12/05/2014 05:36 BST | Updated 08/07/2014 06:59 BST

A Level Playing Field Is at the Heart of the Success of America's Most Popular Sport


The National Football League (NFL) is at the heart of American culture. One of its big annual events, the NFL Draft, has just concluded and generated headlines around the world. The event drew a record TV audience in the United States.

In advance, many considered the 2014 Draft to be the most talent-laden in the last 20 years and it certainly didn't disappoint. Many of the headlines were captured by Michael Sam, one of college football's best defensive players in 2013, who could become the first openly gay player to play professional American football after being selected by the St Louis Rams.

There was no clear cut choice for the first overall selection and it bucked the trend of a quarterback being chosen first overall in 12 of the last 17 Drafts. This year, the honour fell to South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the first defensive player to be the number one pick since 2006.

The Jacksonville Jaguars, who will play one game in London through to 2016, used the 2014 Draft to reshape their team. Their fortunes are looking up, with the third pick overall being used to take exciting quarterback Blake Bortles.

The Draft, which has operated since 1936, is vital because it helps to establish a level playing field for the 32 teams. The unpredictability of the NFL is one of the key reasons why American football has proven so popular. Unlike in many sports in the UK, at the start of each season it is difficult to guess which team will ultimately triumph in the Super Bowl. Since 2000, only one team has managed to successfully defend its title.

The Draft sees teams select from the pick of the eligible college football players, who must have been out of high school for at least three years. Its importance lies in the fact that all the best players enter the NFL via the Draft; no one can simply leave college and sign for the team of their choice. On an annual basis the Draft, and the trading that goes on for Draft picks, gives each club the opportunity to secure the players who can determine their success over a number of seasons.

The Draft works by giving each team a position in reverse order to where they finished in the previous season. The team with the worst record gets the first pick, with the Super Bowl winners selecting last.

The first team starts the process by either selecting a player or trading their position to another team for an alternative, a player or players, or any of these combinations. A round is completed once each team has used its position in the draft. At present the draft consists of seven rounds.

In its early years in the 1930s and 1940s, those teams which employed full-time scouts had an advantage in the draft and their ensuing success forced other franchises to follow. Today, and unusually in professional sport, the NFL pools teams' scouting resources through "combines" that allow all scouts to watch the best prospects run specific drills. All the teams have roughly the same information about the players eligible for the draft; indeed it is not dissimilar to that which is available to journalists and ordinary fans.

The egalitarian nature of the NFL is further underpinned by the equal sharing of the majority of league revenue and a strict salary cap that ensures every team has the same money to spend on players' wages.

Last week's events in New York are worth analysing for anyone with an interest in professional sport. To understand why, just consider how European sport would look with a similar recruitment tool to the Draft.