The Virtual Draft: a Surprising Success

by Austin Chen, Sports Editor
photo courtesy of the New England Patriots

The NFL was handed a tall order this April: keep draft night traditions alive despite a pandemic. In any other year, Commissioner Roger Goodell would have stepped onto a stage in some given city to the ironic shower of boos that has become customary. He would have handed out hugs and handshakes: luxuries that have been stripped from today’s world of isolation and social distancing. He would have been able to properly welcome 96 men into the next chapter of their lives. But not this year.

This year’s draft came at a time when headlines held nothing but bad news and tragedy, and it seemed as though tragedy was the event’s main focus. An advertisement paying tribute to healthcare workers, supermarket employees and first responders was the first indication of the night’s theme, and as legendary quarterback Peyton Manning narrated the scenes of loss, hope and humanity, most viewers were looking forward to what would hopefully be a welcome distraction from the virus outside. 

Instead, as day one of the draft officially began and as the screen cut from athlete to athlete — some sitting in resplendent homes, some in more modest situations, some surrounded by friends and family, some simply with their parents — the viewer at home was bombarded with tragic story after tragic story.

For whatever reason, the people in charge of ESPN’s broadcast decided that what should have been the best night thus far in these young athletes’ lives should come part and parcel with a reminder of the lowest moments in their lives. After Utah State quarterback Jordan Love was selected, ESPN ran footage of him discussing his father’s suicide. 

A split-screen graphic revealed that Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins’s mother had to overcome drug addiction. All through the night, the stories kept coming. Hurricane Katrina. Tornados. Homelessness. There is a thin line between revealing an athlete’s motivation and capitalizing on an eye-catching tidbit, and ESPN stepped way, way over that line.

Despite ESPN’s apparent fixation on negativity, the NFL itself did its best to keep things light. In lieu of the live boos that typically would have greeted Goodell as he took the stage, Bud Light ran a promotion in the preceding weeks, asking fans to post videos of themselves booing on Twitter, donating $1 to COVID-19 relief efforts for every video posted. The videos played on a screen behind Goodell as he stood in his basement, and a draft tradition was kept alive, even if it really wasn’t the same. 

Goodell had around a dozen fan representatives of each team appear on the same screen behind him as he announced each pick, and it was hilarious to see how visibly disappointed some of them were at their teams’ choices. It wasn’t the same, but provided life and character nonetheless.

From a technical perspective, the draft was nearly a complete success. Its success was especially surprising after the test run held days before was reportedly a mess from the get-go, but the real thing managed to keep the gaffes and glitches to a minimum. 

Outside of the typical issues video conferencing always has — lag, poor image quality, etc. — the league’s coaches and general managers refrained from embarrassing themselves, and even seemed to have some fun. Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel was flanked by two costumed teenagers and drew plenty of attention on Twitter, but the real star of the show made his appearance on day two of the draft. 

The Patriots were selecting for the first time, and when the camera cut to Bill Belichick, the man was nowhere to be seen. Instead, a very good boy named Nike was in front of the computer. Belichick must have taught the dog well, as the Pats picked an unknown Division II safety out of Lenoir-Rhyne University.

This virtual draft went so well, in fact, that many coaches around the league have voiced a desire to stay digital, with the change causing many to realize just how much extraneous effort they put in in the offseason. Detroit Lions head coach Bob Quinn said in his post-draft press conference that he was reevaluating his springtime work-life balance and looking to embrace the virtual opportunities that are becoming more and more prominent, and according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the sentiment was held across the league. 

Coaches noted how such a change revealed that a lot of their offseason habits — prospect visits, scouting, etc. — really didn’t require as much in-person work as they once thought. More importantly, they cited the extra time with family as a huge bonus.

The NFL itself certainly has no reason not to keep the draft digital: day one drew 16.5 million viewers, and over the three televised nights, brought in 55 million total. In the past, some have considered the pageantry and excess of the draft to be unnecessary, and it seems as though they’ve been vindicated. If the NFL does ultimately decide to keep the draft digital, however, it does feel like they’ll do away with simplicity once they have enough time to gussy up the production. 

Ultimately, as long as they have a chat with their broadcasters vis-a-vis balancing tragedy and joy, going digital should be all upside. They say serendipity is when fate has a sense of humor, and if a pandemic is what it takes for the NFL to realize just how inefficient its habits are, a humorless chuckle may be in order.