Inside Track

How the Virtual Draft Helped Humanize the NFL

#BusinessOfSports

#Fan/PlayerEngagement

#Media/Entertainment

#Venue/EventInnovation

Each new week seems to bring new changes in the way fans are engaging with sports and how athletes are staying connected to their fans and teams.

Not that we’re counting, but it’s been six weeks since the last time we’ve seen a competitive sporting event (yeah… we’re totally counting).

So, when an event like the NFL Draft comes along, it was a pretty safe bet that the national sports consciousness would eat up every second of the three-day event.

The NFL has created powerful brand equity through large scale events and creating powerful branding opportunities when other leagues remain largely dormant or non-existent. That’s especially vital for a league which occupies but a fleeting sliver of the calendar from September to February. Even when football teams aren’t clashing on the gridiron, fans have become subsumed by their content throughout the year during free agency, the NFL Draft, and training camps.

These micro-moments have driven their own news cycles and content ecosystems that have sustained conversations on sports talk shows and online fan communities well beyond the playing season.

This lull in sports has forced the NFL to rely on its speed and innovation to activate an event of immense magnitude. Challenges included how advertising would work. The impacts of a sports-less society have rippling effects across nearly every aspect of business, from advertising to the technical requirements needed to string together a broadcast interweaving hundreds of remote feeds into one unique, compelling broadcast. What will be interesting to follow is how elements of this NFL Draft experience will change the way we interact with sports broadcasts, players, and teams in the future.

If one of the most complicated broadcasts can be pulled off in a matter of weeks, what will what that mean for live sports events when they return, possibly without fans. Will fans get to interact with the sidelines and players in new ways? Will fans get to experience new viewpoints of the action? What companies will arise to help solve these unique challenges and help teams and players realize entirely new ways to engage?

🎲➡️🏡 From Vegas To Our Homes

Recently, the NFL Draft has captivated more than ever. 

It’s come a long way since the very first draft held February 8, 1936 at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia. 

In a move to better integrate the event with fans, the draft has moved from Radio City Hall where it was held from 2006 to 2014, and will be rotating across NFL host cities, the likes of Las Vegas, Cleveland, and Kansas City. 

Last year, a massive section of Lower Broadway in downtown Nashville was transformed into a viewing area and fan village that drew 600,000 people during the three-day event. It also shattered economic impact to the tune of $132.8 million in direct spending from visitors. 

The plans were even bigger for this year’s draft, scheduled for the city of Las Vegas as a welcome to the relocating Raiders franchise and the team’s new stadium. 

With the Venetian as a backdrop, drafted players were slated to take a boat across the pond to give a celebratory hug to the commissioner and officially be welcomed by throngs of fans to their new team. 

The revenue from advertising on television and social media for this event has grown tremendously, not including the unique brand activations that have become a staple of the draft experience. 

Instead, players donned Bose headphones at home and prospects like CeeDee Lamb and Henry Ruggs II received Pizza Hut wings and pizza delivered directly to their draft parties. Pizza Hut parlayed that activation with a Proud to Serve ad spot, which was an ode to the 115,000 employees who are keeping delivery going. 

🏈 NFL Team War Rooms 

In modern times, NFL teams create war rooms that bring together team decision makers, statisticians, head coaches, general managers, and player personnel to monitor the draft, make decisions, and execute trades that impact draft positioning. 

The first draft board at the 1936 draft in the Ritz-Carlton was the epitome of a mundane event. Owners of nine teams gathered for nine rounds. There was an absence of media coverage on radio, television, and newspaper. Of course, back then, racing ponies, boxing rings, and baseballs ruled the day. In addition, the teams picking lacked any scouts or sources with details about players. The only information they had was a list of graduating collegiate football players listed on a wall. 

Interestingly enough, it was the broadcasters who helped usher in this new data-driven, measurable world that has become such an important part of the NFL Draft experience, 

“Welcome to the 59th Annual Selection Meeting, as they call it in the NFL, ans as the rules change and the brave new world of the salary cap and teams in free agency — perhaps more than ever, a premium on the seven rounds of the NFL Draft,” ESPN analyst Chris Berman proclaimed at the front of the 1994 NFL Draft

That draft showcased that in ways earlier generations could never imagine as arm-chair GMs Mel Kiper and Dr. Z became personalities that spent their careers developing draft guides to players and predicted projections. 

No matter how long teams spent with the access to highly-coveted inside information, medical evaluations, and measurables, the draft personalities still rolled out their picks and created long-debated talking points that could sustain a multi-day draft. Mel’s Draft Board became a staple in that draft, and today, projects and draft guides fuel the lead-up to drafts, and help paint talking points throughout it.

 

It takes a year to coordinate these logistics, both at the team level as well as the league level. Because of the pandemic, it has forced everyone to put together a virtual draft in a matter of weeks. 

For a sport that is so reliant on its gladiator-like ethos and battle-tested elements, the draft did something surprising — it humanized the war room. With most team personnel being dispatched and isolated to their own homes, draft rooms became inclusive of mostly families. Each room had cameras hooked up so fans could see the teams (without audio) making phone calls, texting, and furiously pouring over draft boards. 

And, has been the case for most of the world’s stay-at-home professionals, kids and pets crept into nearly every shot. Coaches high-fived their children, others hugged and kissed their significant others, and Patriots Coach Bill Belichick fueled rumors that his coaching prowess has been fundamentally the root of his pet dog making all the decisions.

A little voyeuristic and unusual for sure, but the draft window we all were able to soak up became one of the draft’s most compelling narratives. We were all able to peek, for a minute, at the world of NFL juggernauts in their homes. 

