ESPN's showing of the NFL Draft's first round received a stunning overnight rating of 6.8, an almost 50 percent increase from last year's viewership. And ESPN clearly has the myth of Johnny Manziel to thank.
Manziel, the Texas A&M quarterback affectionately known as Johnny Football, was the star of the event, both for his personality and for the drama that ensued as he fell down the draft board to the Cleveland Browns at pick No. 22. Cameras focused on his every facial expression through his long wait to get selected, as his early gregarious smiles turned to frustrated frowns. Deadspin's Timothy Burke noted that ESPN mentioned his name 113 times in all. The next closest player mentioned, the No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, was named just 29 times.
The 6.8-overnight rating comes on top of what had been stagnant ratings the last few years. When the NFL moved the draft to Thursday primetime in 2010, it boasted a then-record 5.5 overnight rating. That number was due in part to the attention on one intriguing quarterback Timothy Tebow, who was eventually taken by the Denver Broncos. Since then, though, the numbers dropped to 4.3, 4.8, and 4.6 in the years from 2011-2013, according to Sports Business Daily.
However, even those numbers would have crushed the competition. The NFL Draft outdrew four other actual sporting events last night; all of them playoff games. Just in case you were worried for a second that football was not still king.
Manziel, this year's most polarizing prospect, clearly had a Tebow-like effect on ratings. In addition, ESPN's Bill Hofheimer notes that ratings reached a high of 8.0 during the 9:45-10 p.m. slot. That was the time during which the Dallas Cowboys came oh-so-close to taking Manziel, a confluence of popular team and player from the state of Texas that would have sent ESPN into a tizzy. Alas, a star on the silver and blue star wasn't meant to be.
Like ESPN executives, long-depressed Cleveland fans were also giddy about Manziel's long wait. They exploded in excitement at the announcement that their new quarterback was still available to be snatched up. At an ESPN Radio-hosted Browns' draft party, chants of "Johnny! Johnny!" arose from the crowd, and even host Aaron Goldhammer jumped screaming, "They did it! They did it!" Hope is a powerful thing.