After ESPN’s production of the NFL draft this weekend it’s hard to picture the event as anything other than a slick, lavish event designed as much for TV as for the league itself. Today, it’s an event discussed and analyzed for weeks in advance but when ESPN started televising the draft back in 1980 it was barley considered newsworthy. Mel Kiper Jr. would have had to be a car salesman if he was born in a past generation. In fact, then-commissioner Pete Rozelle thought ESPN President Chet Simmons was crazy for even considering the idea.
When you really think about it, the draft isn’t something that would make for a natural TV product. It would’ve consisted of little more than players sitting with their families and shots of NFL GMs whispering to their underlings and colleagues. The 1980 draft was an opportunity ESPN couldn’t afford to pass up, even it seemed like a bland TV product. At the time the company was swimming in debt and desperate to get in bed with the NFL, the most powerful sports league even then. In the oral history of ESPN Those Guys Have All The Fun anchor Bob Ley is quoted as saying, “Chet said that was the most important thing, to align ourselves with the NFL, the Gold Standard of American television.”
Football analysts Vince Papale and George Grande covered the draft and said they didn’t get up to use the bathroom for over 12 hours on that first day. The first pick was to the Detroit Lions, who selected running back Billy Sims.