In the wake of COVID-19, with live sports production on hold, broadcasters have been trying to find ways to continue to provide hungry and isolated audiences with new content and to figure out what their sector of the industry looks like in the age of social distancing. Given that all major leagues cancelled their seasons when the seriousness of the pandemic became fully apparent, organizations like the NFL hadn’t had a major event with which they could experiment with new approaches. The 2020 NFL Draft, however — which occurred between April 23 and April 25 — provided one of the first opportunities to see how live sports production might be able to soldier on under the current circumstances.
In a recent podcast episode, aired on April 24th, SVG’s co-executive director, editorial Ken Kerschbaumer, chief editor Jason Dachman, Kristian Hernandez, and director of digital Brandon Costa discussed the production of the 2020 NFL Draft, noting how both the NFL and, previously, the WNBA managed to execute a tangible, engaging draft for fans of both leagues.
As they explain, ESPN and the NFL found themselves facing a massive challenge, with NFL Media deploying individual iPhone production kits to roughly 200 prospects, coaches, owners, and more around the country in order to make certain that personnel from the organization would not be at risk, while still ensuring that necessary feeds were in place and that content could be gathered and distributed to audiences. Additionally, the league planned to have over 300 streams from fans that could be incorporated into the main event and accompanying social media show. The resultant virtual draft was, thus, composed of over 600 live streams all integrated into a coherent and exciting production that managed to capture much of the energy of previous drafts, despite vastly different conditions. Bolstered by weeks of individual franchises the NFL as a whole expanding fan engagement via social media and other remotely created content, the draft experience allowed NFL Media to wrangle mountains of content across a host of channels to keep fans new and old on their toes.
A great deal of credit, as SVG reports, must go to Video Call Center (VCC), which assisted NFL Media in helping capture at-home interviews from 58 top draft prospects. While production on events such as this would normally involve incredibly complex hardware setups, through VCC, high-quality footage could be captured by the average smartphone and video conferencing app. Given the current risks, ensuring that prospects would be able to conduct and manage necessary technology from home — without the intervention of additional crews — was vital. Based on the all-time record viewership (over 15.6 million viewers on Thursday, a 37% increase from 2019; over 8.2 million viewers on Friday, a 40% increase from 2019; and over 4.2 million viewers on Saturday, a 32% increase from 2019!) and the rapturous reactions from those who watched the draft, the final product was a massive (and safe) success!
While it’s irresponsible and ultimately baseless to make major speculations about what will return in the world of live sports production, and when leagues will start back up, events such as the NFL and WNBA draft demonstrate that, through remote production, and the management and transfer of content across new workflows, organizations within that sphere of the M&E industry are continuing to provide their viewership with fresh and dynamic content. Throughout this crisis, media has been quick to adapt to the necessities of remote working, adopting new technologies, and discovering novel ways to keep production going. While it’s important to not trivialize the severity of the current moment, innovation and perseverance are continuing to define sports production and the industry as a whole. How other organizations run with the success we saw in April presents exciting possibilities.