INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The curtain was lifted ever-so-slightly more than a dozen years ago when TV cameras first began offering a peek inside an event previously reserved for NFL eyes.
That would be the NFL Scouting Combine, aka the Underwear Olympics, which has called Indy home for three decades.
But since NFL Network’s initial breach 13 years ago of the league’s extensive analysis of the next wave of draft-eligible collegians, the erosion of the Combine’s Cone of Silence has been in direct proportion to the appetite for more exposure.
“It’s the age-old conversation inside the NFL where the competition committee and the football guys would like to keep it as private as possible,’’ NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said Monday. “The other side of the NFL looks at it as a huge media opportunity.”
“The ratings are good. The interest is high.’’
The question, Mayock agreed, is “just how far do we go with pushing the ‘Underwear Olympics’ out there as a massive event for fans. I think there is some legitimate conversation internally about how it should be treated.
“I’m kind of an old-school football guy and I kind of like just sitting there, evaluating and keeping that what it is.’’
That ship has sailed. The NFL Scouting Combine isn’t close to being an all-access experience, but neither does it unfold in secrecy.
Long-time Indianapolis Colts front-office executive Bill Polian dealt with the access-to-the-Combine issue during his years as a member of the NFL’s Competition Committee. The group routinely had to fend off attempts by the league’s marketing arm to maximize the Combine’s appeal.
“When I was on the competition committee, along with George Young and others, I was among the leaders in keeping it what it was,’’ Polian said. “It’s here to help us draft the players. The league office wanted to make it more than that.
“Ultimately they prevailed to a certain extent, and maybe that’s good to a point.’’
To a point.
“As long as we protect the real reason the Combine is there – physicals, measurables, interviews – then the other stuff we can live with. Once the other stuff starts getting in the way of that, we’ve got a problem.’’
The first of 300-plus invitees begin arriving in town Tuesday, and for the next week the NFL universe revolves around Lucas Oil Stadium.
More than 1,800 individuals – general managers, head coaches, assistants, scouts, you name it – representing the 32 teams will be joined by more than 1,300 media types, making the Combine second only to the Super Bowl in terms of credentials issued.
Teams are committed to gathering as much information as possible to limit the inherent risks involved with evaluating whether the skills Player A displayed in college will carry over to the NFL. On-field drills draw much of the attention, but medical exams, individual interviews and psychological testing arguably carry more weight in the process.
Over the last 20 years, the media’s interest in the event steadily grew. In 1998, maybe two dozen of us cornered Peyton Manning at the Louisiana Street Bar, which was adjacent to the Crowne Plaza, the players’ hotel. A year later, we roamed the hotel lobby and chased down Edgerrin James, even though we thought we were talking with Texas Heisman Trophy-winner Ricky Williams.
And now, the media throng exceeds 1,000. Along with having structured access to the vast majority of the players, reporters have seen teams use the Combine as the first forum for their head coach and general manager to speak since the end of the season.
Several years ago, Combine officials eased their grip regarding on-field drills and allowed selected reporters to watch as quarterbacks threw to receivers. Pool reports were written and disseminated by the Pro Football Writers of America.
Fans, too, have become part of the process. As part of a growing NFL Combine Experience at the Indiana Convention Center, a limited number of individuals will be allowed to watch the bench press and media interviews with players, head coaches and GMs.
The natural evolution of the Combine has forced Jeff Foster, president of the locally-based National Football Scouting, to hone his balancing skills. Whenever possible, he must blend the demands of teams, who are in the personnel business, with the requests of the NFL, which continues to search for ways to expand its brand.
“We believe in what the NFL is doing in terms of being committed to the Fan Engagement and the media components,’’ he said. “But at the same time, we need to make sure the players’ schedules are conducive to them being ready and able to perform at their peak and also allowing the clubs the access they need to perform the medical testing and the interviews and the psychological testing and on-field evaluations they need.
“That’s the balance, trying to accommodate both groups’ goals and objectives.’’
Occasionally, a request to alter the workout schedule and maximize the hype has been quashed. Five or six years ago, the league approached Foster about the possibility of moving the 40-yard dash drills to prime time.
“The first year I kind of scoffed at it,’’ he said. “The next year the NFL had me build a schedule to understand what it would take.
“What it would require is for the players to stay another night. When you start figuring in the logistics and resources and costs, the network kind of backed off. We told them they would have to absorb the costs.’’
Foster recalled a conversation he shared with Polian after sitting in on a Competition Committee meeting several years ago.
“They were talking about the NFL Network and what they wanted to do,’’ Foster said. “As you know, Bill was very serious about football being first. He stood up and shut down all of the requests that were being made for the Combine.
“On the way out of the meeting I thanked him for the support of how we did things, and he smiled and put his arm around me and said, ‘We won the battle today, but the war is now on.’’’
National Football Scouting Inc. has a contract to keep the Combine in Indy through 2020, but there is an opt-out clause after ’18. There are no issues with the actual running of the event. Lucas Oil Stadium meets every possible requirement, there are ample hotel accommodations within walking distance and the proximity of IU Health facilities is another major plus.
However, no one should dismiss the possibility of the NFL considering a relocation if it means higher exposure.
Foster declined to comment, other than to offer the Combine “is made for this city.’’