The NFL is Missing Out on a Major Opportunity

By not having a draft lottery, the NFL is letting the opportunity for a huge media bonanza slip away.

In case you missed it, on Tuesday the NBA held its lottery drawing live on ESPN — presented by State Farm! — with the Pelicans winning the top pick, followed by the Grizzlies, Knicks (who actually finished with the NBA's worst record), and Lakers.

The NBA lottery made its debut in 1985, when only seven of the league's 23 teams neglected to make the playoffs. The undisputed top prize in that draft was Georgetown center Patrick Ewing — and when the Knicks, who finished with the third worst record in the league that year, won the lottery, it brought out the conspiracy theorists who claimed that the NBA rigged the lottery so that its "flagship" franchise (an attribution which must have been pretty disconcerting to Celtics fans) would get the top pick.

The Pacers, who finished second in the lottery (and tied with Golden State for the worst overall record), settled for Oklahoma power forward Wayman Tisdale, who never once appeared in an NBA All-Star Game in his 13-year career, of which only the first three were as a Pacer. By contrast, Ewing is in the Hall Of Fame.

From 1966 through 1984, the team with the worst record in the Eastern Division — the Eastern Conference starting in 1971 — and the team with the worst record in the Western Division/Conference, squared off in a coin flip to determine who would get the number-one pick, thus preventing a team from tanking their way to guaranteeing themselves that pick.

Prior to 1966, regular-season records alone were used to determine picks, except that any team could jump the line and select any player who resided within 50 miles of its home city. This is how the then-Philadelphia Warriors were able to use their first-round pick on Philadelphia native Wilt Chamberlain in the 1959 draft even though Chamberlain played his college ball at Kansas, and how Gail Goodrich, a double Los Angeles product — born in L.A. and went to UCLA — was drafted by the Lakers.

From 1936 through 1947 the NFL used a pool system, under which each team submitted a list of players they were interested in; and if the same player's name appeared on two or more such lists, the team with the worst record therein would get to draft said player. Then came the "bonus pick" era, during which all 12 of the league's teams would be guaranteed one number-one overall pick each. From 1960 to the present, the team with the worst record was guaranteed the first pick (this included the AFL as well starting in 1967).

When Judge David S. Doty rammed free agency down the owners' throats in 1993 and stuck them with a lemon, the owners served lemonade by weaving an entire media tapestry around the free-agent signing period. No doubt this has sold millions of cable subscriptions that include NFL Network, which becomes "Free Agency Central" every March and April, that would not have been sold otherwise.

The same thing can be done with a draft lottery — and the Pro Bowl can be incorporated into it, by holding the lottery at halftime of the game. If this is done, watch the ratings for the Pro Bowl shoot into the ionosphere — and the competition for who gets to be the corporate sponsor for the drawing will be fierce.

But what if a lottery had existed this year in the NFL ‐ and the Steelers, 9-6-1 last season, got the top pick, you ask?

The Orlando Magic won the 1993 NBA lottery with a 41-41 record, enabling them to draft Shaquille O'Neal. And the NBA has survived just fine, thank you.

There is nothing wrong with money driving things ‐ so long as the things that it's driving are good things. And the NFL has already let money drive the draft — lengthening it to first two days and then three, and holding the first round on over-the-air TV (ABC) for the first time this year.

And in the case of the NFL implementing a draft lottery, it would be more than merely a good thing. It would be a totally awesome thing.

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