Will the NFL combine be obsolete in 2028?


This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 23 issue, NEXT. Subscribe today!
Let's use your imagination for a minute. Pretend you're back in 2008, and your Uncle Barry -- the one who does annoying freelance family tarot card and palm readings every Thanksgiving -- has cornered you during the Lions-Titans game and told you he's seen the sports future for 2018. He predicts that in 2018, an NFL prospect with one hand is the biggest NFL scouting combine story ... the Rams are back in Los Angeles and have a 32-year-old head coach presiding over the league's hottest new free-agency destination ... a 23-year-old Japanese player is the best hitter and pitcher on an MLB team ... and ring-collecting hoops guru Phil Jackson has been run out of the NBA.
Impossible, right?
But it all happened, of course. So we convened our own panel of expert futurists to read the sports tea leaves and envision how the five sports leagues with upcoming or recent drafts -- the NFL, MLB, the NHL, the NBA, the WNBA -- would look in the year 2028. We asked them to complete the following sentence: In the year 2028 ...
Behold, their three visions for each sport!
After the Browns win the 2023 Super Bowl 6-3, the NFL ups the number of eligible receivers downfield from five to six. Scoring and ratings soar, while concussions drop when defenses switch entirely to man coverage and smaller, lighter players cause a significant drop in massive collisions. Coaches finally can poach kids back from America's new past-time, lacrosse, and the influx of guys named Grayson Stanwick-Shackleford III is one of the smaller changes the league will endure. -- David Fleming
In 2028 ... the NFL combine is obsolete
After years of data being collected and refined from RFID chips that track every player at every level of the sport, the NFLPA files privacy lawsuits on behalf of college and pro players. The case is settled in 2027, and the NFL and NCAA continue to develop systems that track players' exact speed, location, spacing and force on every snap. The combine dies an immediate death, causing stopwatch and giant-tire sales to plummet.
In 2028 ... rosters are overhauled
After several breakthroughs in the mapping of tau proteins in the brain, neurologists develop a way to measure CTE levels in living athletes. A "safe" CTE limit is established; NFL players are measured several times a year and are deactivated or even automatically retired if their CTE number goes too high.
In 2028 ... NFL stadiums shrink
Teams play in front of just a few thousand fans inside what are essentially large TV studios built to serve viewers, not ticket holders. All helmets have cameras in them, and fans can instantly flip between any of the 22 on-field perspectives. Helmets have two-way mics so players can be interviewed right after big plays. All games are pay-per-view, with prices ranging from $39.99 for regular-season games to $199 for the Super Bowl.
Like most major sports leagues in the early 2020s, MLB must deal with a slew of privacy-related issues involving the use of biometric data. Those lawsuits are finally settled, with players signing on for the increased poking and prodding. In turn, baseball broadcasters lobby hard -- and successfully -- to incorporate players' full physiological state, such as their heart rate in the box, during 3½-hour games. And speaking of the length of games ... -- Sam Miller
In 2028 ... games take longer than ever
Despite scary red countdown clocks between pitches and innings, limited mound meetings, a closer on-deck circle and Jet Skis for managers who make the fastest pitching switches, MLB's pace of play gets worse. Players still find empty spaces to fill with dawdles and turn dead time into a hoarded commodity. The only time-saver that might help -- replacing players with robots -- is another two decades away.
In 2028 ... no kid pays for a ticket
MLB has a demographic crisis: In 2018, 30 million seats (more than 10,000 per game) sat empty, a trend that only got worse the next few years as the median fan age drifted into the mid-50s. So seizing upon an idea the Orioles tried in 2018, every club mandates that all adults who buy tickets can claim free tickets for their children. A new generation has easy access to the game, and embarrassing empty sections in non-sellout cities fill up. Even the few ballparks that resist -- Wrigley and Fenway, especially -- concede to a new social norm: Baseball is free if you're a kid.
In 2028 ... the ball matters
In 2023, MLB tightens the specifications of the baseball, making the range of acceptably manufactured balls much narrower. Then the league analyzes each ballpark to try to make environments more consistent, for the integrity of the game and its stats. It manufactures different balls precisely designed to juice or un-juice offense to fit the offensive environment of each ballpark. So Bryce Harper's pursuit of baseball's all-time home run record no longer depends on whether he signs with the Rockies or Angels.
Welcome to the league that Adam Silver built. After years of gradually reducing the 82-game schedule, the NBA lands at its final number -- 64 games -- in 2028. Opening-day rosters feature players from a record 72 nations, and Kevin Durant's purchase of the Wizards means ex-players now own seven franchises. And that's only the beginning. -- Kevin Arnovitz
In 2028 ... the A.I. controversy begins
Before the 2028 draft, a 20-year-old Australian seeks to become the first NBA player to compete with a prosthetic leg. The young guard has a custom-made prosthesis below the knee, and with the miracle of machine learning, the leg's active movements are informed by the player's brain. Debate rages about whether the guard's leg, enhanced by A.I., gives the player an unfair edge. Ultimately, he enters the draft and becomes a lottery pick.
