Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

It is the most famous question in the history of televised sports drafts, asked by then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle when ESPN executives proposed in 1980 that the network carry the event:

"Why would you want to do that?'' he said.

Three decades later, the draft moves to prime time this week, and the question is, "Why would you not?''

Remember, this is a league whose every move qualifies as news. Example: It made an announcement last week that its schedule will be announced this week.

Tuesday night, on TV, of course. Two nights later, the NFL will take the leap into the deep end of the television pool, on one of the most competitive nights of the week.

So how will the draft fare? Just fine, thank you.

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"The Marriage Ref'' might as well wear black and white stripes and throw in a yellow towel, at least when it comes to the young male demographic.

The 2009 draft was the most-watched in ESPN's history. Over five hours on Day 1, it averaging 4.0 percent of homes that receive the network.

ESPN will be back and the NFL Network will chip in with a modest 38 hours of coverage.

Not everyone is happy about this.

Some fear losing the draft's relaxed weekend afternoon vibe. And many West Coast fans are angry that the first two rounds will begin before the end of workday afternoons.

@NewsdaySports

Hey, that's show biz.

Jay Rothman, ESPN's producer for the extravaganza, said: "I think it's an exciting format and a pretty cool move for TV . . . I think it will be pretty electric.''

With a nod to more casual fans who might tune in, there will be more players at Radio City Music Hall, the better to showcase the human interest side of the annual meat market.

And this: Oscar-style red-carpet arrivals Thursday.

What might Rozelle, a savvy old public relations man, have said about all this? Probably this: "What took you so long?''

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20-inning salute

Fox's Kenny Albert and Tim McCarver did a good job striking a balance between the absurdity and drama of Saturday's 20-inning Mets-Cardinals marathon.

Viewers surely responded to the bizarre sideshow.

In the New York area, the game averaged 6.5 percent of homes over seven hours, peaking in the final quarter-hour at 11.1.

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The 6.5 was the best for the Mets on Fox (not counting games against the Yankees) since 2001.

In St. Louis, the game averaged an 18.3, Fox's best for the regular season there since Mark McGwire hit his 60th home run in 1998.

The St. Louis rating peaked at a stunning 29.3 in the final half-hour.

Emmys for Keith, Emrick

It's tough to dispute the most visible sports winners at the New York Emmys on Sunday: MSG Plus' Doc Emrick on play-by-play, SNY's Keith Hernandez for analysis, YES' Bob Lorenz for studio work.

SNY's Mets coverage won for best live sports series. MSG Network led all channels with 15 Emmys (including non-sports categories), including best live sports event for Adam Graves Night.

Longtime Islanders director Larry Roth was named best director.

Explore your fantasies

I'm so old, I still slip up and call fantasy sports competitions "Rotisserie Leagues.''

"Silly Little Game,'' Tuesday night's entry in ESPN's "30 for 30" series, explains to younger viewers what I'm talking about, recounting the history of the "sport'' from its birth at the Manhattan restaurant La Rotisserie Francaise.

It's a lighthearted look back through the eyes of some of the founders, but there is an unfortunate flaw: historical re-enactments featuring young actors.

Sound bites

Because of a brain cramp, I incorrectly reported the expiration date of the NHL's contract with Versus. It's after the 2010-11 season . . . As it did in 2008, the USGA will take advantage of a U.S. Open site in California by scheduling the event for prime time in the East. NBC's coverage of the third round from Pebble Beach will last until 11 p.m.