Saturday, April 22, 2006

N.F.L. Draft Daze: The Lost Weekend


THE Super Bowl is one thing. Plenty of women who consider themselves football widows throughout the fall can make peace with the thought of spending a few hours once a year in front of a television for a game that itself transcends sports — an American carnival, a spectacle of money and excess, held in festive locales, with rock stars performing at halftime and plenty of color and pageantry along the way.

The N.F.L. draft, however, is something else. Officially known as the National Football League's annual player selection meeting, the draft is basically a weekend where representatives from each professional football team gather in Manhattan and divvy up last season's crop of collegiate talent. Each team allowed to pick one player per round (barring trades) over the course of seven rounds to add to next season's roster.

Like the Super Bowl, the draft comes once a year. Like the Super Bowl, it features football players.

But that's about where the similarities end. Equal parts livestock auction and trade convention, the draft unfolds as slowly as a championship cricket match in Pakistan — 17 hours over two days.

ESPN's coverage of the event, which will be held this year at Radio City Music Hall, starts at noon next Saturday, and ends Sunday at 6 p.m. And much of the action seems to consist of middle-aged men standing around in windowless rooms waiting for telephones to ring. It's sports without the sports, you might say.

Yet for a large and growing subculture of American men, it is also a phenomenon, for some even rivaling the Super Bowl itself in importance. ESPN's Nielsen ratings for the first day of the draft, which registered a 4.3 last year, have more than tripled since the mid-80's.

The audience (each ratings point equals 1.1 million households) is 79 percent male, and seemingly about 97 percent obsessed. Normal life grinds to a halt each year during draft weekend. Travel plans are delayed, social obligations are put off and wives and girlfriends are tuned out.

"The season ends in late January and starts in July, and between, there is a time lapse I call the "desert,' " said Henry Browning, 38, a pharmaceutical research scientist who uses the draft as a pretext to leave his wife behind in Kalamazoo, Mich., and travel — to San Francisco this year — with four old graduate school buddies and hold a two-day draft party. "I consider the draft the oasis."

For a large and growing subculture of American women, this is a weekend to be endured.

"It's insane," said Mia Rosenwasser, 28, a high school Spanish teacher in Atlanta who loses her fiancé, Chad Kishel, for about 48 hours every April as he and his male friends temporarily transfer their emotional commitment to the slick-haired ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. "I think it's uniquely male."

Most women go through at least a phase of trying to understand it.

"Last year, I was trying to be supportive, and I sat with my boyfriend for maybe an hour," Ms. Rosenwasser said. "Then I found out it went on all day. He was going to be spending seven and a half hours in the same room, without leaving."

Andrea Lavinthal, a magazine beauty editor in Manhattan said she has reluctantly decided that draft mania must be some male equivalent to what the Oscar's red carpet show is for women.

"Guys can watch the actual Academy Awards show," Ms. Lavinthal said, "but we need three hours of Joan Rivers beforehand. We need to know about the hair and makeup. It's the same thing. They need to be out in front with this knowledge. They need to be in the know."

The growth in popularity of fantasy football leagues can account for some of the increase in popularity of the draft. The event provides fantasy players reams of data and insight they can use to plan their rosters. The draft is also the rare football event where half the audience does not go home miserable.

Fans of all 32 teams have a stake in the outcome, and because every team comes out of the weekend with new talent, every fan can imagine himself a winner. But that does not necessarily account for the passion that many draft aficionados display.

Ms. Rosenwasser said her fiancé has been planning to observe a meticulous draft day regimen. He will start with an early morning workout to get the juices flowing, will fire up the barbecue grill around noon, and will spend every free minute beyond those chores reviewing the draft analysis he has been compiling for months. When his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers are on the clock to make a selection, it is understood that everyone in the room is to remain silent.

He does not want anything to "break his concentration," said Ms. Rosenwasser, who added that she planned to endure the draft this year by quietly sitting beside him, working on plans for their wedding and honeymoon.

While several women interviewed insisted that they considered themselves football fans, most said that the draft seemed to represent an insurmountable gender barrier.

"I used to try to make myself pass out," recalled a 26-year-old public relations executive in Washington who asked that her name not be used because she didn't want to embarrass her prominent foreign political family. A Washington Redskins fan herself, she nonetheless said spending two days in a darkened studio apartment watching the draft with her ex-boyfriend was like being trapped "in a surreal bubble."

"I just wanted to lose consciousness, so I wouldn't have to watch," she said. "Being trapped in that space, it was terrible. But I couldn't go out and do anything, because if I left," she said, her boyfriend would pout, as if she "didn't appreciate history in the making."

This year, she said, she has a new boyfriend, and she considers their first draft weekend together something of a test. "It could make or break the relationship," she said wearily.

To be certain, not all male football fans are obsessive about the draft. Will Leitch, the editor of the sports blog, admitted in an e-mail message that he finds "the notion of middle-aged balding men salivating over 20-year-old college men in their underwear on national television a bit creepy."

But those who are into it are very, very into it.

Tim Gerheim, 24, a law student at the University of Texas at Austin, said the draft is his favorite sporting event of the year, something he anticipates and enjoys more than the Super Bowl.

"It's a very intellectual experience," he said. "You're trying to predict what is going to happen, you're putting yourself in the shoes of the people who are the decision makers."

The male obsession with the draft does reveal tendencies about how each gender approaches sports fandom. Men tend to value clear-cut measurements of ability and achievement — which is almost all the draft is — more than female sports fans, who take greater interest in athletes' personality and character, said Steven J. Danish, a psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who specializes in sports-related issues.

"Men want data and statistics," Dr. Danish said. "They don't care if athletes are nice people. But women are much more interested in the back story, whether they helped people out when they were growing up."

Certainly the hunger for data borders on addiction.

"Every year, I say I'm not going to do it, but I end up with the television on right through Sunday night," said Russell Levine, a sports media executive who lives in West Orange, N.J. His wife, Susan Levine, was as sympathetic as most wives could be. The two met in a sports bar, after all, and Ms. Levine said she considers herself one of the biggest female football fans she knows.

Still, the charms of the N.F.L. draft are largely lost on her. She can only make it through about 20 picks in the first round, she said.

"I actually take care of the children," she said, "while he's sitting in front of the TV."

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