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Factbox: How does the NFL draft, the only live sports event on TV, work?

(Reuters) - The National Football League draft, which started quietly in 1936, has evolved into one of the biggest days in American sport. The NFL is by far the most popular sports league in the United States and this year 255 players will be drafted in a process that will last three days, beginning on Thursday.

The following are key facts about how the draft is conducted and some history of the player selection process:

* The draft’s first round attracts a huge national television audience as fans tune in to see who their team chooses. The players, nearly all having played college football, are largely familiar to fans through the first round at least, with many already nationally famous due to their exploits on the college gridiron.

* Each of the 32 teams receives one pick in each of the seven rounds. The selection order is determined by the reverse order of finish in the previous season. The team with the worst record gets the coveted first pick and the Super Bowl champion goes last. Teams may acquire additional picks or alter their order of selection through trades.

There are 255 picks in all this year, because the league, using a secret formula, awards up to 32 “compensatory” picks to teams deemed to have lost more player value to free agency the previous year than they brought in.

* Each team has 10 minutes to make its first-round pick, so the process can take five hours or so to complete. The allowed time in subsequent rounds is reduced, eventually down to four minutes in the final round.

* A team that fails to make its selection within the allotted time is still allowed to pick a player but runs the risk of the next team getting in first.

* Once teams are assigned their order, they can trade their pick to another team for established players or to improve their position in the current or future drafts. Teams often trade up if they are desperate to get a specific player they fear will be taken before it’s their turn, or trade down possibly in exchange for draft picks in subsequent years.

* To be eligible for the draft, players must be out of high school for at least three years. Those who have completed four years of college and have graduated are eligible automatically, while those with three years or less of college under their belt must apply to the NFL to be declared for the draft.

* Technically, more than 3,000 college players are eligible for the draft each year, which means less than 10% are chosen. The player selected last overall has become celebrated playfully as Mr. Irrelevant. Being picked last is still better than not being picked at all, and several Mr. Irrelevants have carved out good NFL careers.

* Despite teams spending enormous resources analyzing available players, the draft is an inherently hit-and-miss process. Some high picks turn out to be busts, while low picks can develop into major stars. Six-times Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady, for instance, was not taken until the sixth round of the 2000 draft after 198 other players were chosen.

The six quarterbacks drafted ahead of Brady that year combined to play 229 NFL games. Brady has played 285 and counting.

* This year’s coveted first overall pick belongs to the Cincinnati Bengals. They are widely expected to take Louisiana State University quarterback Joe Burrow, but surprises have been sprung before. That’s why millions will be watching, along with the fact that it will be the only live sports event on offer during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Bill Berkrot

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