Does watching the NFL draft qualify as watching sports?

Posted on April 26, 2010

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3.7 million people tuned into live coverage of the NFL draft this past weekend. And that figure surely doesn’t include my father, since he was watching in Mexico. My dad never really stops following the NFL during the calendar year. The official end of the season with the Super Bowl just slightly alters his ratio of watching actual games to watching chatter about games. But the draft is like the Super Bowl of the off-season, and I suspect he didn’t miss a minute of it.

I have always teased him about this. I’m willing to let the cards fall in the off-season where they will and start paying attention to the NFL again in the fall. There are more than enough other sporting events between February and September to fill my quota.

But I have to admit, the NFL is not like other sports, and if you are truly drawn to what it does better than any other sport, it makes sense that you will be intrigued by what goes on during the draft.

The NFL is a competition not so much between teams of players, but between tandems of General Managers and Head Coaches. This is in part because of the highly evolved strategic nature of managing a football team. Success depends on highly developed strategic decisions for each play and game, and for the composition of the team. That is, you can’t win without taking into account how your opponents are taking into account how you are taking their strategies into account. With 22 players in highly differentiated positions in motion on any given play, and with a successful play generally requiring near-perfect execution by all 11 players on your team, no major sport has as many components to account for in its strategic planning.

Winning the long-term strategic game is complicated for GMs because of the genuinely egalitarian way the NFL has evolved. Virtually all of the star players enter the league in an egalitarian draft, with the worst teams getting to pick first in each round. (This is true in other North American sports, though unheard of in, say, European soccer.)  A strict salary cap means that every GM has the same amount of money to spend on player salaries. And most unusually, the NFL pools the scouting resources of its teams, especially through “combines” that allow all scouts to watch the best prospects run drills. They all have pretty much the same information about draftable players. In fact, in some ways, their information is not significantly better than the information that is available to journalists and the general public.

Hence the intense interest in the draft. With relatively little trading of players, and with careers that are generally so short that free agency results in little shuffling of the rosters, the draft, and the trades for draft picks, is where it’s at. The GMs and coaching staffs that can develop the most accurate valuations of players will win more Super Bowls. NFL GMs are essentially hedge-fund managers, and the smartest guys in the room generally win.

If you really love NFL football for what it does in a more sophisticated way than any other sport, why shouldn’t you be curious to watch the GMs on the three days when they actually, in some sense, get to take the field? I’m personally willing to read a quick post-facto analysis (like this) of who was picked, and of what the picks and trades reveal about underlying team strategies. But I can hardly blame a true fan — like my dad — for wanted to take in all the speculation and analysis in real time.

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