Why the NFL’s lockdown draft may be the oddest and best yet

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It’s almost inconceivable now to think that this week’s NFL draft was supposed to take place amid the glitz of Las Vegas. Parties galore. Drafted players hugging the commissioner with the Bellagio fountains dancing in the background. A cacophony of cheers and boos from a packed crowd.

Then came Covid-19. Now, aside from the dates (23-25 April), everything about the three-day spectacle has changed. It will instead take place in a virtual format with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s basement serving as the new stage.

How will the telecast work?

In a normal year, viewers in the US would have their choice of three different broadcasts, from ESPN, NFL Network and ABC (an option introduced last year and geared toward casual fans).

Given the new, post-lockdown landscape, NFL Network and ESPN decided to merge their resources into one unified broadcast from ESPN HQ in Bristol, Connecticut. A barren studio will be graced solely by Trey Wingo. Suzy Kolber will conduct player interviews (by video) while an array of reporters and analysts will participate from home. Talent from the two networks will be mixed and matched. This means that ESPN’s Mel Kiper and NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, typically competitors in the draft space, will likely appear on air together. “The idea is to use the people and their expertise regardless of which network we work for,” says NFL Network executive Mark Quenzel. “This is the best thing for NFL fans.”

ABC’s show will also be produced by ESPN. Last year it featured a litany of human interest stories, had an audience of 46% women and drew in a big audience.

Since media is deemed an essential business, there will be producers running both the ESPN and ABC telecasts from a control room in Bristol. But the number will be half of a typical crew and, as mandated by the state of Connecticut, they must maintain social distance and wear face coverings. Communicating in real time through a mask to an army of feeds projected to be somewhere between 170 and 180 will pose quite the challenge.

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