The combine’s popularity boom

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At some point, the NFL Scouting Combine changed.

This, of course, is not breaking news. It’s like saying televisions got flatter over the last 10 years, or that Britney Spears has aged since she wrapped that snake around her neck.

Some things are just obvious, and the evolution of the combine is one of those things. Perhaps more fascinating than the combine’s growth is why the event, started 28 years ago in Tampa, Fla., became a phenomenon.

Why did society all of a sudden become fascinated with college-aged athletes running 40-yard dashes and doing bench presses? Why did NFL Network flock to Indianapolis to give a national-television audience wall-to-wall coverage? And most of all, why those Under Armour body suits that make Taylor Mays look like he was created in a chemistry lab?

The logical place to start is football establishing itself as the most ubiquitous sport in America. Everything can be traced back to that. As baseball floundered, Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell made sure they were in every American living room on Sunday afternoon and Monday evening.

Gargantuan television contracts followed. So, too, did billion-dollar stadiums that actually seemed like a good idea, even in this economic climate.

It was all apart of the NFL’s aura — a lavish, sponsor-infused, “you-think-we-can’t-top-this?” aura that remains today. The NFL was the second professional sports league audacious enough to start its own TV channel, but the first to actually make it successful.

Heck, the league somehow even skirted the steroids issue, proving that hardly anything can damage the NFL’s popularity right now.

Goodell & Co. have parlayed that popularity into making the NFL viable 365 days a year. Everything — free agency, union/league labor discussions, and, yes, the combine — matters to even the most casual fans.

Those same fans cannot click on an NFL-related Web site (including this one) without finding comprehensive coverage from the combine. The NFL Draft isn’t simply an event; it has become a nationally televised spectacle, one for which networks spare no expense. It’s no coincidence that the draft’s popularity has coincided with the rise of the combine — and vice versa.

The point is, fans care about these things, mostly because they care more than ever about their teams. This time of year is when fan bases of all 32 NFL franchises have hope. Trust me, I’m a Chiefs fan. I know all about hope.

Watching and consuming the combine is outlet for that hope. I hope Kansas City looks hard at safety Eric Berry, and I hope head coach Todd Haley doesn’t fall in love with Bruce Campbell’s athleticism, and I hope a playmaker such as Arrelious Benn slips to the second round.

This hope, this investment, is what drives the NFL offseason. It gives Rams, Lions and Buccaneers fans reasons to believe their team might finally make some postseason noise. It makes Bears fans delusional when thinking about the impact Julius Peppers could have on their team. And it gives fans an excuse to watch and be wowed by the combine’s best performances.

Now, all that’s left to do is hope your team doesn’t screw up the draft. Just ask Raiders fans how costly that can be.

Scott Miller, a junior at the University of Iowa and a contributor to the National Football Post, recently won second place in the Hearst Sports Writing Competition. Follow him on Twitter: @stmillr.

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