For the true devotee of the National Football League, the high spot of the year is not the Super Bowl, or some bonecrushing hit or miraculous touchdown pass. In fact it's not during the season at all, and it takes place nowhere near a football stadium. The best moment of all comes tonight, in Radio City Music Hall in midtown Manhattan – the start of the 2012 NFL player draft when the League's 32 teams choose their future.
For months everyone's been on the case. Managers, coaches and scouts have been sizing up the talent available, calculating which of the college football stars available best fits their needs. For the fans, the media and countless websites, it is fantasy football come true. There are seven rounds to the NFL draft, but the climax comes at the beginning in the very first of them, when the cream of the crop is selected live on prime-time national TV.
The master of ceremonies will be Roger Goodell, the NFL's Commissioner. On stage he announces the top picks. One by one, a procession of young men will emerge from the wings, brandishing the jersey of his new team. Later they will sign contracts worth tens of millions of dollars and – if all goes according to plan – change the fortunes of a franchise. And, as befits the hype that envelops America's most supersized sport, the top overall picks are superstars even before they have played a single second in the NFL.
The most prized assets, not surprisingly, are quarterbacks, the marquee players of every franchise. This year boasts a couple of exceptional ones: Andrew Luck, latterly of Stanford University in California and now destined for the Indianapolis Colts, and Robert Griffin III, of Baylor University in Texas who will be picked second overall by the Washington Redskins. The next three picks – to judge from the antepost betting – will send offensive tackle Matt Kalil to the Minnesota Vikings, Trent Richardson, a running back, to the Cleveland Browns and corner back Morris Claiborne to Tampa Bay. After that however, it is anyone's guess.
The NFL draft sounds like a minutely scripted affair, and it is. Every major league sport in the US consists of a group of franchises operating basically as a cartel, exempt from the country's otherwise stringent anti-trust laws. There is no promotion or relegation; the only changes occur when new teams are admitted or when a franchise moves to another city for financial reasons.
In sport, international stereotypes are overturned. Europe is forever being criticised in the US as socialist and sclerotic. But when it comes to football, the continent's most popular sport, Europe is the Wild West, where competition is ferocious, money's no object and the weakest go to the wall.
The US may be the proud champion of raw capitalism where business is concerned. But it's the opposite when it comes to professional sport, a cosy place where a team can lose for decades and suffer nothing more than the abuse of its fans – or, as in the case of baseball's Chicago Cubs who have not won a World Series in a century, inspire a perverse devotion for that very reason. In this stagnant set-up, drafts are essential to maintain competitiveness.
They vary in style. The NFL's is the flashiest and also the simplest, a natural extension of college football which is a huge industry in its own right and provides virtually the entire talent pool of the professional league. The NBA basketball draft, consisting of just two rounds and spiced by foreign megastars like Yao Ming and Dirk Nowitzki, may well be the most fun. Baseball's, predictably, is the most complicated, running to 40 or more rounds, where even the top picks are sent off to the anonymity of the minor leagues to learn their trade.
But the principle in every draft is the same. The worse the team, the higher the pick. Thus in the NFL, the franchise with the poorest record the previous season (in 2011 the Colts) gets first choice, while the Super Bowl winner goes last. Typically a player who is selected signs a contract binding him to a franchise for a minimum four years. In this way, it is argued, the best players are spread around rather than being vacuumed up by a few rich teams, making the leagues genuinely competitive.
And up to a point at least, the theory works. Since the Premier League opened for business in England in 1992, only four clubs have won. By contrast 13 different teams have won the Super Bowl and 11 the World Series over the same period, while even the NBA has had eight different champions.
The draft of course is not a perfect guide. Some top picks have proved colossal flops; others have been eclipsed by players chosen far lower, as a virtual afterthought. Tom Brady for instance, who had led the New England Patriots to three Super Bowls, only went in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, while Albert Pujols, today regarded as baseball's best player, was chosen by the St Louis Cardinals in round 13 of the 1999 MLB draft, the 402nd pick overall.
For the moment though, only hope reigns. In Indianapolis, Luck is already being hailed as the natural successor to Peyton Manning, while in Washington the impending arrival of Griffin is a bigger deal than Barack Obama. Obama after all is merely trying to rescue the country; Griffin has a much tougher task: to restore the city's beloved football team, who have not been to the Super Bowl in two decades and have become something of an NFL laughing stock.
To secure his services, the Redskins have paid a double price. Not only will Griffin command a contract worth a king's ransom. But also, just to get him, the team agreed to give their first and second-round selections this year, and their first-round picks in 2013 and 2014, to the St Louis Rams, who would normally have chosen second. It's a monster gamble – but that's what makes the draft such fun.