It’s good to be the king. In this age of Corona, where days and weeks blend together, and sweatpants and facemasks have replaced suits and ties, one thing is remaining constant, the NFL still dominates the eyeballs of the American viewing public. So, with the ultimate captive audience, the National Football League held its annual draft to the delight of sports and entertainment starved people all over the US and the world. Predictably, the ratings went over like gangbusters, to the tune of 15.6 million viewers for Friday’s first round, a record by a wide margin. The massive numbers shouldn’t surprise anyone. The prior week’s WNBA draft saw a 128% uptick in viewership from the year before, and the highly anticipated “The Last Dance” documentary about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls pulled in a massive 6.1 million viewers for its first two episodes last weekend. The big surprise should be that the NFL and ESPN actually pulled this all off.
It was only just over a month ago that the 2020 NFL draft was going to take place in Las Vegas, with all the glitz, glamour, pomp, and circumstance that Sin City could provide. In many ways, it was going to be the biggest draft celebration to date, serving as a defacto “welcome to the neighborhood” party for Vegas as the Raiders head to their new home town. Instead of showgirls and neon lights, we got Andy Reid in a Hawaiian shirt, and Bill Belichick’s dog. Replacing the throngs of cheering or jeering fans flooding the Vegas strip, we got league commissioner Roger Goodell in his basement.
The real onus of this unprecedented broadcast fell on the shoulders of ESPN. The NFL draft has been televised since 1980, and while technological improvements also improved the presentation, putting on the draft year to year had become pretty formulaic. There was always the main stage where the picks were announced, an area for the fans, and a traditional large desk for the talking heads to break down the picks. Obviously, none of that was the case this time around. Social distancing, and stay at home mandates meant no one could be at the same place at the same time. This should have caused a logistical nightmare, but to ESPN’s credit, the broadcast went pretty damn well.
The NFL and ESPN worked in conjunction with the draft prospects, NFL coaches, owners, and general managers to set up live streams in dozens of homes to get instant reaction. Commissioner Goodell had a camera set up as mentioned in his basement to announce the picks, and ESPN had their panel of experts all working remotely on a split screen. Hosting it all was ESPN veteran Trey Wingo, who served as the ringleader to everything going on. Wingo deserves a ton of credit for trying to manage all these moving pieces, making sure he tossed to the right person, reacted to the right shot, and gave each member of the expert panel adequate time to talk.
It certainly wasn’t perfect, but no one could have expected it to be. There were plenty of gaffes (nothing unusual for any live broadcast), a good amount of people talking over each other, and some embarrassing viral moments (see new Cowboys receiver CeeDee Lamb’s interaction with his girlfriend and his cellphone), but credit where credit is due, ESPN and the NFL took an impossible situation and made it work.
The NFL draft could have been just another casualty of our current sports less existence, instead it soldiered on, adapted as best it could, and for a glorious three days, it felt like the sports world was back. Who knows how any of the 255 players drafted will turnout, what is for sure however, is that this is a draft no one will ever forget.