NFL Draft, the Biggest Offseason Show, Opens With Real Games in Question

The National Football League is ready for its biggest offseason television moment and Frank Hawkins, a former executive of the most popular U.S. sport, said an event designed as a showcase may turn into one weird night.

Hawkins, a founder of New York-based consulting group Scalar Media Partners LLC, said the labor dispute threatening the 2011 season has left uncertainty surrounding the draft, a coming-out party for new players that last year drew a record audience to its first prime-time telecast.

Tension on draft night usually revolves around where a strong-armed quarterback or a 300-pound lineman will be picked. Tonight on the stage at Radio City Music Hall in New York, Commissioner Roger Goodell may shake hands with Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller, who’s suing the league.

“It’s going to be bizarre,” said Hawkins, the league’s former vice president for business affairs. “It’s pretty quickly going to sink in that they can’t sign these guys.”

Miller and Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Cam Newton of Auburn University are among the players featured in the draft, which last year brought ESPN the most viewers in its 31 years broadcasting the event. The Walt Disney Co. unit said ratings rose 27 percent for its 14 1/2 hours of coverage on ESPN and ESPN2 after the league expanded the event to three days and aired the first three rounds in prime time.

This year, there’s a different element.

Antitrust Suit

Miller, who told ESPN last month that it was “a dream of mine” to shake Goodell’s hand on draft night, is a projected top-five pick and a named plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit by players against the NFL alleging antitrust violations and wage fixing.

Players filed the lawsuit after owners locked them out on March 12 because the sides couldn’t agree on how to divide $9 billion in revenue, the most of any sports league.

U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson in Minnesota four days ago blocked the lockout during the dispute, a decision the league is appealing. The sides are scheduled to return May 16 to mediation before a federal magistrate judge in Minneapolis, as ordered by Nelson.

Miller is scheduled to join a record 25 incoming players at the draft after a “rookie debut” hosted by the decertified NFL Players Association at a hotel eight blocks away.

NBA Playoffs

Ratings tonight may depend on the quality of National Basketball Association playoff games airing simultaneously, said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

“It’s become the initial celebration of all things football, and it may be overshadowed,” Carter said.

The NFL moved the early rounds into prime time after the 2009 draft attracted a record 39 million combined viewers for ESPN and the NFL Network. Goodell said the league changed the format to help teams, sponsors and fans.

“We made it a very important offseason event not just for the clubs and not just for the players but also for our business partners,” Goodell said in a transcript of an interview with USA Today circulated by the NFL. “We have record participation of sponsors, licensees and media this year.”

The draft comes after the NFL attracted an all-time-high 207.7 million viewers for its games last season, producing the 190 top-rated fall programs. The Green Bay Packers’ win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl in February attracted an average of 111 million viewers, the biggest audience in U.S. television history.

Who’s the Top Pick?

The audience may increase because the Carolina Panthers haven’t said who they’re taking as the No. 1 pick, said Eric Weinberger, executive producer for the NFL Network.

“The uncertainty over the top pick is of huge interest for a TV producer and it’s of huge interest to the fans,” Weinberger said in a telephone interview.

While some fans may skip the telecast because they’re tired of the labor dispute, others may tune in because of the suspense over which players get selected first, said Brian Billick, who coached the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl title in 2001.

“The numbers may not be as strong as they have been,” Billick, an analyst for the NFL Network, said in an interview. “But they will still be very good.”

The first round will be shown on ESPN and the NFL Network starting at 8 p.m. New York time. Rounds 2 and 3 will be held tomorrow beginning at 6 p.m., with Rounds 4-7 the following afternoon.

Hawkins said he may even watch.

“This may be the first draft where I tune in, because I want to see what it looks like,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Aaron Kuriloff in New York at akuriloff@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net.

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