The 2014 NFL Draft will now be cemented in history for several reasons, and Johnny Manziel and Michael Sam preparing to become professional football players is almost the equivalent to watching gladiators waiting to enter the Colosseum in ancient Rome.
As the starting quarterback of the Texas A&M Aggies, Manziel, or Johnny Football as he is known among his fans, delivered highlight reel plays almost every week. With 4,114 passing yards, 37 touchdown passes, 759 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns in his final college season, the mania for Johnny Football transcended sports and took the world hostage. Whether you were a football fan or not, Manziel became a household name before he even took a snap in the NFL.
Even among current NFL athletes, it is hard to find a player who has created more tabloid fodder and a celebrity following than the 21-year-old quarterback. If you aren’t impressed that Grammy Award winning-rapper Drake created a song dedicated to Manziel called “Draft Day”, perhaps the fact that former President George Bush attended his Pro Day will change your mind on his popularity. Whether you love him or wanted to punch him in the face after he rubbed his fingers together to indicate he was being paid when Roger Goodell called his name, the newest quarterback for the Cleveland Browns is one of the most polarizing figures and biggest spectacles in all of sports.
Sam, the current SEC Defensive Player of the Year, is famous for a much more different reason than Manziel. After announcing that he was gay, activists and current players alike were waiting with awe and intrigue to see if Sam would be drafted and could potentially become the first active openly-gay player in the NFL. The young defensive end would just like to be given the opportunity to be viewed as a football player and not to be defined by his sexual orientation, but this is a topic that will be covered relentlessly for the next several months.
These players have little in common, but the popularity and fanbase that each player has carried over to the NFL has never been seen before. Manziel may not even start for several years and Sam may be cut by the Rams before the season starts, yet Manziel ranks first and Sam ranks second as the most demanded jerseys for a rookie player from this year’s draft. Sam’s jersey demand is even higher than that of Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
The appeal of Johnny Football is easy to understand, as his lifestyle is envied by most of the male population. Manziel is now a NFL quarterback who hangs out with LeBron James, takes models to baseball games and buys everyone at his favorite bar $2,000 worth of Fireball shots and Miller Lite. People are drawn to Sam as a pioneer for gay rights in sports, and buying his jersey is an effort to show that fans support him and want him to follow his dream of playing professional football.
Unfortunately for the NFL, this cast of characters will never be found in another draft class. According to Nielsen Company, the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft attracted 32 million viewers, which was the most views ever for the first round of the draft. Much of that was because of Manziel, and Sam was a big part of the 9.6 million tweets that were sent out about the draft.
While the event was a huge success, it means that the NFL can’t sit back for the 2015 NFL Draft and expect the same results. From increased advertising to potentially finding a new location, Goodell needs to pull out all the stops to make sure he doesn’t lose any his new audience that he earned from this year’s draft and he must meet the expectations of lifelong fans . Goodell has a difficult journey to create the same amount of hype for next year, and he needs to start working on it immediately.
While the league will appreciate the big bucks made from merchandise, the sales indicate that fans are interested in a spectacle that can never be repeated.