By Tim Penman
The first pick in the first NFL draft decided to skip pro football. Jay Berwanger didn’t like the money available in 1936.
The inaugural Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Chicago wasn’t alone. Notre Dame’s Bill Shakespeare, the No. 3 overall pick with the famous namesake, said no, too.
Imagine that happening today.
As Chicago prepares to host the 80th version of the event Thursday through Saturday, the draft has grown into a showcase for a league that has become a billion-dollar industry.
Last year, No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney signed a four-year contract for more than $22 million with the Houston Texans — or slightly more than the $25,000 over two years Berwanger wanted from the Chicago Bears, who had acquired his rights from the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Now the draft is such a mega event that it’s covered on two separate networks,” said Barry Wilner, co-author of “On the Clock: The Story of the NFL Draft.”
“It’s the biggest event for the league beyond the Super Bowl or opening day.”
The idea for a college draft came from Eagles owner and future NFL commissioner Bert Bell. He found the open-market system of signing college players unfairly favored the stronger teams. He proposed a system to promote competitive balance and bolster the league as a whole.
Teams, he said, should draft in inverse order of their win-loss records. That means the worst team from the last season could pick the best eligible prospect.
On May 19, 1935, NFL owners adopted Bell’s proposal, and the inaugural draft was held the following year at Philadelphia’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
“The first draft was pretty different back then,” said Ken Crippen, former executive director of the Professional Football Researchers Association. “In the early days they just went as long as they wanted to, then they [eventually] added a clock.”
After completing five rounds, the teams voted while at the hotel to add four more, according to Crippen.
The number of rounds has changed through the years, but so has the number of teams. In 1943, the 10-team NFL increased the draft to 32 rounds. Today’s 32-team league has only seven rounds.
There have been dual drafts with competing leagues, most notably in the early-to-mid 1960s when the NFL and upstart AFL were battling to acquire the top college players.
At one point, because the AFL was drafting weeks earlier, the NFL employed “125 babysitters, officially called ‘representatives,’ to fan out across the country and attach themselves to top prospects,” Pete Williams wrote in his book, “The Draft: A Year Inside the NFL’s Search for Talent.”
In 1967, the AFL-NFL merger produced the first joint draft. The next big moment came when then-ESPN President Chet Simmons approached then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle about televising the draft
“Pete thought Chet was out of his mind, but said, ‘Let’s try it,’ ” John Wildhack, now ESPN executive vice president, said in the book by Wilner and Ken Rappoport.
ESPN started covering the draft live in 1980. Those first years were not the polished productions you see today, according to Howard Balzer, who served as the network’s draft analyst during those first telecasts.
“[Those first broadcasts] were live, by the seat-of-your-pants TV,” he said.
Draft popularity began to take off, thanks to the early addition of personalities such as Mel Kiper Jr. as draft analyst in 1984 and Chris Berman as host, Wilner said. And now there are two networks covering the draft, thanks to the NFL Network starting in 2006.
Meanwhile, scheduling shifts also helped the draft’s popularity. It moved from weekdays to Sunday-Monday in 1988, then to Saturday-Sunday in 1995. In 2010, the league stretched the event to three days and started broadcasting the first two days in prime time.
Last year, a record 45.7 million viewers tuned in to watch on NFL Network, ESPN, and ESPN2 across the three days.“There’s a chance draft viewing can overshadow the Kentucky Derby on Saturday this year,” Wilner said. Which would say something, considering Rounds 4-7 will be broadcast on that day.
This also will be the first draft in Chicago since December 1963, as the NFL is trying to transform the event into a fan festival. After 50-plus years in New York City, the draft has moved from Radio City Music Hall to a two-location setup at Roosevelt University’s Auditorium and Grant Park. For the first time, a fan-friendly carnival-like area dubbed Draft Town will be constructed.
Chicago beat out other cities vying for this year’s event, but Wilner wouldn’t be surprised if it moves to Dallas next year, with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones making it an even bigger spectacle. Wilner listed Los Angeles, Nashville, Denver and Seattle as other potential sites.
“I think the draft is going to be moved around to a bunch of different NFL cities over the next few years,” Wilner said. “Football fans have an insatiable appetite for the NFL.”