5 Ways the NFL Conquered Their First Ever Virtual Draft

With sports globally being put on a temporary pause, sports fans are inevitably looking for anything and everything to peak some of that inherent suspense and unpredictability we’re all missing through those live games that are no longer. The NFL Draft was the closest thing we’re going to get to live sports for a while and because of it, sports fans everywhere were counting down the minutes to the big event. 

For the first time in history, April 23 marked the first-ever virtual NFL Draft and what an interesting event it was to take in. I think it would be absolutely foolish for us to think the virtual draft would ever come close to the entertainment value and emotional rush we experience when the draft is within a centralized glitzed up venue, packed with live fans, all-star players, coaching staff and our beloved Roger Goodell. 

I would be lying if I didn’t say that I found it slightly (if not very) boring and awkward (cue Goodell talking/cheering to the fans who clearly could not hear him!). But at a time where our world seems so out of whack,  let’s embrace it for what it gave us… a slice of normalcy and a glimpse of light at the end of this crazy dark tunnel we are experiencing. 

In the end, it accomplished exactly what it set out to. Was the end result the same? Yes. Were the top draft picks still able to celebrate their moment? Yes. Were fans able to feel connected to the event? Yes. The NFL embraced the new norm and made the absolute best of it by wiring in over 600 live feeds, delivering home broadcast kits and launching instrumental technology to ensure the draft was a success for everyone (including fans) involved in it. 

In this article, I am going to look at 5 ways the NFL won in this year’s first-ever virtual NFL Draft and how technology helped them get there. Can you imagine what this would have looked like 5 years ago? Crazy right. 

Ok let’s dive in! 

1. Bringing the Event to Life

That special part of attending a live event is all the extra goodies you get to experience while there. Not to mention the emotional highs and lows you feel through 50,000+ fans cheers.  It’s why we pay top dollar for that in-venue experience.

The NFL draft this year embraced some amazing in-game features and brought them to fans all across the globe through live feeds. The night kicked off with a live intro from the Commissioner himself Roger Goodell, who led us into a moment of silence for all those lost due to COVID-19. Harry Connick Jr. sang us the national anthem live from his home, and within the program fighter jets flew over us and fans were able to join in on the fun through a live feed featuring 300 fans from all over. The NFL could have easily shed a significant chunk of costs by not doing a lot of this, but they didn’t and I give them major kudos for this. It may not be the same real-life experience, but it surely is better than nothing.

Lesson Learned: Embrace what you can and make the most of it – it may not be ideal, it may not be how it was supposed to be and it may not be perfect. But the effort to make it happen will always make an impact!

2. Draft Picks Through Microsoft Teams

With no live draft picks, what would be the point of a live draft?  The NFL was tasked to figure out how they would create that ‘war room’ feel with social distancing guidelines in effect. With Microsoft Team’s, they were able to create a virtual ‘war room’ with each team and curate a detailed process for all team’s to follow which went a little something like this. 

  • Each team’s designated drafter was connected to the league’s official Microsoft Teams private and encrypted draft channel. 
  • All picks were to be made through that channel through Microsoft Teams.
  • If something went wrong with Microsoft Teams, two alternative options existed: 
    • Plan B: a GM can call NFL’s vice president of player personnel by landline or cell to place their pick. 
    • A conference call for the length of the draft with club officials muted and if needed, could be unmuted and selected through there. 

It’s pretty cool to see what can be done through the use of some of these incredible technology platforms out there. I am sure it was weird and slightly anti-climatic, but it worked! With live streams on all ‘war rooms’, fans were able to see in real-time what was going on in each of the coaching staff’s living room(s) and see the draft come to virtual-life.

Lesson Learned: Technology is great… learn how to use it!

3. Embracing Reality

What I loved most about the draft look and feel was that each player, coach, GM etc. embraced the look and feel of their home! There were no media banners of any sort, no forced NFL decor, no suits or tuxes, no dramatic lighting effects. Instead…it was real and it was them! Think about it… 60 top draft picks, over 60 NFL coaching staff and many others let us into their home for the night. They let us into their private space to help us (the fans) feel connected and part of their moment. Millions of sports fans were provided with the opportunity to go behind the scenes with hundreds of players, coaches and team staff to in a way, get to know them a little better. How cool is it that hundreds of strangers just let millions of us into their homes? Pretty cool if you ask me. This was, without doubt, a sign of the collective group effort behind making this virtual draft a success.  Well done on the overall creative direction from the NFL, and thank you to each player and member of the collective coaching/scouting staff to fully embrace this mission.

Lesson Learned: Sometimes keeping this real and simple is best. Trying to make it something it is not, just comes across as inauthentic and people will notice.

4. At-Home Kit Deliveries:

As we know, you can only control what you can control. And let’s be honest, for any broadcaster or production guru out there, they have an absolute need and desire to at the very least control the level of lighting that helps maintain a good broadcast coverage. In order to help alleviate concerns of what could have been a broadcast nightmare, they took it upon themselves and delivered more than 100 At-Home kits for the coaching staff and top draft picks that included: professional lighting, HD-quality camera devices, and software that allowed them to remotely and securely stream live into the main event. These kits allowed for each participant to have an always live wide and narrow shot to be able to pull into live-broadcast whenever seen fit.  “The combination will allow ESPN/NFL network and ABC telecast production teams to have live look-ins, real-time reactions, and individual interviews from personnel and prospects”

Lesson Learned: Control what you can control, and then let the rest go. Time, energy and money need to be allocated into areas of the highest importance. The live shot of the draft pick with the player and his family is imperative to the draft as a whole and providing what was needed to get that shot in high quality was a key piece to this overwhelming puzzle for the NFL.

5. A New Spin on Broadcast:

Broadcast operations – “This year’s Draft is a totally unique event,” explained Vice President of Engineering and Media Distribution, DTCI Technology, David Johnson. “The ESPN Production Operations teams are going to be stitching together the story of this Draft in a way they never have. To be able to do that, Technology has to deliver the different subjects in that story – the video of prospects, coaches, the Commissioner, talent and team personnel – live from over 150 different locations nationwide.” In addition to that, you have the 4 remote production rooms that are staffed to actively review, monitor and select appropriate feeds to go into the live broadcast in real-time. Wild right? I am sure many of us are guilty of saying “how hard could it be?!” Well, in short, I would say this was much harder than hard. But the broadcast team tackled it head-on and ended up putting on a live broadcast pulling over 150 remote video feeds to create their masterpiece.

Lesson Learned: Change in anything we do is daunting, especially within the work of technology. But isn’t it funny that when we classify change as a need instead of a nice to have or a desire, we always seem to get it done? Let’s try having that perspective on more things (especially with new technology) and see what we can accomplish!

To Sum It Up:

All in all, not so bad was it? Last night, for the first time in over a month, things felt slightly back to normal. This year’s NFL Draft was definitely different, far less entertaining and yes, slightly odd. But wasn’t it nice to feel slightly back to normal for a few hours? 

A big ‘thank you’ to the NFL for what they were able to accomplish in a short period of time and with almost all new measures. It shows agility and ingenuity at its finest and us fans will forever be grateful! 

To wrap it up, we can walk away with a few key takeaways: make the most of what you can and don’t get too hung up on how it used to be, keep it real and keep it simple, spend time, energy and money on areas that matter most, technology is great – learn how to use it, and finally, shift perspective on what it means to embrace change. 

So with all of that in mind, why don’t you see what Brizi is all about HERE! 

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