Baseball draft enters a brave new (televised) world

The NFL draft has become one of football's red-letter days, conducted before throngs of cheering, jeering fans in Radio City Music Hall and televised to millions of draftniks. The NBA draft is so huge that even its preliminary event -- the Ping-Pong ball lottery -- is must-see TV for hoops junkies.

The Major League Baseball draft, by contrast, has been … a telephone conference call.

Until now. On Thursday, baseball's draft for the first time will be televised (ESPN2, 2-6 p.m. ET). The venue has been switched from MLB headquarters in New York to Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida. There, commissioner Bud Selig will announce first-round choices, conveyed to him by former players representing each of the 30 teams. A studio audience will be there to react, and a few projected top picks will be introduced.

Take that, Mel Kiper!

This reflects changed times and changed thinking, according to Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations.

"Football and basketball have made their drafts into events; and in years past, it was thought baseball's wouldn't carry the same cachet," Solomon said. "Our players weren't as well known and they wouldn't contribute in the major leagues for several years."

The reality today, though, is that more top draft choices are putting in short minor league apprenticeships and making the show quickly and with impact. Two top 2004 picks, the A's Huston Street and the Tigers' Justin Verlander, were American League rookies of the year in 2005 and 2006, respectively. The Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman, the fourth pick of the 2005 draft, was the National League rookie of the year runner-up in 2006. Since last June, Tim Lincecum has gone from the 10th pick of the 2006 draft to the San Francisco Giants' starting rotation.

This new draft presentation is a way, then, for MLB to introduce its future stars and improve on a longtime weakness: marketing its players. The NBA expertly taps into hoops fans' obsession with who'll be the next-generation Mike or Magic, and promotes lottery picks as if they are the Second Coming. Baseball is trying to take a page from that playbook.

"I always thought we needed to showcase players long before they stepped up to the plate or on the mound," Solomon said.

The announcement of each first-round pick will be followed by clips of the player in action and commentary from ESPN's Peter Gammons and Steve Phillips. Some college players whose teams are still alive in the NCAA Tournament -- the Super Regionals are this weekend -- will be interviewed at remote sites after their selection. Mercifully, the draft will proceed at a faster clip than the NFL: five minutes between picks, versus the 15 minutes allotted to each NFL team in the first round.

Baseball has some real disadvantages in raising the pizzazz factor, though, starting with the MLB alums acting as team representatives. The cast has a few Hall of Famers -- Jim Palmer for the Orioles, Dave Winfield for the Padres, Tommy Lasorda for the Dodgers, Robin Roberts for the Phillies -- and a lot of B-listers. We're talking Rico Brogna for the Diamondbacks, Enos Cabel for the Astros, Rob Ducey for the Blue Jays.

More significant, however, is the dim star-power of baseball's draftees. The likes of Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart and Vince Young played their college football careers before national TV audiences, culminating with a legendary BCS National Championship Game. Basketball players such as Greg Oden and Kevin Durant were seen everywhere during March Madness, and then became fodder for countless "will they or won't they" columns and sports-radio debates about their draft status. Those players matter to NFL and NBA fans, before they ever put on pro uniforms.

"These guys' names carry enough weight to really build up a draft," says Scott Sanford of Davie-Brown Talent, an agency that measures athletes' and other celebrities' appeal to corporations that are considering them for endorsements. "I don't see baseball getting to that level without any pre-marketing of their stars."

The 1,500 celebrities ranked on the Davie-Brown Index (DBI), developed by Sanford's agency, must be on the public's radar screen to be worthy of being tracked. JaMarcus Russell, Adrian Peterson and Brady Quinn all had DBI rankings on draft day. David Price, the Vanderbilt left-hander who is the projected No. 1 pick in the MLB draft, assuredly does not. He isn't a household name except in the Price household.

"This [new draft format] is not going to improve the chance of getting more marketing opportunities for our players," said Joe Urbon, the top baseball agent for Octagon, one of the sport's biggest agencies. "It puts a face with a name for a brief second for a select few players. Then they go off to Everett, Wash., and Clinton, Iowa, and places like that until they resurface in the big leagues."

Solomon points to new media developments that are working in MLB's favor. Cable networks such as CSTV and ESPN are televising more college baseball games. He says the MLB Network, to be launched in 40 million-plus homes in 2009, also will carry college games in addition to professional fare.

Solomon believes that will help hoist college baseball players' exposure levels and, in time, the MLB draft's effectiveness as a marketing platform. But he admits, "This is a work in progress."

John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."