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Combine needs fans for it to continue rise in popularity

Posted Feb 24, 2014

Scouting world will determine combine’s fate

Pitt DL Aaron Donald

GREEN BAY—The NFL wants to make the scouting combine a Super Bowl-like offseason event. For that to happen, the league may have to take control of it away from the people that created it.

In 2012 and ’13, the NFL opened the combine doors for free to a few hundred diehard fans. It was precedent setting and the league would like to advance that practice by selling some pricey ticket packages to draft-crazy fans that envision the combine to be a kind of football winter Olympics. After that, who knows?

One problem: The league’s general managers are not in favor of opening the doors to the kingdom they created. Hey, they had agreed to allow the media to occupy a nearby room, and then the NFL scouting bosses winced as NFL Network began televising the event, but no way would they allow the combine to be marketed to fans, even at a price that would help pay the scouting czars’ salaries.

It’s almost comical. The fan can see for free on TV what the league could charge the fan to view in person, but the czars say no. That’s why the scouting combine isn’t likely to become a Super Bowl-like offseason event.

“The first combine I went to, there was no media,” packers.com draft contributor Tony Pauline said. “There was no media room. I was outside the exit gate trying to get information. A lot of media people like it because you have one central area where you can talk to coaches, general managers, prospects. Media like it because they don’t have to work the phones.”

The league likes it because it was with the decision to bring the media inside the building that the scouting combine began to rise in popularity and profile. Whether you like the media or hate the media, there’s no denying its power. It can make you, or it can break you. It has made the combine what it is.

Nine hundred press credentials were distributed for this past weekend’s festivities. Once upon a time, a few hardened football beat reporters stood in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, waiting for scouts, general managers, coaches and agents to walk by and then stop to offer a few comments.

The doors to this year’s combine opened to us on Thursday morning. On Sunday at 5 p.m., we were told to leave to not return, even though the workouts wouldn’t shift into high gear until Monday morning. Jadeveon Clowney and Aaron Donald stole the show on Monday morning, but we were already gone.

Why doesn’t the media complain? It’s because by Sunday afternoon the media is bored out of its mind and just wants to go home.

“The weekend is just for the media, but the combine goes on until Tuesday,” Pauline said.

So why did so many media people attend something they were forbidden to see and forced to leave before it’s complete? Michael Sam, that’s why.

“You have to keep having stories like Michael Sam and Manti Te’o. If there’s no huge story like that, I don’t think you’re going to see 900 people next year,” Pauline said.

What we may have seen this past weekend is the peak of the combine’s popularity. Unless it can continue delivering Sam-like and Te’o-like press conferences, the combine is unlikely to continue its rise.

It needs drama to do that, and it needs for draft prospects to provide that drama in on-the-field competition, which is another issue confronting the league in its promotion of the combine. Star players declining to participate in workouts won’t work, and neither will the refusal of the league’s football brass to open their doors.

The czars hold the key to the combine’s future. They can breathe more life into it and further popularize the game of professional football, or they can continue to control and sanitize an event that, frankly, isn’t nearly as important as we delude ourselves into believing it is.

 
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