NFL draft goes for glitz as it moves to prime time
AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK — Offensive tackles and tight ends used to hitting the green artificial turf will make their entrance on the red carpet.
Tennessee defensive tackle Dan Williams will be ready for that big, Oscar-like question: "Who are you wearing?"
The NFL is going for glitz over the blitz as it moves its draft to prime time Thursday.
The first round now has its own day on the most popular night for watching TV, and the players are the stars of the show.
More players have been invited to see their fate revealed in front of a national audience, and there will be more cameras to document the joy of hearing their name called — or the distress of sliding down to a lesser pick.
"Hopefully I'm not in there that long for the cameras to be on me, because it's going to start to get hot," said Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan, who's projected as a top-10 pick.
NFL officials are comfortable comparing the event to the Oscars or a big-budget movie premiere, as the league under commissioner Roger Goodell grows more aggressive in marketing an already wildly popular sport.
Sixteen players have been invited to attend, up from nine last year. More invited players and more attention mean more pressure on the draftees to make a fashion statement worthy of the Academy Awards, where celebrities are breathlessly asked on the red carpet which designer's clothes they are wearing.
Williams conceded he was nervous about which suit to pick.
"I want to look good," he said.
Morgan has five or six suits to choose from, including one he received after a fitting Tuesday at the Sean John store in Manhattan.
"Everyone is giving me suits," he said. "I've got light suits, dark suits."
Williams' former Volunteers teammate, safety Eric Berry, picked out a gray suit with the help of a stylist.
"I wanted to get some type of expert," he said. "I let her do what she does."
None of the players will be forced to endure the drama of slipping out of the first round live in prime time. The NFL is allowing them to leave any time they want after they walk the red carpet.
ESPN senior coordinating producer Jay Rothman said the network's first-round coverage will focus on the human drama of the players, with the backdrop of the always-lively crowd at Radio City Music Hall. The in-depth analysis by the talking heads can wait for the final rounds Saturday.
"The electricity and the abundance of players makes it more of a wow factor," Rothman said.
The draft's evolution from routine league meeting to major entertainment event makes another huge leap forward with the move to prime time. For years the popularity of the broadcast seemed to grow almost on its own: Total draft viewership increased 66 percent from 2001 to 2009, from 23.5 million to 39 million.
Now the NFL is embracing the reality TV of young athletes sweating out their future.
"There's the drama of that that resonates over television," said Charles Coplin, the league's vice president of programming.
The first round starts at 7:30 p.m. EDT on Thursday. Rounds 2-3 begin at 6 p.m. Friday, with the last four rounds taking place Saturday.
The draft was held on weekdays until 1988, when it switched to Sunday and Monday. That move resulted in nearly tripling ESPN's Day 1 rating from a 1.2 from 1983-87 to a 3.4 for 1988-2003.
In 1995, the draft became an all-weekend event. That was the same year it moved out of a hotel and into a theater. The draft is now in its fifth year at Radio City, a world-famous venue associated with the Rockettes and showbiz glamour.
The first round of last year's draft on ESPN and NFL Network combined to average 6.3 million viewers, more than any basketball, hockey or baseball game that weekend.