It’s almost inconceivable now to think that this week’s NFL draft was supposed to take place amid the glitz of Las Vegas. Parties galore. Drafted players hugging the commissioner with the Bellagio fountains dancing in the background. A cacophony of cheers and boos from a packed crowd.
Then came Covid-19. Now, aside from the dates (23-25 April), everything about the three-day spectacle has changed. It will instead take place in a virtual format with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s basement serving as the new stage.
How will the telecast work?
In a normal year, viewers in the US would have their choice of three different broadcasts, from ESPN, NFL Network and ABC (an option introduced last year and geared toward casual fans).
Given the new, post-lockdown landscape, NFL Network and ESPN decided to merge their resources into one unified broadcast from ESPN HQ in Bristol, Connecticut. A barren studio will be graced solely by Trey Wingo. Suzy Kolber will conduct player interviews (by video) while an array of reporters and analysts will participate from home. Talent from the two networks will be mixed and matched. This means that ESPN’s Mel Kiper and NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, typically competitors in the draft space, will likely appear on air together. “The idea is to use the people and their expertise regardless of which network we work for,” says NFL Network executive Mark Quenzel. “This is the best thing for NFL fans.”
ABC’s show will also be produced by ESPN. Last year it featured a litany of human interest stories, had an audience of 46% women and drew in a big audience.
Since media is deemed an essential business, there will be producers running both the ESPN and ABC telecasts from a control room in Bristol. But the number will be half of a typical crew and, as mandated by the state of Connecticut, they must maintain social distance and wear face coverings. Communicating in real time through a mask to an army of feeds projected to be somewhere between 170 and 180 will pose quite the challenge.
How will NFL prospects appear on camera?
The 58 prospects invited to attend the virtual draft will double as cameramen. The NFL is counting on each player to set up two cameras. One for up-close reaction shots, the other a wide shot of the room. NFL agent Nicole Lynn, who represents tackle Jedrick Wills and quarterback Jalen Hurts, says her clients were told the wide-shot camera will capture them simulating the traditional “walk to the stage”. At that point they will have some type of congratulatory virtual interaction with Goodell.
What could go wrong?
Well, everything. During the first of several trial runs, there were reportedly multiple issues from general managers not muting themselves during a conference call to problems with bandwidth.
The league’s tech wizards will be working overtime to minimize the issues but technology and uncharted waters don’t often mix well.
Then there are the prospects themselves. A player could mistakenly curse on camera – an understandable reaction if you’ve just been drafted by the New York Jets. He could also, God forbid, drink a brand of soda that isn’t an official NFL sponsor. He could break lockdown restrictions by sneaking some buddies in to celebrate. Most likely, we’ll see a litany of minor technical bumps. Last Friday’s WNBA virtual draft featured everything from glitchy screens to newly drafted Chennedy Carter putting her commissioner interview on speaker phone, causing a severe echo.
How will the league cover Covid-19?
“Clearly we’re there to draft players but more clearly we’re setting the tone that we understand there’s something much larger going on in the world,” says Quenzel of NFL Network. To that end, the NFL is turning its three-day event into a Draft-a-Thon where viewers can donate to help with Covid-19 relief efforts. The charity drive will feature a collection of celebrities and athletes such as Deion Sanders and Kevin Hart. Quenzel says the broadcast will place an equal emphasis on soliciting donations and saying a “proper thank you” to first responders, grocery store workers and other professionals risking their lives to keep society running.
Why didn’t the NFL just postpone?
Back in March, multiple general managers, including the Saints’ Mickey Loomis, pushed to have the draft postponed. But that was never a serious consideration for the 32 NFL team owners, who voted unanimously to proceed as scheduled.
“It’s important to have normalcy,” Goodell told NFL Network’s Rich Eisen last week. “We’re doing this in a way that demonstrates that you can continue to do what you need to do in this country and do it safely at home.”
The league’s show-must-go-on mentality extends to the regular season. Goodell has given no indication the new season will be delayed, despite red flags such as California governor Gavin Newsom’s assertion last week that gatherings “in the hundreds” are “not on the cards” any time soon.
If the regular season were to begin in September as usual, delaying the draft would impede a rookie’s ability to acclimate to his team’s playbook, engage in team offseason programs, and get a contract signed.
Could the virtual draft actually be an improvement?
Absolutely. Between an oversaturated NFL calendar, a commissioner who’s not exactly a dynamo, and a rulebook thicker than a Dostoevsky novel, the NFL can often feel a tad soulless and manufactured.
Of course there will be elements of too much polish in this draft as it’s an official NFL event. But the increased probability of error during the broadcast, may add a refreshing layer of vulnerability and imperfection that we can all relate to these days.