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Why is NFL -- and draft -- so popular? It's a national obsession

Welcome to the NFL Draft, or as we call it in Detroit, where I live, "the Super Bowl."

Forget the debate about whether the draft is overhyped or really overhyped. If you cheer for the dregs of the NFL -- let's say the Rams, Lions, Raiders, Buccaneers and Chiefs, give or take a team or two -- you can't avoid the draft. You don't want to avoid the draft. The three-day draft is the best football of your year. It is your one chance to feel like your team matters more than other teams.

Your team was bad last year. It will probably be bad next year. You'll watch the games anyway, because this is America, and if you don't watch your local NFL team, you lose your voting rights. But if your team stinks, none of those games will match the anticipation and nervousness leading up to the draft.

The incredible thing about our obsession with the draft is that it has had a monumental effect on the draft itself. The top five picks in this draft will get ridiculous contracts -- deals that they haven't earned and, more importantly, are highly unlikely to ever earn. Before Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy make a single tackle they will be two of the highest-paid defensive tackles in the league. Sam Bradford will be one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the league.

It doesn't make sense.

The teams know it doesn't make sense.

So why do they do it anyway? It goes back to the obsession. If it's your Super Bowl, you don't want to look like you are trying to save money. You don't want to look like you took a more signable player over the guy everybody wanted. And you really, really don't want that top pick to decline your offers, wait a year, go back in the draft and play for somebody else. If that happens, you have basically forfeited your Super Bowl.

This is the irony of being an NFL fan in Detroit, Oakland, St. Louis, Tampa or Kansas City: the team is so bad that you must obsess over the draft. Yet that very obsession helps keep your team so bad.

For as long as the draft has been popular, people have asked: Why is it so popular? The easy answer, of course, is that anything associated with the NFL is insanely popular. The NFL is so much more popular than any other sports league in this country that I shouldn't even need an example to prove it, but I will provide one anyway.

This week, there is a lot of competition for the nation's sports-loving eyeballs. The NBA lures you with playoff games. The NHL tries to lure you with its own postseason (though, in a classic marketing mistake, the NHL has filled its postseason with hockey games). Baseball is at that point where your team might be 9-4 or 3-10 or a surprising 8-6 and you want to say "It's not early anymore." The greatest female golfer in the world just retired, at 28, and the greatest male golfer in the world likes to have sex. There is a lot going on is all I'm saying.

In this crowded media environment, the NFL elbowed everybody out of the way Tuesday by ... drum roll please ... releasing its schedule. A schedule! Keep in mind: we already knew which games would be played. We just didn't know when they would be played. The normal rules of life and attention spans do not apply to the NFL. I don't even know what the real-life equivalent would be. It's like an entire city shutting down because some guy announced when he would get his oil changed.

OK, so that's the easy answer: Americans are obsessed with the NFL, the draft is the best NFL action we get from March to September, and since the best teams are built through the draft, it's easy to pay way too much attention to it.

But that is not the whole answer. Yes, sure, the best teams are usually built through the draft. But they are built through the entire draft -- as every NFL fan knows, the second through fifth rounds are crucial.

Yet 95 percent of the pre-draft obsession is about the first round. Other than wondering where favored college players might go (somebody is going to steal Colt McCoy in the second round, and I can't wait for Tim Tebow to get picked, if only so I can stop hearing about where Tim Tebow might get picked), it's all first-round talk, all the time.

And this goes back to the obsession. Fans of lousy NFL teams are not just tuning in to see if their roster can improve. They are looking for hope. You can be sure that when the first players go off the board, their new coaches will say they aren't saviors. They're just good football players. But if you're a fan of an awful team, you already know about good players. They're the ones who play for other teams. And that's why you look for a savior.

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