Weeks after the end of one season and months ahead of the next, the eyes of National Football League (NFL) fans everywhere are on the Las Vegas Strip this weekend.
They will be weighing the fortunes of football’s leading college graduates – and the NFL teams who hope to sign them. Caesars Forum is the venue for the 2022 NFL Draft, as the new stars of the world’s richest sports league discover their professional futures on a red carpet in front of the Bellagio fountains.
Las Vegas was originally meant to stage the 2020 event before the Covid-19 pandemic intervened. The concept for this year’s edition is not as ambitious as intended two years ago but it still promises to be one of the off-field spectacles of the year.
There are expectations that public attendees could surpass the 600,000 who watched in Nashville, Tennessee in 2019. According to Sportico, that weekend generated more than $132 million in direct spending. Last year’s 12.5 million live TV audience for the opening rounds was higher than that of Hollywood’s Academy Awards.
Yet the impact on Nevada will seem little compared to the effect it will have on the lives of the players involved. With the weakest teams of the last campaign choosing first, high picks have a good chance of quickly becoming central to the plans of their new employers.
It is not always the case, of course, that they will go on to be the league’s top names. The most glamorous positions are not always filled early – many observers, for example, have noted the 2022 class to be short on star quarterbacks. It is worth remembering, too, that all-time great Tom Brady was the 199th pick in the 2000 draft.
Still, in the NFL and other US major leagues like the NBA, drafted players are becoming professionals for the first time. Historically, due to the NCAA’s strict rules around amateurism, this would also be the first time they could sign endorsement deals with brands.
That is no longer the case. Changes in NCAA regulations in July 2021 mean that the 2022 class features some of the first student-athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness (NIL) rights while playing at university. Nevertheless, the NIL market is still a young one – and still many times smaller than the market for corporate ambassadors in the NFL.
All of these players are moving into a different category of interest altogether. The very best may become global superstars in an era where the NFL International Series is growing. The rest will appear on the most watched broadcasts on US television, with tens of millions of viewers following every nationally televised game.
Their arrival also comes with the NFL expanding its media footprint further than ever. Bumper rights deals have been secured for the next decade and new projects in podcasts, unscripted and original programming and virtual reality gaming – not to mention live coverage targeted at younger viewers by the likes of Nickelodeon – can connect with fans in different and deeper ways.
A huge range of different profiles will emerge out of that mix, from generational icons to local heroes and breakout personalities – athletes of different shapes and sizes with the appeal to match. There is plenty for brands to work with and much as well for the young men involved to work through.
At its best, the NFL Draft is the biggest showcase for new talent in sport – one that celebrates finding the right opportunity for the best talent. Off the field, the tools to accomplish that have never been more powerful.
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