The business of being Mel Kiper

Posted: 8:03 pm Mon, April 19, 2010
By Liz Farmer
Daily Record Business Writer

When NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. began working with ESPN back in 1984, neither one remotely resembled the powerhouses they are today.

Just a few years prior, in 1981, Kiper made his draft report public, punching it out on a typewriter and selling 550 copies. Meanwhile, ESPN was still a fledgling sports network, just five years old.

“The NFL wasn’t king of all sports back in those days,” said Kiper, 49. “They were doing the draft on a Tuesday morning. Now the draft has become a huge event with television coverage on every pick and it’s broadcast at night so people can watch.”

As much as the draft’s popularity has grown, so has Kiper’s Baldwin-based business, Mel Kiper Enterprises Inc. Over the last three decades, Kiper has become the face of a massive draft empire complete with radio shows, television appearances, Web sites and publications.

But with popularity comes competition.

It started in 1979, when a then-19-year-old Mel Kiper typed up his first draft report and mailed copies to about 150 agents, scouts and team personnel. Kiper would spend hours on the phone with coaches and convinced his father to install a satellite dish in the backyard of their Dundalk home so he could watch college football games from all across the country.

He repeated the effort the following year, and with the help of Mel Kiper Sr., founded Mel Kiper Enterprises in 1981 and began charging for his service.

Over the years Kiper has added a draft preview report, free agency review sheet and a draft review report to his publications. Many say his early relationship with ESPN gave him the exposure he needed to grow his brand while monopolizing the industry.

“For a long time Mel was it — he was the professor,” said Steve Dresner, a producer for ESPN in the late 1980s who now works for the NFL Network.

And during that time, Kiper’s recognition as the go-to draft analyst blossomed as the NFL draft grew into one of the most anticipated football events of the year.

“Years ago in the industry, once the Pro Bowl was done, you would not really need to pay attention to the NFL much before training camp because the draft was one of those ‘ho hum’ things,” Dresner said. “[Now it’s] one of the most-talked about, made-for-TV events other than the Super Bowl.”

Kiper Sr. helped manage the business and died in 1988, shortly before Mel started dating Kim. After their marriage in 1989, Kim stepped in to run Kiper Enterprises.

“During the 1989 draft, right after we got married, there was a running joke that they were betting on how long we would stay married,” Mel Kiper said. “The over-under was 1½ years, and everyone was taking the under.”

Under Kim Kiper’s direction, Kiper Enterprises launched a Web site, computerized its customer database and streamlined production. Whereas Mel is the face — and hair — of the business, Kim is the one who has brought it into the 21st century.

“He was still on the typewriter the year we met,” said Kim Kiper, 45. “And he just started e-mailing four years ago.”

Kiper’s print publications range from $9 for the free-agency sheet to $27.95 for the draft report. Kim said she now fills about 10,000 orders every year.

While the first 10 years were about streamlining the business, the last 10 have been about adapting to new technology.

“The Internet came along, and just like any print media, [it] cut into our database because you could get everything for free,” she said. “I did see a change at that point in time.”

This year she added PDFs, allowing people to download reports off the Web site for a few dollars off the print price.

“I really feel like that’s going to be the wave of the future,” she said.

And largely because of the Internet, Kiper Enterprises also had to face something else new: competition.

“The Internet has been bigger than anything else,” said David Cope, a former marketing director for the Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins who is now senior vice president of business development for Major League Soccer’s D.C. United. “It disseminates information so quickly to so many people it’s allowed people to become closer to the NFL and to learn more about players and teams.”

With easier access to statistics, the growing popularity of college football on television and the ability to publish online, it’s become easier in the last decade to be the next Mel Kiper. The NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, CBS Sportsline’s Rob Rang, Fox Sports’ Chris Steuber are just a few of the competing network’s draft gurus. Even ESPN has brought on Todd McShay as an additional analyst.

Click here to access rest of story from TDR.