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NFL Virtual Draft A Success

Ben Taylor | 30.04.2020

In the spring of 2014, I was finishing a year abroad in Philadelphia as part of my degree. My college roommate, having hooked me on the NFL eight months earlier, introduced me to the NFL draft. Every April since, I’ve been staying up till silly-o’clock in the morning to watch it.

But this wasn’t like any draft I’ve watched before. COVID-19 has left every sporting event in the dust… apart from this one. More than ever, this was an event to look forward to. And more than ever, it was an event that’s theatre and unpredictability could bring sports fans a feeling they hadn’t experienced in months. But pulling off a virtual draft, with teams picking remotely and the commissioner announcing each pick from his living room… would it work, both practically and as a spectacle?

The answer is yes. It actually went by with barely a hitch. Admittedly, the fact that no team’s poor internet connection cost them a pick, or interrupted the whole event, was a minor miracle. But the NFL and its broadcasters did a phenomenal job of replacing the drama of a stage, where draft picks hold up their new team’s jersey to a live audience of excited fans, with a plethora of sofas, dining rooms, and dogs seemingly making picks. It was entertaining. It was real.

Indeed, the NFL’s big problem come 2021 may be that the 2020 virtual draft went too well. In fact, there’s a possibility this year’s event could mark a sea of change in the way the event is presented and consumed forever. Viewership for Round 1 clocked in at 15.6 million – 37% higher than in 2019. As the L.A. Times put it:

“The NFL has a problem with this draft format: It’s better than the old way. Now the league has to figure out how to incorporate this authentic, not-too-perfect style into the glitzy extravaganza typical drafts have become.”

Now, of course these figures have much to do with fans being starved of any other sporting action. And there’s perhaps a limited amount that other sporting events can learn from the NFL draft – it is, after all, a major sporting event without any actual sport. But the lesson here could be that there is life in sports after – and even during – COVID-19, if those in charge are willing to adapt.

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