It may not have been the grandiose display planned for Las Vegas, but the NFL still managed a record-breaking weekend for the 2020 draft.
More than 55 million viewers tuned in to watch an NFL draft unlike any other in the past. Thursday's first round alone drew 15.6 million viewers across ESPN, ABC, NFL Network, ESPN Deportes and digital channels, shattering the previous record of 12.4 million in 2014.
Adapting to the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic forced the NFL to take its draft virtual for the first time in league history. And while many other businesses have successfully transitioned to operating remotely, the questions of whether teams could work from home hovered over the event.
"I think there's a curiosity factor to see what it's going to be," said Alex Evans, a managing director at L.E.K. Consulting with over 20 years of media industry experience, in an interview ahead of the draft. "And people will be like, 'Well, I'm dealing with Zoom and working from home in my own life, how does the NFL deal with it?'"
The answer is, pretty well, with a 16% increase in ratings over 2019 across all days of the 2020 NFL Draft and each day establishing new highs in average audience. The first night wasn't the only record-breaker, which drew a 37% spike over 2019. The 8.2 million viewers who watched rounds 2 and 3 on Friday represented a 40% increase, while the 4.2 million viewers who watched rounds 4–7 on Saturday rose 32% over last year, according to the NFL.
"I was thoroughly impressed — blown away, even — by how smooth the operation was," said Erik Bacharach, Titans beat reporter for The Tennessean. "I was fully expecting there to be some technological snags throughout the event."
There were no discernible glitches or delays in the draft process. Subbing out face-to-face contact with the Microsoft Teams communication and collaboration platform, the NFL was able to prove it's just like any other business. In the face of this crisis, it too can work from home.
Microsoft Teams served as the primary line of communication between the NFL and its franchises, as well as how official picks were submitted to the league (some teams chose to also use the Microsoft technology for their "virtual war rooms").
To the credit of IT employees around the league, "everything ran smoothly," an NFL spokesman told CNBC. The first two days of the draft were all-time ratings highs, he said.
Operating in a virtual setting created a precarious challenge for teams, who usually have every person involved in the decision-making process in the same room. The situation was unprecedented, and the league didn't have a preexisting infrastructure to transform each team official's home into a remote war room. And yet somehow, in a condensed time frame, they did.
"The guys who do all the IT work, I'm sure they worked overtime to make sure the coaches have whatever they have," said Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Tyrell Williams. "So I know those guys don't get enough credit for what they do, because they're setting everybody up."
The 2020 NFL Draft included 600 camera feeds in the homes of everyone from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to more than 85 draft prospects, 32 NFL head coaches, 32 NFL general managers, fans and college football coaches, among others. The list of technology partners went beyond Microsoft, with Amazon Web Services hosting and managing video feeds, Verizon providing phone and connectivity for remote locations, and Bose providing the headphones for draft participants.
That's not to say there weren't concerns along the way. A few weeks before the draft, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported there was a growing concern among coaches and front-office staff about having IT employees coming into their homes and spreading the virus. New York Giants General Manager Dave Gettleman is a lymphoma survivor and was shown wearing a mask because he needed an IT person on-site.
Schefter also disclosed that the league experienced an issue during a mock draft last week, a delay on Cincinnati's simulated first overall pick. But Denver Broncos president of football operations, John Elway, told ESPN the mock draft smoothed itself out after the initial hiccup.
ESPN itself faced its own set of challenges covering the draft. Without live sports to buoy its programming, the LA Times reported their ratings could drop by as much as 80%. The network's vice president of production, Seth Markman, told Front Office Sports the process of interweaving hundreds of remote feeds to create an intelligible broadcast was "the most complicated event I've personally been involved in."
And the possibility of failure loomed large. Earlier this month, ESPN organized a H.O.R.S.E. tournament among past and present stars from the NBA and WNBA, in which players competed in their home gyms while in isolation. On paper the idea was a great way to create unique and accessible programming while raising money for relief efforts. The actual execution and video quality were poor.
"Frankly, I got frustrated because I kept on getting stalled out [while watching]," said Irwin Kishner, co-chair of the Sports Law Group at Herrick, Feinstein LLP.
The network didn't have the benefit of aesthetically pleasing visuals and a plethora of player interviews. But the lack of content pushed ESPN to dig deeper, revealing interesting nuggets about each draftee, such as former Alabama wideout Jerry Jeudy correctly urging a teacher to recalculate one of his grades after giving him a B+ and how Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. saved a woman's life with CPR. However, the network did draw criticism on social media for highlighting an uncanny amount of personal tragedies among players.
This version of the draft also provided a strange yet compelling combination of HGTV and football. It was exciting to get such a wide array of inside looks into the homes of team executives, coaches and players. And Cardinals Coach Kliff Kingsbury stole the show with views of his jaw-dropping Arizona home.
"It's clear ESPN's ability to put on a remote event is more sculpted than I think any of us could have expected," Bacharach of The Tennessean said. "The overall quality of the event, in my opinion, didn't drop at all. Even when things return to normal, I think there's a lot of elements of the virtual draft that should continue to be incorporated into the broadcast going forward, which is a testament to how well run this week's draft was."
Part of ESPN's record-setting weekend can be attributed to a bit of viewer desperation weeks into stay-at-home orders across the U.S., combined with the lack of actual sporting events to watch.
"There's no competition, right?" Evans said. "There really isn't any other sports-world distraction, and I think [the draft] got center stage."
The WNBA Draft, which also operated virtually earlier this month, drew a 123% spike in viewership from a year ago.
TV networks have had to get creative in filling the huge gaps left by the cancellation of live sports. ESPN's best move may have been moving up its 10-part documentary series about Michael Jordan, "The Last Dance," which was rewarded with a staggering 6.1 million viewership average, the largest audience for an original program on the network and most-viewed ESPN telecast since the college football national championship in January.
"I think curling could take America by storm right now if they were the first ones to get going," said Jason Lieser, Bears beat writer for the Chicago Sun-Times.
The Herculean efforts of the league's IT staffers extend beyond the draft. Williams says virtual meetings could be a solution to limiting how much time players have to spend away from their families during off months. It's not a replacement for on-field reps, but a potential supplement.
"I think that it's beneficial," Las Vegas Raiders' Williams said. I think [the draft] will be a good trial just because it's what we have to do. And I think some teams probably will implement something like that. I'm sure it will definitely carry over in some way."
Covering the event remotely wasn't a big shift for reporters. Lieser says he would spend the draft at the Bears' facility in a normal year, with team officials addressing the media at the end of each day. All it takes is a laptop, phone and internet access.
"I would think it'd be easier at home, honestly," Lieser said. "As long as you have good Wi-Fi."
How a more distanced approach carries over to coverage of football in the upcoming season is a question that hovers over NFL fan experience and all other sports.
Safety is paramount. And if that means keeping the media outside of the locker room, it is a necessary sacrifice in the short term. Though a reporter's ability to approach any player after practice and chat them up is crucial to getting to the best kind of stories. In press conference settings, the tone becomes more formal and players tighten up.
"The better the media access, the better the product there is for you to consume," Lieser said. "So that will hurt the overall product if the NFL has to seriously restrict media access, which might be a necessity in the short term. But it certainly would be detrimental to the league and to the teams to do it permanently."
The NFL has no plans to pursue another virtual draft. The next two are scheduled to be held in Cleveland and Las Vegas. Faced with the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, the league adapted.
"I think when you start doing stuff like [what was planned for Vegas], there's no substitute for that," Lieser said. "Even in 2020, with all the great technology we have, that's what people would prefer to see."