- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 26, 2020

Many football fans anticipated technical glitches that left general managers fuming, but the virtual 2020 NFL draft instead went surprisingly well.

You might even say a little too well.

“The NFL has a problem with this draft format: It’s better than the previous drafts,” Los Angeles Times columnist Sam Farmer tweeted. “Now, going back to the old style will be an issue.”

With the coronavirus pandemic forcing the NFL to cancel its original plan of holding the draft in Las Vegas — a spectacle that would have included top prospects being shuttled through the Fountains of Bellagio on boats, a true exercise in excess — the league instead put on three days of remotely-produced programming that simultaneously addressed the coronavirus pandemic and drew record television ratings.

With a telethon aspect added to the ABC version of the broadcast, the NFL raised $6.6 million over three days for COVID-19 relief, and the league has donated more than $100 million in total. The “Draft-A-Thon” benefitted six charities’ relief funds, including the American Red Cross, Meals on Wheels and United Way.

The first night of the draft drew a record 15.6 million viewers, and Friday’s broadcast of Rounds 2 and 3 brought in 8.2 million, which ESPN said was a Day 2 record.

As other sports leagues try to fill the void by re-airing old championships and producing esports tournaments for TV or internet consumption, the NFL was in position to put on an entertaining live event precisely because it’s the only major league in its normal offseason right now.

“I was amazed at how normal it looked, and I think part of the reason for that is, the draft is a TV show. The draft is not sports,” Bryan Curtis, editor for the website The Ringer, said on “The Press Box” podcast.

The Goodell follies

Not everything was a smashing success. The commissioner announced the first three rounds’ of picks from the basement of his New York home — he usually only announces the first 32 selections. Goodell changed outfits midway through the first round, looked exhausted by the end of Friday night and only wore a T-shirt for his final appearance at the end of Saturday’s broadcast.

The league placed a TV screen behind Goodell’s mark that was supposed to pump in crowd noise from fans who recorded themselves from home. There was a promise of booing, but it rarely took that form. Goodell tried to have some fun with the screen before announcing picks, feebly interacting with the fans and saying things like, “Come on, is that all you got?”

He stumbled over the name Tua Tagovailoa, which might be forgivable if the Alabama quarterback wasn’t pegged for a future NFL star since his national championship game debut way back in January 2018. One of the worst mistakes Goodell made, though, was botching an announcement that Las Vegas would get to host the 2022 draft after losing out on 2020.

Technically sound

The draft is high stakes for the teams involved, leading to concerns that a work-from-home setup for general managers and coaches wasn’t going to cut it. When the NFL did a test run for all 32 teams last week, the Cincinnati Bengals — holders of the No. 1 pick — ran into a technical issue right away, which seemed to portend doom.

But when it came time for the real thing, no team missed a pick, and none reported any major bugs that forced them to change plans on the fly.

Denver Broncos coach Vic Fangio and Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead each had their internet service go out during the draft. But each of them also had the team’s head of information technology on hand to fix the problem long before the respective teams were “on the clock” next.

Other amusement

The selections themselves become less vital as the draft wears on, but the unique format led to some memorable moments and topics of discussion for football fans. We all know now, for example, that Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury lives in an enviable McMansion with a courtyard and fire pit.

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick didn’t have quite as fancy a setup, but he did try to stay off camera in the earlier rounds and had his dog sit in front of his laptops during a live shot Thursday.

And there was the curious addition of remote musical performances from the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, Luke Bryan and One Republic during the later rounds, which served to break up the monotony of draft pick after draft pick. Will any of these elements survive once society returns to normal and the draft can return to being a public, revenue-generating event? That’ll be up to the NFL.

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