When ESPN first approached the NFL about televising the draft, Commissioner Pete Rozelle was taken aback: Who would want to watch that?
As it turned out, the answer was: Millions of football fans. With ESPN’s help, the NFL draft has become a huge annual event and the centerpiece of the NFL offseason. It’s become a lucrative business for both ESPN and the NFL.
But with FOX agreeing to televise the draft for the first time this year, it’s an event that ESPN no longer controls.
In recent years, NFL Network’s coverage of the draft has taken a bigger and bigger piece of the pie. Although ESPN has always had higher ratings than NFL Network, the ESPN-NFLN split of the audience has gone from 74-26 in 2015 to 70-30 in 2016 to 67-33 in 2017, according to Sports Business Journal. That split is certain to change significantly when FOX, which as a broadcast network reaches more viewers than ESPN, jointly televises the draft with NFL Network this year. It’s likely that the combined FOX-NFL Network coverage will have a higher viewership than ESPN’s coverage.
Pete Rozelle never could have imagined, when ESPN first approached him, that the NFL draft would become such a hot commodity that some other network would come along and compete with ESPN for the event. But that day has come, and with FOX and NFL Network now showing the draft together, it’s a competition ESPN is likely to lose.