Of course, Belichick was drafting from his kitchen table in Nantucket with his dog, with just two laptops and a porcelain mug stuffed with writing utensils. 

Raiders coach Jon Gruden brought new layers of transparency to the process by showing us a draft room filled with family members, computer setups, and even a peek at his draft board. Sure, nobody could zero in on it, but to even see what a NFL team draft board looked like during the event was pretty unique.

And then, there was Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury.

Known for his laid-back demeanor, the images of his draft day headquarters inspired memes, social media threads, news talking points, and even commentary from current and past players.

No matter what you thought of the process, one of the most unique elements of this draft was being able to get a window to the world of decision-makers in real-time. We wouldn’t be surprised if components of this year’s draft change not only the future of the NFL Draft, but other major league drafts as well. 

🚀 Without A Hitch 

At the start of the NFL Draft, ESPN host Trey Wingo prefaced the event by acknowledging how virtually unprecedented in sporting history it was and that there would almost certainly be a technical glitch, but that everyone involved would somehow power through and emerge on the other side unscathed. 

Weeks prior to the draft kick-off, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that some teams and coaches were concerned about connectivity issues and getting picks in on-time — you know, the exact same things you and I and the common people deal with every single year during our fantasy football drafts! 

In fact, a test-run at ESPN saw the league experiencing one glitch during a mock draft, but immediately after, John Elway reported it ran smoothly, The test seemed to work. 

Impossible as it seems, for fans and teams alike, there were no major issues with the draft to count. 

That doesn’t mean they were preparing for the worst. The unsung heroes of this draft were the hundreds of IT employees who helped configure home offices into draft rooms and connect them for the world to see. 

Bob Quinn, GM of the Detroit Lions was adamant to plan for any potential hiccups or connectivity issues. He assigned his head of IT, Steve Lancaster, to be parked in an RV outside Quinn’s house in case any issues came up

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Lancaster—who serves as the team’s director of IT—will be “stationed in a Winnebago in [general manager Bob Quinn’s] driveway for all hours of the three-day NFL draft, in case there are any technical issues. Lancaster will go home each night, then return to the RV for [the] draft’s resumption.”

That was in part to some powerful relationships with partners who helped change and improve the experience for almost everyone.

Over the course of the event, the NFL Draft relied on an astounding 600 camera feeds inside everyone from Commissioner Roger Goodell, 32 NFL head coaches, 32 NFL GMs, draft prospects, team fans, and college football coaches. 

  • Amazon Web Services helped host and manage the live video feeds.
  • Verizon helped supply phone line connectivity for those in remote locales.
  • Microsoft helped teams collaborate and talk to each other as well as provide a way for them to submit official picks to the league. 
  • And notice how all those draft picks were zoned out with a pair of headphones on? That was thanks to Bose.

📈 Metrics Indicate Future Success

All told, the NFL Draft smashed records. 

The entire event drew 55 million viewers. Thursdays opening round drew a record 15.6 million viewers — or, about as much as watched a regular season game last year. That was a 37 percent increase from 2019. 

Day two on Friday saw 8.2 million viewers, which was a 40 percent increase from last year. And, 4.2 million viewers tuned in to the final rounds on Saturday, which was a 32% increase from last year. 

One of the most fascinating angles from this draft will be to see how other leagues adopt similar tactics and what levels of success they see from it. 

Because the network had little access to prospects to interview, they were forced to research interesting storylines and player details that were the perfect companion to draft evaluations after each pick. 

Also, since the draft attracted so many sports-starved fans, the transparency within the NFL teams, coaches, and prospects was so interesting that we wonder how they’ll wrap these angles into future drafts and how technology and innovation continue to impact the way we consume non-game sporting events. 

One of the biggest game-changers coming out of this unprecedented event will surely be how athletes connect to their new fanbases. It used to be that first round picks would hop on the next flight and head to team headquarters to officially be welcomed to the team. Now, teams are scrambling to figure out how rookies will get to introductory team camps and how training will be — will it be virtual with players dialing in over Zoom, or will restrictions be lifted to allow them to join organized training events. 

Instead, top picks like Arlington Heights Cole Kmet, a tight end out of Notre Dame, were treated to a 45-minute parade of fans streaming by his house congratulating him and his family on the achievement and quickly made its rounds on social media channels.

Football doesn’t have the luxury of minting stars outside from their top QBs and a handful of offensive juggernauts and defensive behemoths. Players are suited up in helmets and not as easy to pick out. Proximity is not one of the NFL’s trademarks in a stadium full of 72,000 people, unlike other sports where players and fans sit much closer and in far-longer seasons the likes of the NBA and MLB. 

Moments like Cole’s are precisely the opportunities many future NFL stars are given to connect to their new teams and fanbases. How they tap into it on social media and digital platforms will define how their sport gets closer to fans and starts to compete with the never-ending digital coverage from sports media channels. It is also helping teams realize they have new sources of content to tap into themselves — 

During the draft, team reporters and social media personalities (from their homes in many instances) went live on channels like Facebook to cover the top draft stories, break down player profiles, and pontificate on what would happen next for the team.

We’ve never been closer to our favorite players (and newly-emerging ones) than we are today. Social media has ushered in an entirely new wave of contact points for fans to connect with players, and for players to broadcast updates to their fans. In the future, teams will be looking to tap into some of these channels for additional pathways to engage with fans and receive revenue from them, owning just a bit more of the fan engagement journey up to the point where games are owned by complicated broadcast rights.