Future Is Now,” and if you’re a football fan in the doldrums of April, there’s nothing to be excited about except the future.
The anticipation for next season brought more than 100,000 fans to Arlington to celebrate the 2018 NFL draft. For years, the draft was a relatively stodgy affair in New York, held at the venerable Radio City Music Hall (before that, it was an un-televised non-spectacle that was held in hotel conference rooms on weekdays). The NFL has since sought to turn itself into a year-round entertainment behemoth with live events around the country. The draft is the marquee, if only because—outside of actual football games—there just aren’t a whole lot of other things the league can market. (The annual scouting combine, a glorified track and field and weightlifting exhibition hosted in Indianapolis, is the other off-season headliner.)
Still, it’s strange to realize that football enthusiasts from around the country flew to Texas to watch a business transaction that could have comfortably been conducted in a hotel somewhere. The only real moments of action inside of AT&T Stadium came when Goodell emerged on stage to announce a pick. The league’s commissioner—unpopular everywhere, but especially reviled in the Dallas area after last year’s very public feud with Jerry Jones—was booed loudly every time he appeared. Fans seemed to thrill at the opportunity to participate in that ritual humiliation of the well-paid face of the league. To open the draft, he appeared surrounded by Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, and Jason Witten—a beloved trio of Cowboys—and even they proved insufficient to reduce the intensity of the chorus of boos. (At one point Goodell, attempting a good-natured ad-lib, muttered something that was mostly drowned-out about how “I can’t believe you’re booing the Cowboys!”)
There was a little bit of cheering, however, when small collection of fans of each team were allowed onto the stadium floor as new drafts to their teams were announced. There, segregated into their own sections and colorfully adorned, they erupted as more young men were sealed to their favorite teams. In the early rounds, this fanfare makes the long wait between action tolerable. The enthusiasm wanes in later rounds, as the players being chosen are less and less likely to be impactful stars—or even make the roster. (This may explain why, by Saturday afternoon, the broadcasts moved outside of AT&T Stadium so the backgrounds would have the prospect of capturing shots of engaged, happy people instead of the dreary few remaining inside the stadium.)
Going outside offered relief for fans. The touring roadshow that is the NFL Fan Experience accompanied the draft to Arlington. Texas fans got a taste of that in early 2017, when the Super Bowl was held in Houston. Wha happened in Arlington isn’t far off from that—it was just Jerry-sized. Press releases for the 2018 NFL Draft note that the Fan Experience events in Arlington were the biggest in league history, and the grounds of the stadium were essentially transformed into an NFL-themed carnival, complete with games and prizes. Fans who downloaded an app could run the 40-yard dash, or throw footballs into targets, or measure their own vertical jump. Sponsors, keen on piggybacking off the emotional connection fans have with their teams, gave away free Oikos yogurt and staged elaborate activations where fans can be “drafted” at random to receive free prizes. There was an NFL Museum set up with jerseys and history, and monoliths were erected to pay tribute to each of the league’s 32 teams, where fans can see the colors and logos of their childhood bedsheets on display.
If football and the NFL really mean something to you, it wasn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon. Outside of the stadium, Mateo Franco, who drove up from Austin to attend the draft and attired himself in a complex costume involving a giant foam cowboy hat, star-eyed glasses, a #88 jersey (presumably for Michael Irvin, now that Dez Bryant has been traded—although his cape obscured the name on the back), Cowboys-themed arm wraps and gloves, explained that he doesn’t just come up from Austin to Dallas for Cowboys games and the draft—he goes to every game, home and away, and has for well over a decade. “My wife doesn’t like it too much,” Franco admitted, but he loves the team, and having another opportunity to interact with the Cowboys was worth it, even if it the draft was essentially a meeting between the league’s front offices.
When the NFL draft was initially televised in 1980 by a fledgling ESPN hungry for content, then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle was skeptical that anyone would watch. This year, for the first time, all three days of the draft were on network television. And that’s because the NFL banked on the kind of drama that the draft can produce. On Thursday night, the New Orleans Saints traded away their 2019 first round pick to move up more than a dozen spots for their first pick. On television, everyone was shocked, but they understood—the team must really love Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, and they must be ready to finally draft a replacement for the nearly-40-year-old Drew Brees. In the press area inside the stadium, sports reporters gossiped about Jackson. Then Goodell, amid a chorus of boos, emerged to announce that, with the fourteenth pick in the 2018 draft, the New Orleans Saints had selected UTSA defensive end Marcus Davenport. Davenport, giddy, emerged on the stage to accept the baseball cap, hug the commissioner, smile at the stunned Saints fans in the stadium, and chat with Deion Sanders. It was the first time that the nascent UTSA Roundrunners football program had produced a first round draft pick. Davenport—a San Antonio native—immediately became one of the draft’s best stories.
Those moments are worth watching, and they make the draft the sort of spectacle that can travel from New York to Chicago to Philadelphia to Dallas. Next year, it’ll probably bring another 100,000 people to Cleveland, or Nashville, or Las Vegas, or whichever of the short-list cities the league announces as the host of the 2019 draft. The NFL is all about pageantry, and they’ve managed to transform even an experience full of a lot of waiting around for a guy everybody hates to call out a young man’s name into a must-see event.