ESPN's Chris Berman has seen NFL draft's popularity soar

Ed Sherman
Chicago Tribune
Chris Berman has seen NFL draft coverage explode.

Chris Berman has told the story so many times it now feels like he was there for the meeting.

Back in 1979, Chet Simmons, president of a new network called ESPN, made a proposal to Pete Rozelle to air live coverage of the NFL draft. While Rozelle might have been the most media-savvy commissioner in sports history, even he couldn't comprehend why ESPN would bother covering an event where basically nothing happened from a visual standpoint.

"To Pete, it sounded like reading names from the phone book," Berman said. "Everyone said, 'Who's going to watch?'"

Simmons, though, persisted and ESPN covered its first draft in 1980. It proved to be a pivotal moment not only for ESPN but also for the NFL.

ESPN's primitive coverage laid the roots for what will be a three-day, high-tech extravaganza in Chicago this week. ESPN's early association with the draft enabled the struggling network to gain an important foothold in the market. It also transformed the NFL from a six-month, game-driven league to a year-round obsession about who's going to be taken No. 1.

"The draft helped put ESPN on the map," said John Wildhack, who joined the network in 1980 and now is its executive vice president for production and programming. "It helped the NFL become more than just a fall sport."

Even Rozelle would be stunned at the numbers. Last year, a record 32 million viewers tuned in to watch first-round coverage on ESPN and NFL Network.

"It's the best reality show in the offseason for football," said producer Charlie Yook, who will oversee 79 hours of draft coverage on NFL Network this week.

Berman will anchor ESPN's 35th year of covering the draft. He was there for the first in 1980, serving as a little-known 24-year-old reporter.

Berman recalled ESPN, which debuted only a few months earlier, had no grand master plan for its draft coverage. Back then, the new network operated with a make-it-up-as-we-go-along approach.

Wildhack said the only thing Simmons knew for certain was that ESPN had to find a way to be associated with the NFL. With airing games still off in its future, he settled for one day of the draft.

"Chet was brilliant," Berman said. "We needed content. What else were we going to do? Chet said, 'This is ours and we're going to own it.'"

Outwardly, there didn't appear to be much to own. The NFL didn't make any changes to accommodate ESPN. Instead of a prime-time start like today, it kicked off the draft at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday. The venue hardly was Radio City Music Hall. Rather, it was a decidedly unglamorous ballroom at the New York Sheraton.

"To say the quarters were tight would be an understatement," Wildhack said.

To underscore the low-tech nature of the event, while Rozelle was announcing George Rogers as the No. 1 pick in 1981, an assistant literally reached over and turned on his microphone. ESPN's set consisted of a table in the ballroom with George Grande as the anchor and football writers Paul Zimmerman and Howard Balzer serving as the expert analysts. Mel Kiper Jr. had yet to be invented.

Early on, Berman was assigned to a popular New York restaurant to get fan reaction and talk to former players like Kyle Rote. He remembered the place going dark for 10 minutes because ESPN's power supply was essentially an extension cord from the truck.

"It felt like we were doing it with two tin cans and a string," Berman said.

Indeed, it all seems so laughable compared to the glitzy productions of today's telecasts. Yet Berman started to notice something happening as ESPN continued its draft Tuesday coverage during the mid-'80s.

"All of the sudden, we got word that people were calling in sick to work on a Tuesday in April," Berman said. "They were staying home to watch the draft."

Football fans actually were interested in tracking the various machinations of the draft. There was suspense with players rising and falling on the board. One of the most memorable instances occurred in 1983 when Dan Marino slipped to the bottom of the first round. The analysts then ripped Dolphins coach Don Shula for using his No. 1 pick on the quarterback.

How did that work out?

As Simmons said, ESPN did come to own the draft, showcasing its potential as a 24/7 sports network. In the mid-'80s, the network brought in a quirky "draftnik" with big hair, Kiper, who joined Berman as its signature voices of the coverage. The surging ratings finally convinced the NFL to move the draft to a Sunday in 1988 so fans could watch without having to skip work. That resulted in another huge spike in popularity, growing to the point where the event now receives wire-to-wire coverage on two networks.

"Chet was right," Berman said. "There is no lid on the interest in pro football. To be part of the draft and watch it grow over the last 35 year has been pretty cool."

Tribune contributor Ed Sherman writes about sports media at shermanreport.com. Follow him @Sherman_Report.

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