The NFL draft process has been drawn out even further this year and it leads to an interesting question: is a better-informed fan a more-in-control fan?
For many Americans, football fandom is a knowledge contest, an anxious dedication to information gathering that drives us to consume the NFL’s human-resources wing as entertainment. Last year, more than 7.9 million of us watched the draft and another 7.3 million viewed some portion of the scouting combine. This year, the draft moved from April to May, a transition attributed to a scheduling glitch: Radio City Music Hall, the draft’s venue in recent years, booked a Rockettes Easter special during the NFL’s big weekend. But it’s a favor, really: We need more time for recreational panic, more time for our 11-year-olds to prognosticate with radio hosts…
When Mayock started his work, most information about prospects was relegated to team officials and media members. But now, anyone could develop informed opinions about someone like Landry. Anyone who wants to can study six of his games and learn about his perceived value on mock draft sites. Walter Cherepinsky, the founder of one such site, tells me it gets 40 million visits per month. (One of his recent mocks has Landry going to the Carolina Panthers with the 92nd selection.) For the most committed students, there are draft guides such as Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio, more than 1,200 pages about offensive prospects. Waldman writes that Landry blocks and runs routes like a reserve player, but he catches passes like an NFL star.
While the adage tells us knowledge is power, though, it’s less clear how all of this information empowers draft-obsessed fans. That 11-year-old from the sports talk show wanted his team to select a receiver, but wanting that or having an argument in favor of it won’t make it so. What erudition of this sort provides is a sense of autonomy, in terms of identity, a guard against power abused. NFL insiders tend to whisper the same general stat: that one-third of the league’s general managers have no business overseeing personnel decisions—they’re either misguided in the way they evaluate players or they don’t bother to put in the requisite research. Draft savvy, then, lets fans separate their outcomes (the success of their favored college prospects) from those of their favorite teams (the players chosen by their teams and the team’s outcome on the field); fans can timestamp their opinions and later say, “I told you so.”
But does this kind of autonomy relieve fans’ helplessness, or does it make them feel more like pawns beholden to the real draft-day outcomes they want to control but can’t? Let’s say you’re sure, after months of research, your team should use its third-round pick on a quarterback, but the team instead drafts a punter—a punter—and the quarterback selected five slots later goes on to win a Super Bowl within two seasons. Besides a conniption, this could also give you a grudge to unleash on team executives, message board commenters, and media members who disagree with your football opinions.
The evidence seems clear: the draft is popular and the NFL can afford to drag it out when people keep watching. But, do people really enjoy it? More broadly in sports, if fans know even more about potential players (college, minor leagues, developmental leagues, overseas prospects, etc.), does this lead to feeling more in control?
Having more information is generally seen as a good thing in today’s world. The more input you can gather, the better. Yet, this doesn’t necessarily lead to better outcomes or more perceived control. (Read The Paradox of Choice for a good introduction.) I would argue that much of the appeal of sports is the unpredictably, the odd things that can happen on a playing surface at any point. All the information in the world can’t easily explain some of these events – and would we want it to or would we rather see unpredictable things happen in games?
The draft is a good example of this unpredictability and how we might perceive information as a way to limit this. Think about all of the mock drafts. All of the talking heads. Stretching out the draft even longer. Yet, there are still things that happen on draft day that are hard to predict, even for all the experts. (I’m particularly intrigued by recent mock drafts that incorporate more complicated draft-day trades.) Assessing the results of drafts can take years or even decades. Sports Illustrated had a recent story about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers making a disastrous pick in the 1980s that led to 10+ years of ineptitude – but this wasn’t visible for years.
All together, football players make choices, teams make choices, fans respond to all of this with more or less information, and it all collides in a “sports experience.” I suspect sports fans don’t really want to know everything (stronger predictive abilities would reduce the uncertainty about outcomes) even if they often want to immerse themselves in the sports experience. At some point, the return on having more and more sports knowledge likely decreases enjoyment though this curve could easily differ by person.