Rise of the NFL Scouting Combine: Fans Turned into Experiment Mammals

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Rise of the NFL Scouting Combine: Fans Turned into Experiment Mammals
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
These seats may soon be filled with NFL fans

This was a piece I posted back in 2009 before the National Football League went prime time with the NFL draft and before 250 selected fans where allowed entry to view the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine. So like the NFL draft, its younger brother (the NFL Scouting Combine) was part of an NFL experiment, where executives wanted to see if there was money to made with fans' entry.

My Italian great-grandparents told me that in the old days, chicken wings were something of no value. No one used them and they were used as scrap to feed other animals. Chicken wings simply went unnoticed. Now, they're a billion dollar business and share a strange association with another topic—the NFL draft.

The first NFL draft was held February 8th, 1936, at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia. Before the creation of the draft, owners would just bid on the players heading to the NFL, and the deeper pocketed owners held all the cards. That changed in 1936 when the first draft was held. The first player selected back in 1936 was Jay Berwanger, and he was one of the 81 players selected that year.

From that point, the draft started to emerge and take shape, with each year bringing new concepts and rules. In 1939 there were 20 rounds; during World War II, teams were allowed to select up to 30 players, as there might be a shortage of men due to the war. A bonus selection started in 1947 in which a team would be granted another pick by the luck of the draw. That bonus selection lasted until 1958.

Can you imagine the excitement in today’s NFL draft if a team could receive a bonus pick on draft day in April? The introduction of the bonus selection also marked the first time the NFL had to bid on other players, ones who would be heading to the AFL.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
The end of privacy may be upon the NFL Combine

Until the NFL and AFL merged in 1970, many tricks were pulled by each league to acquire players leaving college. There were secret drafts held in November; the Houston Oilers were awarded a player because he played near Houston; and the stories go on and on. I could write and write about strange happenings and you might start calling this a fiction piece in the end.

It wasn’t until 1980 that ESPN would air the first NFL draft. The story told says commissioner Pete Rozelle asked ESPN, “Why would you want to cover that?” The draft simply wasn’t on anyone’s radar. The results were published deep in the pages of local newspapers where little interest was shown.

In 1982 the National Invitational Camp (NIC) was held in Tampa, Fla., which was originated by the National Football Scouting, Inc. It was a means for member NFL teams to look at NFL prospects. The NIC was renamed the NFL Scouting Combine, and some 30 years later it is one of the new kids on the block to help the NFL cure our craving for America’s new pastime. No longer are we enamored of the baggy pinstripes once worn by Joe DiMaggio and the New York Yankees; we now hunger for the look of sculpted Under Armour athletes from the National Football League.

So like it’s older brother (if you will allow) the NFL Scouting Combine is slowly being worked into the mainstream media. Not long ago the casual fan wouldn’t be transfixed on men wearing tights and running fast, but those days have passed, and the NFL is seizing the moment on another cash cow.

Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Radio City Music Hall home to the NFL Draft

Like the chicken wing being dipped in BBQ sauce, the NFL draft was becoming a mainstream event. Not only was the way we viewed the NFL draft going to change, but how the players themselves became involved in the process would change as well. What was once an unwatched event now had people sleeping outside the night before just to gain entry into the event's venue. Yours truly being one of them.

For the last two drafts, we have seen the NFL finally come of age. Only two rounds were held on the first day, and the time allotted each team was reduced. Why? So that the viewing public wouldn’t get bored, allowing the draft to become even more TV-friendly. I wouldn’t be surprised if the draft is held in prime time in the not to distance future. The tail is beginning to wag the dog.

At least at that moment, right before a selection, when the envelope is handed in and the player remains unknown, excitement and anticipation are still alive. The draft is a day of hope. Now there are publications, draft gurus, mock drafts are endless on the internet—people simply can’t get enough of the NFL Draft, or those chicken wings.

The experiment has begun: How many fans the NFL can push into Lucas Oil Stadium wasn’t animal testing—it was mammal testing at the NFL Scouting Combine. Who knew? So this April, when you are at some bar enjoying a cold one and some chicken wings watching the NFL draft, remember how two things left for dead have become intertwined...and so successful.

Now pause and take a deep breath and realize that the NFL Scouting Combine is about to make that jump to a more fan-based mainstream encounter. People called me nuts when I wrote this before the NFL draft going prime time, and I’m sticking to my guns; the combine isn’t far off. 

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