- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Millions of football fans this weekend will watch one of the highest-rated sporting events on television — one in which no passes will be thrown and no touchdowns scored.

The NFL Draft 2005 attracted 34 million viewers over two days. This year, two cable networks will combine for more than 33 hours of coverage on Saturday and Sunday, plus new Internet programming and live updates on cell phones and other wireless devices.

The art of projecting which college stars will be chosen by which professional teams has turned into a big business in itself: There are hundreds of draft-related publications and Web sites. The draft is routinely one of the most highly rated programs on ESPN, and it is by far the most-watched sports show that does not feature live competition.

Last year’s draft was the highest-rated in history.

ESPN plans 17 hours of live coverage for this weekend, broadcast from Radio City Music Hall in New York. The NFL Network also will cover the draft live for the first time, offering 12 consecutive hours Saturday and four hours Sunday.

“Do I think it’s overkill? Absolutely,” said Brian Curtis, football analyst for College Sports Television. “But the NFL, unlike any other sports league, has made the game an every-day-of-the-year thing.”

Much of the draft’s appeal can be explained by the popularity of football and the NFL, which by far is the most powerful sports league in the United States. But the buzz around the event is heightened by a cottage industry of “draft gurus” who dedicate their existence to evaluating every draftable player by watching game tapes, interviewing team sources and attending pre-draft events such as the NFL Combine and Senior Bowl.

This explains why there are roughly three times as many publications and Web sites devoted to draft prognostication — nearly 700, according to some estimates — as there are players chosen each year.

Longtime NFL scout Frank Coyle has published his Draft Insiders’ Digest for 15 years, and it is well-circulated among NFL teams. It sells for $70 — $100 if you include a Web-based version. Prominent magazines such as Pro Football Weekly and Street and Smith’s sell more copies of their yearly draft guides than any other issues. Web sites such as nfldraftcountdown.com also have gained in popularity in recent years.

Perhaps no draft expert is more famous than ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., who is as well-known for his sculpted black hair and lightning-fast delivery as for his football knowledge.

“He’s been living it, breathing it, sleeping it since he was a high school kid,” said Mike Mayock, a former defensive back for the New York Giants and a draft expert for the NFL Network.

Mr. Kiper began projecting the draft as a teenager in the late 1970s, submitting reports to team executives who encouraged him to consider selling his publications. Mr. Kiper did just that, selling his Draft Report in 1981 and joining ESPN in 1984. That became his livelihood and made him a star.

“I have a lot of friends in the league,” said Mr. Kiper, who now sells Draft Report for $27 online. “When you’re in this business for 28 years — it’s funny, with some of the kids I’m scouting now, I scouted their fathers.”

Mr. Kiper doesn’t mind all the rivals he has created with his success, knowing that the most successful are those that will put in the time to watch tape, attend games and interview scouts.

“I appreciate everyone who puts out reports and has opinions on this,” he said. “Even if you disagree with the opinion, you respect the fact that they put in the hard work.”

The sheer volume of opinion is a sign of just how big the draft has become, something that seemed very unlikely decades ago.

“Early on, there was this question of, why would you televise this, with some people calling it a nonevent,” said John Wildhack, ESPN’s senior vice president for programming acquisitions and strategy. “Now, it’s established itself as the signature event of the springtime.”

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