In 2028 ... early tipping isn't optional
The NBA experiments with an 8 a.m. CT start time in a game between the Houston Rockets and re-expansion franchise Seattle SuperSonics, pitting two of China's most popular NBA brands against each other in Beijing's prime time. Sports scientists with the Rockets and Sonics spend two weeks providing their rosters with light therapy in an effort to jump-start players' energy levels at the ungodly-early NBA hour -- but an hour that later becomes a league norm.
In 2028 ... the 3 is the (only) thing
By 2028, the average NBA team hoists 62.8 shot attempts from 3, representing more than two-thirds of all field goal attempts. Players without the 3-pointer in their repertoires are deemed all but unplayable, as more big men see the long-range shot as a skill every bit as indispensable as shot-blocking. Inside the league, the competition committee vows to increase slashes to the basket and has begun considering a radical scoring change -- to make 2s worth 3, and 3s worth 4.
Ten years from now, the NHL enters its 111th year feeling pretty good about life. Attendance remains high, with each team playing 20 outdoor games annually. The sport is back on the grand world stage of the Olympics; commish P.K. Subban persuaded the IOC to move hockey to the Summer Games so NHL players can participate. And that's the tip of the hockey iceberg. -- Greg Wyshynski
In 2028 ... fans bet on everything
Once sports wagering was legalized across the country in 2022, the NHL embraced gambling more than any other big-four sport. Using mobile wagering, hockey fans can bet on a slew of in-game gambling options, from the success of power plays to over/unders on the number of shots in OT. With bookmakers scurrying to keep up with gambling demand, the NHL becomes the HQ Trivia of pro sports, sparking a significant uptick in popularity.
In 2028 ... pucks are reimagined
The chemical composition of the NHL puck is changed to house mini tracking devices, and the resulting Puck 2.0 erases the need for video reviews on goal-line plays. That revolutionizes hockey stat tracking and allows fans to watch a game with augmented reality through their NHL smart glasses -- including a real-time Glow Puck and a mode that lets wistful Gen Xers make all players resemble those from NES Ice Hockey.
In 2028 ... it's 4-on-4 all the time
Fed up with stagnant scoring and debates about making the nets larger and/or shrinking the goalie pads, the NHL radically alters its game by playing 4-on-4 in regulation and 3-on-3 in OT. Centers and wingers cease to exist, and those players are all renamed "forwards." The pace is intense. Scoring spikes for a few seasons before leveling out, as coaches and defensemen return to the 1990s dead puck-era strategy of trapping and holding. That leads to a national conversation about ... making the nets larger and/or shrinking the goalie pads.
The WNBA turns 31 in the middle of a boom period. In 2025, the league expanded to 16 teams, with new franchises in the Bay Area, South Carolina, Tennessee and Montreal. Teams play 50 games a year, and relaxed free-agency rules have led to Jonquel Jones signing with LA and Breanna Stewart landing in Vegas. But with that boom comes a headache or two. -- Sean Hurd
In 2028 ... the dunk takes over
The heightened athleticism that hit the WNBA in the mid-2010s is stoked by Azzi Fudd, a 5-11 guard who became a teen web sensation in 2017-18. In 2028, the player once compared to Maya Moore wins her second straight MVP ... just as Moore's 17-year, nine-title WNBA career winds down with a farewell tour.
In 2028 ... Oregon rules
In the 2028 WNBA draft, three players from the same school go 1-2-3 for the first time since 2016. Yes, Oregon has emerged as the sport's new juggernaut, having supplanted UConn after Geno Auriemma retired in 2022 to take over as director of USA Basketball. The Ducks, who built on Sabrina Ionescu's star power, won three NCAA titles in six seasons while stocking the WNBA with talent. This year's top Ducks draftee heads to the South Carolina Yellow Jackets, an expansion team led by WNBA fan-turned-owner Kobe Bryant.
In 2028 ... borders disappear
Under recently named WNBA president Tamika Catchings, the age for draft entry is lowered to 19. That, coupled with the fruits of the NBA Academies Women's Program that began in 2018, brings a wave of young talent from across the globe to the league. Among the lottery picks in 2028: a 6-2 combo guard from Trinidad and Tobago, a 6-6 center from India and a No. 1 pick who was the NCAA freshman of the year in 2027-28. And suddenly ... one-and-done becomes the league's most controversial issue.