NFL draft tops the sports calendar in hype, but don’t expect anything to change

Over the last few decades fans have flocked to coverage of the annual draft and each one has become an expert capable of breaking down a mock draft. And the NFL has been reveling in it all.

So, when exactly did this happen?

How did the NFL draft segue from a sleepy endeavor conducted mostly incognito into the most overhyped, oversaturated and overwrought event on the sports calendar?

I have some theories, but suffice it to say that when the Seahawks finally, mercifully, make their selection on Thursday — barring a trade, of course — it will end months of feverish speculation, intense analysis and mostly inaccurate prognostication.

Well, not exactly end it, because after the final pick on Saturday comes the next phase of the thriving cottage industry that the NFL draft has become — instant grading of each team’s selections, conveniently ignoring the fact that it may take years before the success or failure reveals itself.

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It’s everything the NFL could have dreamed of, a bloodless coup in which they have managed to steal the spotlight from the NBA and NHL playoffs and the young MLB season without playing a single game. And if you think, as I do, that the whole thing has gotten out of hand, as unsightly (and unyielding) as Mel Kiper’s hairdo, well, guess what? Roger Goodell could care less.

Not when the TV ratings for the draft are through the roof (and quite robust for the underwear Olympics known as the NFL combine). Not when fans will jam the 3,000-seat, open-air theater that’s been constructed in Philadelphia at the Art Museum — near the famed Rocky steps, no less — for the first outdoor draft.

Not when the league has stumbled upon the perfect way to keep its sport at the forefront of the public’s consciousness at a time when they used to be in hibernation. When the first NFL draft took place on Feb. 8, 1936 — also in Philadelphia, coincidentally, at a Ritz Carlton — there was virtually no coverage whatsoever. Names were listed on a chalkboard, and many players didn’t even know they had been drafted until the teams called them. The first pick, Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger from the University of Chicago, couldn’t come to terms with the Bears and took a job in a rubber factory.

The circus didn’t come to town overnight. There were seminal events along the way. In 1946, Rams owner Dan Reeves hired the first scout, setting into motion the vast machinery of player evaluation that exists today. The first combine was instituted in 1977, and it moved permanently to Indianapolis in 1987, allowing one-stop shopping for teams to size up players and the media to size up the sizing up.

But things changed irretrievably in 1980 when the draft was televised for the first time. The honors went to ESPN, the all-sports channel that had launched the previous year. Even though it began at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday, viewers flocked…

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