ST. LOUIS -- The NFL draft, once such an afterthought that league commissioner Pete Rozelle was said to have asked in essence "Are you crazy?" when the idea of televising the event live was proposed to him, has become such a TV force that it will be broadcast in prime time for the first time when the first three rounds are held next Thursday and Friday.
In fact it has grown so big that two networks cover it -- ESPN, which will show the proceedings for the 31st time, and NFL Network, which will do it a fifth time. The audience watching at any given point of the first round last year was a record 6.3 million, and more than 39 million tuned in at some point of the draft coverage, also a record.
The draft has become one of ESPN's most important events and was instrumental in the network establishing credibility in its early days as it first showed the event in 1980, about seven months after going on the air.
Bob Ley, who was one of the anchors that day, said he still has a full-page ad from the New York Times promoting the draft that carried the ESPN and NFL logos.
"It was immensely important for us to be aligned with the National Football League," Ley, who still is with ESPN but not working on the draft, said this week. "It was inestimably important and valuable beyond how many people were watching, just in the community of opinion leaders and advertisers and sports business people that we were aligned with the NFL."
ESPN had no major live sports at the time, and the draft was its first ticket to the big time, although skeptics abounded. One was Rozelle, generally regarded as the best commissioner ever in U.S. sports, when he was approached by ESPN executive Chet Simmons about the network showing the event.
"Pete was as smart as they come, and supposedly the answer Pete had was, 'Why would you want to do that?"' Ley said. "Now, 31 (drafts) later, I think we have answered the question."
Chris Berman, who will anchor ESPN's telecast as he appears on the coverage for the 30th time, has seen the production move from a Tuesday morning affair to weekends and now to prime time on a Thursday -- one of TV's most-watched nights of the week.
"The first few years a lot of people didn't know what cable TV was, so a lot of people (who had it) would call in sick" to watch the draft, Berman recalled this week. "A lot of bosses couldn't figure out why. 'This on TV?' It was your little secret. When we started hearing that, we thought there was some potential."
Compared to the high-tech production ESPN and NFL Network will air next week, the early years of draft coverage look like something out of the stone age. Not only were videos of many players unavailable and information was sketchy on many of those drafted. Ley recalled putting info on index cards in his apartment the night before that first draft telecast.
"If you pull the tapes now and look at it you say, "My goodness, Marconi must have been the technical director," Ley says, chuckling. "But back then it was what television was. It was as state-of-the art as anything could be then. But if you pulled the tapes now you'd say Fred (Flintstone) and Barney (Rubble) are at work."
St. Louis KFNS (590 AM) sport-talk-host Howard Balzer was on ESPN's first nine draft telecasts.
"We basically talked all day because they had very little highlights, few production elements," he said. "It was very low-tech."
Berman said it has been fun to have been involved since nearly the beginning.
"Where we were going was uncharted territory," he said. "It was like, 'Did Captain Cook know how to sail?' Yeah. 'Did he know he was going to land in Hawaii?' No. 'But did he know what he was doing?' Yeah. Our people always knew what they were doing, and behind the scenes that effort's great than ours in front of the camera.
Those early days provided a key pillar in the emergence of ESPN.
"It was a parable for the growth and the achievement of our network," Ley said. "Now, 31 years later, the draft is its own solid industry, from (analyst) Mel Kiper and Mel's hair to (fellow analyst) Todd McShay to 'Boomer' (Berman), it has become a way of life.