The draft is the NFL’s biggest off-season event. This year it took on bigger significance for sports fans as every major professional sports league is suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.
With most of the country under orders to stay home in an attempt to limit the spread, the NFL draft was held using video from people’s homes. But even without an in-person event, the NFL turned the first-ever virtual draft into quite the spectacle.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell served as master of ceremonies from his basement. Just as fans on Twitter bemoaned that they couldn’t boo him, part of an annual draft tradition, Goodell announced a virtual #Boothecommish campaign.
Analysts commented from their homes, speaking over each other and apologizing for interrupting, reflecting one of the biggest pains of video conference calls.
There were VR simulations featuring prospects, coaches and general managers with their little kids draped all over them, and even a message from medical expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has become a popular and trusted source of information during the outbreak.
For viewers at home, it might actually have been one of the most watchable drafts ever.
But for the prospects, it was supposed to be a much more spectacular moment with all the bright lights and glitz of Las Vegas. Prospects were set to board a boat and glide across the 22-million gallon fountain in front of the Bellagio Hotel and Casino before disembarking to walk across a red carpet.
Instead they were filmed in their family homes on one of the biggest days of their sports careers.
Each of the remote participants in the draft received tech kits that included two light stands, a tripod, a ring light, an LED light, a microphone, two phones and a headset.
The NFL relied on four partners, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Teams, Verizon and Bose, to put on the event.
AWS hosted and managed the more than 100 video feeds streaming from the homes of Goodell, 58 draft prospects, 32 NFL head coaches, 32 general managers, owners, fans, college football coaches and select league personnel. Microsoft enabled communication with the league and within teams and hosted virtual war rooms for the clubs. Verizon provided cell phones as well as priority internet and phone service, and Bose provided the headsets.
There were, of course, technical difficulties. Goodell was caught giving camera instructions without realizing the live feed was on him, and someone was overheard in the background of one of the interviews saying, “Shut up.”
But the virtual format allowed for interesting content and new opportunities to highlight fans, including having a young Cleveland Browns fan who survived cancer introduce the commissioner at one point.
Michelle McKenna, the NFL’s chief information officer, said this year’s draft could be a watershed moment in the media industry and a model the entire sports industry could use in the future.
This year’s draft also took a more somber tone in acknowledgement of the human cost of the outbreak.
There were repeated messages of hope and gratitude for the frontline workers battling the pandemic and a moment of silence for those whose lives were lost. The event also served as a live “draftathon” to raise money for relief efforts.
There were also outbreak-appropriate PSAs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and NewYork–Presbyterian Hospital urging people to stay home.
The medical-related outreach wasn’t the only new messaging to air during the draft.
Disney sold out advertising space on ABC and ESPN for its three days of coverage and 60 of the more than 100 companies that purchased time were new to NFL draft coverage. Among the new sponsors were DoorDash, Nintendo and Allstate Insurance.
“We’ve had great momentum from last year’s Draft on ABC and ESPN, that plus the current pause of live sports has increased demand,” said a Disney spokesperson. “Our pricing this year is up double-digits this year versus last year.”
The dearth of sports puts new content in a desirable position.
The Women’s National Basketball Association’s 2020 draft was the most-watched since 2004 and had a 123% increase in viewers over last year. The NFL draft has set new ratings records each year since 2018. If the WNBA draft is any indication, this year could continue the upward trend for the NFL.