The e-mail landed in NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's inbox at 8:22 a.m. Friday morning. The sender was a trusted member of the league's research staff. The subject? The television ratings for the first primetime draft in NFL history.
Goodell had started asking about the TV ratings shortly after Florida State cornerback Patrick Robinson was selected by the New Orleans Saints with the final pick of the first round late Thursday night. Now the news was in, and the news was extraordinarily good.
The league's inaugural primetime draft averaged 8.3 million viewers on ESPN and the NFL Network, an increase of 32 percent over last year's draft. It was the most-viewed first round in ESPN's 31 years televising the event, and the coverage (which aired from 7:30-11:20 p.m.) averaged 7.29 million viewers on the network. Just as important, ESPN won the night among all key male demos, including adults 18-34 and adults 18-49. The draft beat NBC's The Office, ABC's Private Practice and more than doubled the average viewership of the Lakers-Thunder playoff game on TNT.
Such sensational numbers -- the first round of the draft was the eighth-most viewed program of the year on cable -- would seem to guarantee that a primetime draft will be a reality again in 2011. In a one-on-one interview with SI.com on Friday night, Goodell would not outright commit to a permanent move to primetime. But rest assured, the league's top man is overjoyed at the ratings.
"Let's get through the draft and we'll evaluate all aspects of it, including talking to our clubs and seeing what worked and what has not," Goodell told SI.com. "We'd like to wait until we have concluded with the entire event, but to see the kind of extraordinary increase in viewership I think does reinforce the idea that we can put the draft on a bigger platform, and that's great for everyone."
Goodell said the league had been working to find new ways to reach a broader audience. Whether by happenstance or intention, the deep reservoir of talent this year (especially in the later rounds) plus marquee names with intriguing stories (Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, and Jimmy Clausen) produced a perfect storm for the NFL. The lone group prior to the draft that had uniformly agreed about Tebow's prospects was television executives, and ESPN's Jay Rothman, the network's senior coordinating producer for its draft coverage, predicted the intrigue of Tebow would drive the rating for both ESPN and the NFL Network. Not surprisingly, the highest-rated market for the first round was Jacksonville, the town Tebow calls home. It delivered a 10.9 local rating.
The strongest detractors for the NFL switching from an afternoon to primetime draft were critics and viewers in the Pacific Time Zone (The draft was streamed on NFL.com with a nod to those office workers). Goodell said the possibility of changing the starting time of a primetime draft would be considered. "We don't want anyone to miss the draft, so that is part of what we will evaluate," Goodell said. "Maybe there is a better start time. We will look at all of that."
Plenty of cities have shown an interest in hosting future drafts, including Canton, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and San Diego. Los Angeles, in particular, would be an attraction option with its high celebrity quotient. Tim Leiweke, president and chief executive of AEG, which owns Staples Center, has been vocal about bringing the event to L.A. One of the interesting possibilities Goodell told SI.com on Friday night was the notion of holding the draft in multiple cities.
"We have talked about whether you move to a location, or maybe you move one day of the draft," Goodell said. "If we are successful doing the draft on three days, that may be one alternative, to take one of those days and move it to a different location."