The open. When the draft telecast kicks off Thursday night at 8 p.m. ET, you’ll hear from a familiar person: Peyton Manning. On both of the two telecasts, ABC and ESPN/NFL Network, Manning will voice a two-and-a-half-minute piece paying tribute to those on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19, and on football and its place in the country in these times. I’m told it’ll hit a range of emotions and end in hope.
The boos. “I guess you’re going to have to show up and watch,” Goodell said when I asked how he was going to replicate the cacophonous boos he gets at every draft venue. “But I will say this: It’s a big part of the draft. I personally love the engagement with our fans. That [booing] is included. For us, we had to think through, ‘How are we going to bring the fans into the event? How are we going to allow the boo to be a part of the event as it has been in the past?’ ” How indeed. Last week I reported there will be a screen of fans from each team behind Goodell when he announces the pick. Could they boo? Stay tuned.
The ratings. They could be through the roof, obviously. To give some perspective, last year, the average viewership per minute on the combined platforms of ESPN, NFL Network and ABC was 6.1 million, the highest ever. That’s half the average number of a “Monday Night Football” telecast in 2019. This year? No one knows. But I have a feeling—with no March Madness, no Final Four, no Masters, no early NBA and NHL playoffs, no five baseball games per night—the ratings for a unique draft could be insane.
“The norms are all out the window,” said Cary Meyers, ESPN’s VP for Research and Insights. “People have been forced to quit sports cold turkey. They’re jonesing for any sports content, and for the NFL.”
Meyers noted that the average American is watching one hour more of TV per day (surprised it’s not more) since most states have instituted stay-home orders. Not sure how many folks will stick with the draft when the lesser lights are coming off the board Friday night and Saturday, but the Thursday night round-one numbers, with zero sports competition, could be the numbers you’d normally see for a playoff game.
Don’t be surprised . . . if you see on day two or three (or both) some of the heroes of the coronavirus fight—a doctor, a nurse, an EMT, a nursing-home worker, a Food Bank volunteer—introducing a pick or three on national TV. I really don’t know if it’ll happen, but it makes too much sense for it not to. When I mentioned my gut to Goodell on Saturday, he said: “I would tell you that we’re going to use our platform to thank the heroes that have really given back to us. We’re going to be creative about we do that without interrupting the important work that they’re doing.”
The virtual remote sites. On Friday, Goodell and the NFL’s IT boss, Chief Information Officer Michelle McKenna, divided up the 58 draft prospects who were sent the gear that would put them all on TV during the draft into five or six smaller groups and got on videoconference sessions with them, one after the other. In groups of eight to 12, they went over the technology that would make remote sites out of 58 private homes—two light stands with strong illumination, two Verizon cell phones to act as cameras (one that would be on throughout the draft), a sensitive mic, and Bose QC-20 earphones.
“I was with the draft-eligible players,” Goodell told me. “I said, ‘Listen, we would all love to be in Las Vegas under normal circumstances. That’s not the case. But I don’t want you to think in your home with just a few family members, and not in Las Vegas, that the world’s not watching—and that you can’t have an impact on your community, because you will.’ “
McKenna said a big advantage in making 58 young people de facto camera/audio/lighting experts for a national TV telecast sent to millions is that, well, they’re young people. “I didn’t have to tell any of them how to turn on the camera or how to mute the sound,” McKenna said. “They’re used to using equipment like this.”
There will be a total of more than 130 of these portable studios (adding in the 32 GMs and 32 coaches) in living rooms and dining rooms and basements around the country; that content will stream into host AWS, which will manage those feeds in conjunction with ESPN, and filtered feeds will come into the ESPN control room (it would be impossible for ESPN to monitor 130 feeds in real time) in Bristol, Conn., beginning Thursday night. “Streaming’s been happening for years,” said McKenna, “but I’m pretty sure having 100-plus feeds being filtered in real time into one live TV show has never happened.”
The changing times. Funny how you can adapt to a new normal when your future’s on the line. A bunch of set-in-their-way NFL people, over the past month, have had a Who Moved My Cheese? experience, collectively. “It usually takes months or years for people to change their process,” McKenna said. “But in the course of one month, [the coaches and GMs] have basically gone from, ‘We’re not doing that,’ to ‘We’ll do this our own way if we have to’ to ‘There’s no way we could do in time for the draft,’ to ‘Okay, we’re on board.’ “
Five weeks ago, most football people hadn’t heard of Zoom, the exploding videoconference business, but by necessity—to easily run meetings, to get several team members in the same sphere with a prospect for an interview—now they’re all Zoom experts. They’ve also become conversant in Microsoft Teams, another video-conference service that will be a communications staple this weekend; not only is Microsoft a league partner, but many in the league are more comfortable with Microsoft’s encryption.
You’ll like this. So many people around the NFL are giving money to coronavirus causes. All deserve credit. I love this one: The general managers in the league agreed to give $1,000 per pick ($256,000, based on 255 picks plus one Supplemental Pick last summer) to the league’s Draft-A-Thon fundraiser, which is divvying up all donations during the draft to six worthy causes. To make it equitable, each GM is donating $8,000. I was told by a league official that Eagles GM Howie Roseman spearheaded the cause, and that it has extended to the head coaches too. By late Saturday, all 32 GMs and three-quarters coaches had agreed, and there was confidence the rest would this week. The GMs and coaches (if all are in) will give a combined $512,000 to Draft-A-Thon. That’s a good start for the pot.
Draft-A-Thon. We thought Rich Eisen would be doing some form of combo-hosting the draft on ESPN/NFL Network, but instead he’s going to be the host for the COVID-19 relief arm of draft weekend. The NFL will have Eisen doing the Draft-A-Thon in an exclusive stream on all the league social channels: Twitter, Instagram, NFL.com plus team sites, YouTube, Facebook and Twitch, interviewing show-biz and NFL names while pushing charity to the six beneficiaries of the weekend fundraising. Such a strange year, and a different gig Eisen never though he’d be honchoing a month ago. But he seemed happy about it Sunday. “It’s another in a long line of planting flags for the NFL,” Eisen said.
The future. One thing I like that the league is doing right now: Though there’s little question that people inside the league have begun to investigate what fan-less games would be like, you don’t hear leaks speculating on how that would work, or how there could be enough testing and caretaking of players if games were played before there was a vaccine for the virus—or even if it’s possible to play the games at all, fans or not. Though it’s very likely NFL schedulers are preparing contingent 12 or 14-game schedules (or both) per team, you don’t hear leaks about them. (You might have read me throwing darts about it, but that’s me throwing some educated darts, not reporting the league is absolutely doing it.)
Those who have described Goodell’s stance on preparing and planning in these odd times says his attitude in meetings and internal talks is twofold: Hope is not a strategy; plan for all alternatives and Don’t make decisions till you have to. Don’t set false deadlines. Let things play out. Of course, the NFL has the benefit of time. Opening day is in 20 weeks, and we can barely predict what the country will look like in 20 days. I do think if the league decides it can ensure the safety of players, all essential team staffers and in-stadium TV personnel (all of which is no lock), it would play games in empty stadiums. But it’s pretty hard to predict anything right now, which is why Goodell’s current approach seems like the right one.