Tomorrow, one of my favourite days on the sporting calendar arrives. And yet, no balls are in play, no starter pistols fired and certainly no medal dais present. No, the event is the NFL Draft. A day where 32 young men will find themselves in the hands of destiny, about to realise their dream of being on a professional football team. The reason it’s one of my favourite days? For starters, I’m an avid NFL fan, but mostly it’s the drama. No scripted event could ever match the drama that unfolds as teams shock us with selections, blockbuster trades occur and of course, the camera staring into the soul of the player who is falling many picks beyond which the #experts predicted. It truly is reality television at it’s finest.
The AFL have decided to turn the AFL National Draft into a two day event this year, and is expected to allow live pick trading within the draft itself for the first time ever. As someone who pays attention to the draft itself and skims articles heading into it, I find it both strange and expected.
If we look at things the AFL has implemented in recent years – future pick trading, compensation picks and points values – these are mechanisms in the NFL model (although the points trading is more a guideline there as oppose to a value system here) and have their place, although there has been needed tweaking. In the AFL model, there are of course the unique outliers of father-son and academy nominations, as well as the rookie and pre-season drafts. So it’s clear the league is comfortable with our own intricacies, they will look to #improve things by looking overseas for ideas. And it’s the whole ‘what are we trying to improve’ thing that’s got me curious.
There’s one thing that the AFL does better than anyone else, amazingly even the American sports. And that is stay relevant the whole year round. The NFL does it’s best to stay relevant at all times, but it simply can’t because of the season length and NFLPA restrictions on training. The AFL Grand Final in 2017 was on September 30. Trade period opened two Mondays later and ran for two weeks. A month later was the draft. In between those two things, players returned for preseason training. Christmas happens and we all sink a thousand tins and don’t care for a couple of weeks, the players come back, we get a bunch of ‘burning up the track’ and ‘player x is set for a breakout/midfield time/court case’ articles and before you know it the AFLX is on in mid-Feb. Over seven months of matches later and we’ll have a premier again. And yet I’m getting the sense – it’s not enough.
The upside of turning the draft into a two day event and implement live trading doesn’t sound like something for the clubs’ benefit. It’s to try turn the draft into a more entertaining product. Because, kids, that’s the dirty secret. The only real issues I can see are: will the live trading happen and will anyone give a shit?
First point is the live trading – are teams really going to sell a bunch of picks to move up? The outlier here is of course the facts in the AFL the points have a value and if you’re tying to nab an academy or father-son pick then perhaps is a perfectly fine thing to trade down, but there’s one thing that the NFL has that the AFL doesn’t – quarterbacks. Every team wants a gun quarterback. There’s so much pressure on general managers to find the next Tom Brady that they will sell the farm to move up. Now, I’m sure some of you have seen the Kevin Costner flick ‘Draft Day’ and it’s obviously Hollywood-ed a great deal, but it’s not that far removed. Last year, Chicago traded 2 third-round picks and a fourth rounder to move up ONE spot to get their quarterback. This year, the quarterback needy Jets have already swapped first rounders with Indianapolis and given Indy three second round picks to move up just three spots in the draft. It’s fair to say the guy who controls where the ball goes on 99% of offensive plays matters. He controls the game. That sort of positional value simply doesn’t exist in the AFL. We’d have to be talking about a generational talent, a total can’t miss prospect. And even in that situation – why would the club trade the pick if the player was that good? The only thing – and whilst talent evaluation is always improving – mistakes will be made, especially when we’re talking about guys who are either still in or just finishing high school. Which brings up the second question – who are these guys?
Whilst we have so many great future talent analysts out there who put out great content, the general public (myself included), simply aren’t invested in the under 18 competition. A 2016 US Neilsen study discovered 159 million people watched at least one minute of college football in that year. The 2018 Rose Bowl college football playoff generated a (cable only) TV audience of 26.8 million or 8% of the US population. The AFL Grand Final attracted 2.7 million viewers or 11% of the Australian population. Now, I don’t know the ratings of the TAC Cup Grand Final but I’ll assume it’s a good deal south of that. As a general populace, we simply aren’t watching or invested in these kids, nor do most of the public know them until their names are being repeated on SEN by draft experts as the #steal of the draft.
Aside from the whole ‘locals and alumni’ argument about why college sports are so big, the other factor is that in college football these guys are more developed after the three mandatory seasons they spend there. We know/have heard more about them. Bodies have developed. Work ethics have emerged. Talent is condensed. Competition is better. These players have been on display at a higher level for longer against better players. Three years ago Josh Schache was killing under 18s and Brisbane were the winners of the draft. Now he can’t get a game at his second club. Which in itself, presents another problem – how can supporters be fully invested when we’ve seen players demand trades two years into their careers? At least in the NFL there is team control. Obviously the financial stakes are higher, but fans are the people who watch.
I have no idea how you get the person in the street more invested in watching the young talent, but if you can’t do that, how do you get them watching the draft? The first year draftees rarely have any appeal straight off the bat for fantasy footy aside from keeper formats, nor do they impact betting markets.
I’ll be interested in seeing if the AFL do go down the in-draft trading, but I do know to captivate they’ll need the audience to either have an investment in the talent or the drama. Can they do it? I won’t be trading up to find out.