The biggest sporting event of the foreseeable future will not involve any athletics. No one will throw a ball, block a pass or break a tackle. There will be no highlight reel or box score, no Jumbotron or replay booth.
This year, the NFL Draft, which typically resembles a sort of ostentatious debutante ball for besuited up-and-coming football stars, will more closely resemble a workplace Zoom meeting. In the era of social distancing, football’s rookie draft represents the brightest glimmer of hope that sports will return to America before the year is out.
ABC, ESPN and NFL Network are broadcasting the festivities; but every media outlet and platform wants to try and capture the pent up excitement (and audiences) by joining the fray with mock drafts, pre-draft events, sideshows and live commentary. And teams are also hosting their own programming.
The draft, for which the stage had been literally set on the waters of the Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas, with players boating their way to professional contracts, will instead be held in general managers’ makeshift home offices. There will be no boats, not even handshakes—just a videoconference, subject to the mercurial whims of individual Wi-Fi connections.
Without any other American sports—except perhaps golf—on the horizon, the draft is an enormous moment for the entire sports landscape, from the fans who depend on sports and the businesses that depend on the advertising category.
A big event at a tough time for media
While fans are yearning for sports to come back and make the woes of quarantine more tolerable, sports media outlets need revenue—and the draft may help. The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis called this year’s draft a “sports media stimulus package.”
In an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit’s r/football subreddit, Washington Post NFL reporter Adam Kilgore said the ratings could be “bananas” and even “equivalent to an NFL playoff game.”
“I usually couldn’t care less about television, but I am kind of fascinated by how many people watch this,” Kilgore said in response to a user question. “People are so desperate for sports, and it’ll be a national, communal experience that I think will resonate.”
The draft won’t heal a segment of the industry already maimed by the economic turmoil wrought by Covid-19. Without any live sports to cover, Sports Illustrated has fired 6% of its already depleted editorial staff, while Vox Media’s SB Nation was hit hard by furloughs last week.
As with all live sports events, publishers and platforms are seizing on the opportunity. WarnerMedia-owned sports website Bleacher Report is producing a three-night live show hosted by Adam Lefkoe, Matt Miller and Connor Rogers. For the first time, the show will appear on the B/R mobile app. (Past years’ shows were streamed over Facebook Live.)
This year’s programming is sponsored by Quicken Loans and sub-brand Rocket Mortgage, a notable partnership now that many brands’ advertising budgets are depleted.
“Once you figure that piece out, being able to bring something like this—be it something like the NFL Draft and a first-to-market opportunity [sponsoring the in-app show]—is the easier part,” Bleacher Report chief revenue officer Stefanie Rapp told Adweek.
Rapp said the NFL Draft is Bleacher Report’s “highest trafficked event” on its website and app each year. Last year, Bleacher Report saw between 15-18 million visits to its site and app on each day of the draft, increases between 45-75% as compared to an average day, the company said. Rapp declined to say how Bleacher Report’s business has fared overall during the Covid-19 crisis.
USA Today Sports is going a different route.
While it’s covering the draft on its main site and across USA Today Network local publications such as the Arizona Republic and the Indianapolis Star, plus its NFL “wire sites” like Draftwire and Patriotswire, the publisher’s main activation is a partnership with Burger King. For every Burger King delivery order made during the three-day draft, USA Today will donate $1 to local hospital staff and first responders in the 32 metro areas that have an NFL team.