With world watching, broadcasters prepare for challenging virtual draft


LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – In normal times, the NFL draft is a relatively straightforward affair for broadcasters to air as most of the action unfolds in a single arena packed with hopeful young players, nervous families and optimistic fans.

But amid the COVID-19 crisis, this year’s event will instead be a technological high-wire act for the show’s producers, who will handle feeds from nearly 200 players and team officials scattered across the country because of social-distancing guidelines to help stem the pandemic.

The annual showcase, which is typically only of interest to U.S. sports fans, will be broadcast in 137 countries and territories in the hopes of broadening the global footprint of the most popular U.S. sports league.

“This is the most complicated event that I have ever been involved with,” Seth Markman, a veteran producer at ESPN, told reporters on a recent conference call.

“These are very challenging circumstances but we have a great opportunity here to bring fans across the country a little bit of hope, a little bit of joy and maybe a bit of an escape.”

In a spirit of collaboration, ESPN will team up with NFL Network to produce a single broadcast as opposed to competing against each other, while ABC, which like ESPN, is owned by Walt Disney Television, will produce its own show.

The three-day draft, which kicks off on Thursday, was originally supposed to be held in Las Vegas before the coronavirus outbreak derailed the event and brought the global sports calendar to a screeching halt.

With other leagues sidelined, the National Football League, which has held games in Mexico City and London and has an office in China, hopes to generate new fans in Central and South America, Brazil, the Pacific Rim, the Caribbean, the Netherlands and sub-Saharan Africa, an ESPN spokesman said.

In addition to the many technical challenges, producers said striking the right tone amid the pandemic, which has so far cost more than 42,000 lives in the United States, was paramount.

To that end, viewers can expect tributes to first responders and healthcare workers as well as a “Draft-A-Thon” that will raise funds to support relief efforts.

“We all feel a special responsibility to do a spectacular, meaningful draft for so many people,” Mark Quenzel, a producer for the NFL Network, said on the call.

“That special responsibility is driving everyone right now.”


There are encouraging signs for the broadcast.

ESPN hosted the Women’s National Basketball Association draft last week and it went off without a hitch, capturing the raw emotion of the players, while paying tribute to healthcare workers and the late National Basketball Association great Kobe Bryant and his basketball-playing daughter, Gianna, among others.

Late-night talk shows and NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” have been praised for their ability to excel despite the lack of an audience, something Quenzel said he had been studying in the lead-up to the draft.

To add polish to the normally glamorous event, the NFL sent each of the 58 top draft prospects a kit that includes a professional camera and lights, according to ESPN.

That should help them in capturing their life-altering moments, which will come when Commissioner Roger Goodell reads their names from his home in Bronxville, New York.

The big question is whether sports fans starved for content will flock to the broadcast or be turned off by the unusual format.

“I’m not even going to offer a guess on the ratings,” Markman said, although he noted it would not have to compete against the NBA playoffs or baseball games like it does every other year.

“This event usually draws a very, very big audience,” he said, adding that the strong draft class itself was a reason to tune in regardless of the format.

“So we were set up for a big ratings year anyway, but given the circumstances, we’re just going to wait and see,” he said. “But we’re optimistic about it.”

Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney