- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2020

No crowded stands packed with diehard fans cheering and booing every pick. No green room full of decked-out prospects congratulating each other as their names are called. No three-day traveling circus-festival of football.

Things will be dramatically different Thursday night when the NFL draft instead sets up its virtual tent, with everyone taking part remotely.

Thanks to coronavirus, the NFL’s glitzy spring showcase this year will look more like draft night for your brother-in-law’s fantasy football league, with team representatives making picks remotely from the comfort of their respective homes.

The league’s first virtual draft comes with technological and logistical challenges for all parties involved. But over the past month, teams, prospects, league executives and the league’s broadcast partners have found a way to adapt to the new (and hopefully, temporary) norm.

‘The most complicated event’

Considering the variables involved, the 2020 NFL draft is destined to go down as either a roaring success or a complete trainwreck. It all depends on the smoothness of the operation.

Either way, sports fans will be watching.

The NFL draft has become one of the highest-rated events in sports — last year’s first-round drew 11 million viewers across its television platforms, for example.

This year, the NFL draft stands alone as practically the only live sports option around, as the NBA, NHL and MLB all have suspended its seasons because of the virus. Fans are desperate for action, and 6.1 million tuning into the anticipated Michael Jordan documentary over the weekend only reinforced that belief.

Still, to pull off a broadcast featuring participants sheltering in their homes across the country, ESPN and the NFL Network have had to spend hours upon hours planning.

“This is the most complicated event that I’ve personally been involved in,” said ESPN vice president of production Seth Markman, “and I’ve been at ESPN for 27 years in June.”

Instead of putting on separate telecasts, the two networks agreed to air the same feed, featuring a blend of ESPN and NFL Network talent. That’s far from the only change.

ESPN’s Trey Wingo will host the show from the network’s studio in Bristol, Connecticut, but he won’t be joined in-person by Mel Kiper, Adam Schefter, Todd McShay or any of the company’s on-air draft experts. Instead, Kiper, Schefter and others will join the show remotely — a practice that’s become a television routine over the past month.

Behind the scenes, ESPN and the NFL Network have mapped out how to stage production while still abiding by social distancing rules. The control room will have only seven people — wearing masks and standing six feet apart, at a minimum — instead of the 15 to 20 people on a normal year, Markman said.

NFL senior vice president of production Mark Quenzel said the companies will also have feeds with access to 170 to 180 people around the country, ranging from coaches, general managers and prospects. The league shipped cameras and equipment to those involved and the goal was for the technology to be easy enough for people to self-install, Quenzel said.

And in addition to the NFL Network-ESPN feed, ABC will carry its own broadcast of the draft, with the show being produced out of ESPN studios in Bristol.

“I do feel confident,” Markman said, “but I will say, it’s damn complicated.”

Replicating atmosphere

Instead of announcing picks at a podium in front of screaming fans, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will be naming the selections from the basement of his upstate New York home.

There’s no one in Goodell’s basement to lustily boo the commissioner’s pronouncements — honestly, one of the best parts of recent drafts — but the NFL, to its credit, has even taken steps to remedy that.

The league set up a marketing deal with Bud Light encouraging fans to upload videos of themselves booing the commissioner.


Gimmicks aside, that’s just one of the ways this year’s draft will be different The draft prospects themselves are planning different types of celebrations.

Ohio State pass rusher and Maryland native Chase Young, for instance, told CBS Sports that he’s following social distancing guidelines, so there will only be 10 of his closest family members and friends on hand for his draft day party.

But he has a plan for those who don’t make the cut.

“We’re gonna shine a projector on the side of the house, so that everybody else can drive up outside and watch (the draft),” Young said. “When I do get drafted, I can come outside. Just trying to make sure I can follow the rules while I also see the rest of my family.”

In normal circumstances, it’s common for prospects to have large parties if they’re not at the draft. Look no further than Dwayne Haskins’ gathering at a Maryland bowling alley last year with his family and friends when the Redskins picked him 15th overall.

Finding the right setup

Down in the basement of his new Virginia home, Ron Rivera has his “war room” fully finished. The Redskins coach’s setup contains an 80-inch TV, a 60-inch, a desktop computer, two laptops, two hardline phones and a printer.

All of it will be used when the draft begins.

“That’s probably what the hard part is — you’ve got so much connection going on,” Rivera said, “and you’re truly relying on the Internet and the WiFi staying good.”

Around the league, coaches and executives are bracing for the virtual draft by getting used to the technology on hand.

But Rivera said the team’s test runs have been mostly smooth. On Monday, the Redskins participated in a league-wide test and the next day, the team held its own four-round mock draft — complete with simulations of trades.

The Redskins, Rivera said, had a small hiccup in terms of getting connected at the beginning of their own walk-through, but once they did, it didn’t have any issues.

Rivera, whose dad served in the Army, likened the practice to “maneuvers,” a military exercise aimed at being prepared.

Along those lines, the Redskins and other teams around the NFL are trying to ensure they’ll have further fail-safes in case the technology breaks down.

Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn created a stir this week when he said he plans to have the team’s IT director be on-call by renting a mini-Winnebago and parking it in Quinn’s driveway.

Other general managers like Denver’s John Elway have wondered how the virtual nature of the event will impact decisions.

“The time constraints, being virtual and not having everybody in the same room makes it more difficult, so that may lead to less trades,” he told reporters.

For their selections, the Redskins plan to have a cutoff time for potential deals varying by rounds.

“We’ve gone through that prep, those meetings you have to have when everybody comes together, works together and puts everything in place,” Rivera said.

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