Why the N.F.L. Draft Is Bigger Than ‘Succession’

The N.F.L. has televised its draft since 1980, and soon after, pro sports leagues realized they could sell rights to their selection shows to emerging cable networks thirsty for content. In the four decades since, football’s rookie roll call has far eclipsed those of its sports peers, giving the N.F.L. draft popularity on a par with whoever headlines the Grammys and bigger than HBO’s “Succession.”

For three days, a sport built on violent collisions holds what amounts to a football festival that traffics in heart-tugging stories and innocent fun. At last year’s draft, N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell — a brawny former player himself — turned to greet Devin Lloyd, the 6-foot-3 linebacker who’d just been selected, and offered the customary handshake and hug. To Goodell’s shock, Lloyd leaned in and snatched his new boss off the ground in a motion so fluid that Goodell simply tucked his feet back and burst into a laugh.

Afterward, Lloyd’s mother, Ronyta Johnson, said she’d told him to do it on a whim. “I just wanted to see if he could,” she said.

Such moments can’t begin to justify why the N.F.L. draft, which begins Thursday in Kansas City, Mo., draws an audience of upward of 11 million people every year for broadcasts across four networks. Even at its worst, the draft is a hit.

In 2021, when Goodell announced picks from a stage in Cleveland, cameras cut to the first player picked, whose name had been expected to be called first for months. The player, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, watched, like the rest of America, from home. More TV viewers showed up to witness that formality than saw “Nomadland” win the Academy Award for best picture that year.

The huge audience for such a moment also offers the first major opportunity for a player to showcase his personality for mass consumption.

“A lot of these guys on draft night are really trying to make a name, trying to make a splash,” said Cam Wolf, a senior style writer for GQ, adding that sponsorship and branding opportunities await athletes who make the right sartorial choices.

Wolf said a tipping point came in 2016 when Ezekiel Elliott, a running back who liked to wear cropped T-shirts as he warmed up for college games at Ohio State, opened his baby blue shawl-collared suit jacket to reveal a tailored button up that had been abbreviated at midriff. Elliott’s abs were soon wallpapering the internet.

Viewers “watch it for the clothes, but not in terms of getting style inspiration,” Wolf said, noting that GQ has ramped up its coverage of the N.F.L. draft red carpet in the years since. He added, “They want to be part of the discourse, and the outfits is such an easy way to do that.”

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