The NFL finally opened up the Combine workouts to reporters, overriding decades of exclusivity that only saw select journalists peek behind the curtain. The experience was mediocre. As often happens, the desire to explore a forbidden area was stronger than the satisfaction of knowing what actually was behind the veil.
The NFL Combine Experience Was Dull
There’s not much difference between attending the in-person workouts and attending a game in stadium. The advantages of watching remotely have compelled viewers to stay at home much more often. Graphics, replays, and stadium announcers can provide crucial context not immediately available to those at home, and the workouts are pretty similar.
Without accurate stopwatches or clear measurements on the vertical leap, we’re left to essentially make guesses about player performance before the enormous televisions in the stadium give journalists the same data they broadcast live to the viewers at home.
Nevertheless, there is something to the atmosphere of a comfortably empty stadium reacting to an obviously outstanding performance.
Nolan Smith’s 4.39 40-yard dash and 41.5-inch vertical leap drew gasps from the crowd and cheers from the other defensive linemen, which added texture to a Combine experience that media members typically experience from a converted ballroom one building away, stocked with eight small televisions and 40 long tables.
Sitting next to analysts comfortable breaking down prospects also adds to the experience. It’s valuable knowing the depth that a lineman can sink to when bending the edge around the hoop and how that complements — or disagrees with — the type of play the prospect put on film.
Small-school specialists could quickly describe the type of defense a defensive end played in, while recruiting analysts could immediately recall backstories for the Power Five prospects ready to work out.
Even with all of that in mind, there wasn’t much value to be gained in the first round of workouts, where the only non-measurable drills run were the wave drill and some coverage drills for the linebackers. There will be much more value in watching the cornerback coverage drills, receiver route-running drills, and quarterback throwing drills than was available on Day 1.
The NFL Combine Opening Up Was About Dollars, Not Sense
Nevertheless, this matches the NFL’s shift in strategy surrounding the yearly convention. The NFL is experimenting with making the Combine an event in every sense of the word. The plan to move the Combine around has nothing to do with maximizing the capacity of NFL teams to evaluate prospects, but to make cities excited to host yet another NFL event.
In fact, there’s a good chance the movement of the Combine makes the experience substantially worse for teams. Indianapolis is centrally located, has an enormous convention space, boasts incredible hotel capacity, and has parking space to match. Most cities in the United States can’t manage that kind of traffic and can’t handle the smooth medical process the NFL requires at the same space on top of all of that.
But there’s money to be made on the evaluation process, and the NFL is determined to make it. The schedule for the Combine has already changed from a weekend event to a week-long affair, and the most high-profile workouts have been moved to prime time to capture a better television audience.
This year, in addition to opening up the workouts to media members — a new practice — they added fan events, with an area outside for the “Combine experience” and a section inside for fans to watch workouts.
Though sparsely attended by fans and journalists, the stadium was livelier than last year, when a handful of journalists were permitted to watch the QB workouts. With fewer people in the stands, no fans, and no support environment — concessions, ushers, custodial staff, and so on — the stadium experience was hollow and empty, emphasizing the cavernousness of Lucas Oil Stadium.
They have also opened up sponsorship opportunities beyond the simple worn apparel for the players during workouts. The NFL Combine is brought to fans by a new apparel company called NOBULL, which has peppered its name across the broadcast and seemingly every available advertisable surface.
Not only are players wearing NOBULL gear when working out during televised drills, but they’ve also each received a full kit worth nearly $3,000 dollars, which, in total, cost the company nearly $1 million. They’ve made even heavier investments around the event, with a dedicated warmup area and recovery room.
Inside the stadium where workouts were conducted, NOBULL even had merchandise stands set up to capture the scant few fans and journalists there to cover the event. They even sponsored the Combine experience facilities outside, where fans — and unwise journalists — could attempt to run a 40-yard dash or perform any number of other fan-friendly activities.
The privilege comes at a heavy cost, one that benefits the NFL, though the NFL also has an investment share in the company, meaning they, too, benefit from the brand’s increased visibility.
Ultimately, the willingness to finally open up workouts to media members was more an acknowledgment that any attempt to bring fans to the event necessarily makes it media accessible. It was not a commitment to a more transparent evaluation process but a byproduct to bring eyes to a product that the NFL feels they have long neglected.
The ability to finally attend workouts meant seeing players in person. But the bigger spectacle was witnessing the NFL try to find some more change in the back of the couch cushion.