To go, or not to go: That is the question. A month ago, the National Football League officially reached out to the nation’s top college football players, cordially inviting them to watch this year’s draft unfold at Radio City Music Hall in New York. For hard-core sports fans, it’s a familiar scene: beaming young athletes in giant, tailored suits sitting awkwardly in the greenroom, ready to strut onto the stage at a moment’s notice to hoist up their new jerseys. But it’s also a big gamble: As the draft kicks off, will the player in attendance hear his name called first? Maybe 12th? What about not at all?
“It’s a tough decision whether to attend or not,” says Rick Smith of Priority Sports & Entertainment, a Chicago-based agency that has represented more than 30 first-round draft picks.
The most enduring greenroom memories are ignominious ones. In 2005, cameras were trained on a forlorn Aaron Rodgers, who finally was picked 24th by the Green Bay Packers, much later than expected. In 2007, Brady Quinn appeared to be mortified when the Miami Dolphins picked Ted Ginn Jr. with the ninth pick. Quinn eventually went 22nd, chosen by the Cleveland Browns, and the cameras seemed to savor his visible discomfort during each previous pick.
For what’s comparable to a drawn-out legal proceeding on television, the sweaty brows on nervous players can be the most compelling sign of human drama. Last year a combined 8.1 million viewers watched the first round of the NFL draft on ESPN (DIS) or the NFL Network, an increase of 16 percent from 2012, but slightly below the 8.3 million viewers that tuned in in 2010, when the draft first debuted in prime time. “I love the 350-pound guys sweating bullets in the greenroom while they stretch the seams of the first suit they’ve ever bought, which is usually some amazing color like teal or cornflower,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi. But Michael Signora, the NFL’s vice president of football communications, insists, “It’s not our intention to make anyone uncomfortable.” Players, he adds, are welcome to step out of the greenroom whenever they choose.
“Ultimately, the decision to attend the draft is up to the player,” Smith says. “We do our due diligence, but it’s still early in the process when we have to get back to the NFL and accept or decline the invitation. So we tell our players where we think they’ll go, but we also tell them to understand that anything can happen.”
The NFL begins the invitation process in late February, around the time of the NFL Scouting Combine. “We consider a number of factors,” says Signora. “Which players are likely to be selected early, which ones make for good stories, and also who’s contacted us expressing interest to go.”
Undoubtedly, the most interesting story line in the NFL draft concerns Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame linebacker who led his team to the national championship game and was later exposed as a victim of a bizarre dating hoax. He also underperformed at the Combine. It’s not surprising, then, that Te’o declined the NFL’s invitation.
But many players enjoy the media circus. “Each year, we have a lot of guys who aren’t likely to be selected in the first round ask us for invitations,” Signora says. “It’s an exciting series of events. They get to appear on a morning show on NFL Network, host a youth football clinic at a public park, and ring the closing bell of the New York Stock Exchange.”
This year, 23 players have accepted invitations to attend the greenroom. Among them is Alabama offensive tackle and Priority client D.J. Fluker, whom most experts predict will be selected in the middle of the first round. “We’ve done our homework and are confident he’ll be picked,” Smith says. “But D.J.’s also fine with whatever happens. It’s a big day for him, and he wants to share it with the people that are close to him.”
According to Smith, players like Fluker can rest easy. “What you saw with Aaron Rodgers will never happen again,” he says. “The problem was, he was on camera the whole time—the camera never moved. If that happened today, the NFL would call the player out of the room.”
But Signora denies this. “There’s no edict handed down about how to run the broadcast,” he says. “Before the draft, we tell them that they’re part of the broadcast and that there’s no guarantee how it will unfold. Once the players are in the greenroom, they’re on.”