The legend goes that when a fledgling ESPN asked NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to televise the 1980 NFL Draft, even the PR-savvy Mr. Rozelle doubted anybody would tune in.
Fast-forward 33 years and John Brody, senior VP-sponsorship and sales for the NFL, expected 50 million viewers to watch the three-day event across ESPN, NFL Network and NFL Mobile last Thursday through Saturday nights.
Among league sponsors and advertisers, the NFL Draft is now viewed as a "tentpole event" where they can directly connect their brands to the country's most-popular sports league, Mr. Brody said. A confirmed 19 sponsors activated around this year's event at Radio City Music Hall vs. 16 in 2012. Among them: Anheuser-Busch; Nike; Verizon; Pepsi; GMC; Visa; EA Sports; Under Armour; Gatorade; and Castrol.
Despite the recession, ad support is growing for the NFL Draft, which now competes with entertainment and reality shows in the heart of prime time. Advertisers spent roughly $15 million across ESPN and NFL Network in 2012 vs. $11.9 million in 2011, according to Kantar Media.
Current NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell moved Round 1 to Thursday nights in 2010 from its longtime perch on Saturdays. The gamble paid off: ESPN's Round 1 coverage last year averaged 6.7 million viewers and a 4.4 rating vs. 5.1 million viewers and a 3.4 rating in 2009.
"To the credit of the NFL, it's the most robust league," said Ernest Lupinacci, founder of branding consultancy Ernest Industries. "They announced the [2013 regular season] schedule and people went crazy. It was as if they let us know they were bringing the McRib sandwich back."
"Our sponsors crave more access and more connection to the game the same way the fans do," according to Mr. Brody. "Our partners are enablers: They're the ones who connect the sport to the fans."
Here's how sponsors such as Verizon, A-B and Nike integrated their brands into the festivities:
• Verizon was the presenting sponsor of Round 3. The company hosted a "Draft Eve" party Wednesday, where its executives and customers mingled with top draft picks and NFL starts.
• Bud Light signed on to sponsor Round 2 Friday night as well as sponsor ESPN's coverage. Bud Light's promotion offered to fly 32 NFL fans to New York (one representing each team's fan base) and give them a VIP experience that included a dinner reception with 32 NFL alumni, along with green-room access at Radio City.
• Nike, which took over as the NFL's official outfitter last season from Reebok, provided top prospects with No. 1 Nike jerseys. Similarly, the league's official cap, New Era, handed out special "Draft Caps" to prospects onstage. That's prime product placement when prospects ascended the stage for the traditional handshake and hug with Mr. Goodell.