The NFL draft has all the drama of an actual football game — intensity, joy, heartbreak, and schadenfreude — except it comes from the reading aloud of names. Thrilling negotiations, shocking resource allocations, sudden changes in the perceived value of 22-year-olds, wins and money achieved and made and lost on paper. It is sports without the sports. It is the Super Bowl of not actually playing football. It is the kind of night Darren Rovell was made for.
The 35-year-old sports business reporter for ESPN strolls the periphery of Radio City Music Hall on this Thursday night in April — the draft has been held at this show business landmark since 2006 — among the rest of the
media, yet not exactly part of it. He's wearing a dark suit, the slightest hint of gray in his made-for-television black coif. There are TV crews and makeshift sets and rows of writers with laptops. Rovell finds a place to stand near the center aisle and stares at his phone. Everything he needs is in his shoulder bag: chiefly, a stapled draft-night packet of stats provided by ESPN and three iPhone chargers. "You need to have a good charging strategy," he says. "Have one charger that's only in your bag. When you travel, leave your home ones at home."
The reliability of this phone is crucial; we're just minutes into what will be a long night of hearing names read aloud. Right now the phone contains around 20 scheduled and drafted tweets' worth of intel about the top prospective picks, embargoed new-uniform reveals for the Dolphins and Vikings
, trivia about teams' selection histories, and shots of jerseys
being printed backstage, which will soon be joined by mockups of rookie cards
, everything deployed as needed at key moments over the evening, as well as as 114 unviewed text messages and a not statistically insignificant number of @replies from strangers telling him to die in a fire. He's the self-styled pioneer and proprietor of a staunchly capitalist, social media-driven infotainment machine, and many of the people who read almost every single thing he writes believe he signifies the soul-death of sports.
"I've arranged with the NFL to send me a picture of the name card from the first pick so I can tweet that," he says. "I have to have greater facts that other people won't have. You'll see at 7:15 when the Vikings photo hits, the retweets are going to be crazy."
Darren Rovell, just shy of 400,000 followers strong, does not exist on Twitter alone — his return to ESPN after six years at CNBC includes filing reported stories regularly and shooting non-sports segments for ABC News — but it's what he thinks about, and what people think about when they think about Darren Rovell. (Even his detractors would grant that he's been instrumental in changing the nature of sports reporting.) He will regularly spend hours researching and crafting a single tweet; there are whole Tumblrs
devoted to criticizing his online output. He compares what he does to VH1's Pop-up Video
, dropping salient, bite-sized business-related footnotes to events we're watching as fans. The often angry reaction thereto speaks to the uneasy relationship between sports' string-pullers and the fans they ostensibly serve, as well as to his own murky relationship to both. (His Twitter background, in case any of this is too subtle: stacks of cash.) He does not profess to be sticking up for the little guy, and yet he firmly considers what he does to be, above all, a public service.
"If people are going to dislike me for commodifying the sports experience, or the idea that I've taken the fun out of it, that's ridiculous," he says. "If you're a fan today and you don't understand the business, then you're a bad fan. You will lose at the watercooler every single time. What's your owner's capacity to spend? You don't know the salary cap? Come on."
Rovell looks back down at his phone. "Hold on, it's 7:14, this Vikings one is going to go out now, I want you to see this." He hits send and…winces. "It's loading. Shit. I don't know if I have a signal."
There is undeniable drama in the sight of almost-grown men, having prepared their whole lives for this very night, witnessing their natural abilities pinned to fluctuating price points, and Rovell is ready for these stories, in his own way. "When [Utah defensive tackle] Star Lotulelei starts slipping, I'm going to try and get in touch with his agent," he says. "I already know he does not have loss-of-value insurance." Loss-of-value insurance is something players can buy to hedge against draft picks — and a potential rookie contract — being lower than projected. (Lotulelei was at one point considered likely to be one of the first few picks in the draft but ended up going "only" 14th. He'd get a $5.365 million signing bonus from the Carolina Panthers.) Darren Rovell believes, evangelically, that if you care about professional football, it is only logical that you should care about loss-of-value insurance.
Rovell is dispassionate about athletes' volatile fortunes, and takes palpable satisfaction in being able to attach a particular number to a particular human condition before anyone else can even think to make the association. This very impulse conflicts directly with the way we feel about sports, or the way we think we want to feel about sports, and plays no small part in why he evokes such strong reactions even among fans who do
understand their owner's capacity to add salary within the restrictions of the collective bargaining agreement. These deadpan footnotes, timed just so — to perfect games
, to tragedy
— feel like pinpricks to the inflated emotions inherent to sports, and that's no accident. They can often feel misguided, but not, it should be said, consciously mean-spirited. Rovell is simply the guy already thinking about the monetary rewards while the rest of us are still processing the thrill of victory or agony of defeat.
Which is not to say that Rovell doesn't have a fan's fervor — it's just usually reserved for things that people sitting at home watching a game generally don't get fervent about. If he's in the locker room after a game, he's cornering agents and scoping out marketing reps with his back to the players. "There's not many who do what I do, and that makes people uncomfortable," he says. "I'm taking a picture of the shoes while everyone else is talking about the game." It's a little like winning the golden ticket to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory and then rushing straight to check out accounts payable. But hey, without accounts payable, the chocolate factory gets foreclosed.
Rovell spots M&Ms and Gatorade on many of the tables set up for the draft-night media and wonders aloud whether that's paid placement. No detail is too mundane to deconstruct. He often relies on his followers for this kind of recon, about arena concessions or merchandise all over the country. "I think I've trained people to be mini sports reporters; they know what I want. Half my content is someone in Topeka, Kansas, who saw a soda display. I'm the conduit, I'll give you credit."
The next object of his ever-shifting attention is University of Tennessee wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, currently making the rounds decked out in a white tuxedo. He texts Patterson's agent to ask whether the suit was paid for and who made it. Moments later, his phone buzzes. "There you go: The tux is from Alba and it was custom-made and it was free. This could piss people off. Do I wait until he comes out for his pick or do I tweet it now? He might go 20th. He's wearing a belt and
suspenders. I think I'm going to wait."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell steps to the podium to boos from the mezzanine. (As the face of the NFL's corporate aspects, Goodell is subject to the same kind of disdain as Rovell.)
The Chiefs select Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher first, and the draft is officially underway, continuing with a litany of low-risk, low-wattage linemen dominating the first round. After the Eagles take Lane Johnson fourth, Rovell checks something against his stats packet and taps out a tweet
about how the first four picks weigh a combined 1,162 pounds. He hits send and watches the replies.
"If I don't look at my comments, I'm not doing a good job," he says, scrolling through and rattling off representative examples of praise and pillory: ("'Isn't he the best? When you're looking for stats that include large numbers, look no further than Darren Rovell.'")
"Social media is a dialogue and if I avoid the mentions, it's a monologue. If your journalism isn't the wisdom of crowds, it's a wall." He lingers on one response.
"'Maybe the most Rovellian tweet of all time,'" he reads, smiling. "I know that. I know that."