The annual NFL Scouting Combine commences today in Indianapolis, bringing with it over 300 prospective draftees, 800 media members and just about every member of an NFL front office. That's certainly big business for the city of Indianapolis as all of these visitors need food and lodging while their here, but it's an even greater testament to the immense popularity of the National Football League.
If you've ever watched the NFL Network's coverage of the Combine, you know it's hardly "compelling" sports television. There's no game, just hundreds of prospects lifting weights, running around cones and generally being inspected from head to toe by NFL scouts.
Even the coverage of the NFL Draft provides at least a little bit of tension as we await what player will be chosen next. At the Combine, we know the order of the participants, and unless someone spontaneously combusts while running the 40, there's not much drama to be had.
Yet every year the Combine's ratings increase. Last year, the NFL Network's coverage drew over six million viewers. To put that in perspective, if that number is equaled again this year, it would have made the event the third most watched cable program behind "The Walking Dead" and the NBA All-Star Game. What if the NFL made zombie survival one of the drills? Think of those ratings!
Meanwhile, Under Armour is underwriting pretty much the entire event in exchange for having their logo plastered all over the participants' workout attire and on signage visible to every possible camera angle. NIke may have gotten the regular season aparrel contract last season, but no brand at any event is as ubiquitous as UA's presence at the Combine.
It wasn't always this way. As with many of the innovations in the NFL, the Combine was the idea of former Cowboys' president, Tex Schramm. Prior to the Combine, teams would bring in players individually for workouts and/or visit them on their college campuses. Three scouting services, NFS, BLESTO and Quadra, got the idea in the mid-1970s to begin holding events where teams could see all these players at once. It wasn't long after that Schramm proposed that the league take control of this process and hold a singular event.
They first gathered in Tampa, FL in 1982 with stops in New Orleans and Arizona before permanently settling in Indianapolis in 1987. Ever since then, teams have been coming to experience Hoosier hospitality and check out their next multi-million dollar investments.
The NBA is the only pro sports league to have followed suit with a centralized scouting event with its pre-draft workouts in Portsmouth, OH. NBATV has televised much of the games and drills. Even though the NBA's version involves actual games and a much smaller and recognizable talent pool, the interest in their workouts isn't even close to the fervor NFL fans heap upon the Combine.
One could argue about the societal statement made by the popularity of watching large men simply lift, run and sweat. What can't be argued is that the NFL has cashed in on the passion its fans have for the product and made the Combine appointment viewing for millions of fans.
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