2023 NFL Draft coverage at ESPN, screengrab via ESPN.

The NFL Draft has been synonymous with ESPN ever since it televised the “annual player selection meeting” for the first time all the way back in 1980. What began as a preposterous idea has become one of ESPN’s trademark events, now dominating not just a week of sports coverage, but also launching an entire industry. Without that decision, the world would never have been treated to the eighth wonder of the world that is Mel Kiper Jr. and his perfect hair.

But could the days of ESPN televising the draft as it has done for 40 years actually be numbered?

Over at Puck, John Ourand reports that the rights deal for ESPN’s NFL Draft coverage actually expires at the end of next year’s event in 2025. According to Ourand, the most plausible outcome is the event stays with Bristol as “ESPN seems likely to renew.” However, conversations are expected to begin at the 2024 NFL Draft next week in Detroit with respect to a new rights deal.

What’s interesting about the NFL Draft is how coverage has exploded from the days where it was literally just Mel Kiper Jr. breaking down picks at a very small desk in a hotel ballroom in New York City filled with nameless, faceless people on telephones.

Thanks to ESPN’s wall-to-wall coverage, the draft has become the NFL’s signature event of the spring and we now talk about it year-round from big board rankings to mock drafts to draft grades and everything in between. Even the days at the MSG theater seem like a relic from yesteryear with the draft now a multi-day celebration of all things NFL that travels the country and is the league’s version of Coachella. Even ESPN’s coverage has ballooned to the point where it has two separate draft telecasts on ESPN and ABC.

Not wanting to be left out of the fun, the NFL also has their own coverage of the draft that began in 2006 through NFL Network that runs as friendly competition to ESPN’s broadcast, even leading to crossover events between the two networks.

It’s almost impossible to think about ESPN without the NFL Draft and vice versa. Bristol has been televising the event since near its inception, making it one of the longest running broadcasting relationships in sports media.

But that history is running up against two forces pulling in opposite directions.

First, the NFL has never met a paycheck it didn’t like – as evidenced by the countless new primetime packages, streaming exclusives, international windows, and expanded schedules that have evolved in recent years.

Second, ESPN and every other media company no longer has unlimited coffers to spend on sports rights given the drastic changes in the streaming age.

If ESPN has to be more selective, and the NFL sees more opportunity for profit, could change be in the air?

If a network like NBC, CBS, or Fox offers to put the NFL Draft on network television for all three days, it might be difficult for the NFL to turn down.

If a streamer like Amazon or even someone new like Netflix writes a blank check to make a splash, it might be difficult for the NFL to turn down.

Given the leverage the NFL is able to exert as the most popular sports and entertainment product in America, it can likely get any deal that it wants. That’s why it will be up to ESPN to do enough to keep the draft in its portfolio in its negotiations with the NFL. That’s where the recent new contract for the College Football Playoff might be a bellwether in this case. It’s no secret ESPN has been through struggles trying to figure out the future of its business. But it has chosen to spend where it feels like it needs to, like fending off competition to keep the expanded CFP in house.

Odds are it will do the same with the NFL Draft because anything the NFL touches turns to gold. But while it may have been a guarantee in years past, this year it’s not the mere formality it may have been.