How Football Fans Became the ‘Centerpiece’ of the NFL’s Virtual Draft

This year, the National Football League was tasked with reinventing one of its tentpole events and replicating the energy of a live crowd.

The NFL worked with each of the clubs, such as the Cincinnati Bengals, to identify fans to include during the Thursday and Friday night broadcasts via video conference calls.
The NFL worked with each of the clubs, such as the Cincinnati Bengals, to identify fans to include during the Thursday and Friday night broadcasts via video conference calls.
Photo: Courtesy of the NFL

Last year, 600,000 football fans gathered on Lower Broadway in Nashville to show support for their teams during the NFL Draft. This year, they hunkered down on their couches to watch a virtual version of the three-day event. The 2020 draft, along with the sponsored activations and fan experience—all of which had been scheduled to take place in Las Vegas—was canceled because of the COVID-19 crisis.

“In mid-March, the global landscape continued to shift given the pandemic. It became clearer and clearer that having this massive fan gathering in Las Vegas wasn’t going to be feasible or safe or smart given the state of our country and the world,” explained Matt Shapiro, vice president of event strategy and integration for the NFL.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell broadcast from the basement of his home in West Chester, NY.NFL commissioner Roger Goodell broadcast from the basement of his home in West Chester, NY.Photo: Courtesy of the NFLSo draft organizers were forced to trade the flashy Vegas Strip for a more humble iteration, with prospects, coaches, general managers, analysts, and league commissioner Roger Goodell broadcasting from their homes over the course of a three-day period from April 23 to 25. Shapiro says that all of the 58 prospects received kits that included a phone, a microphone, and lights for their makeshift studios, plus all 32 club hats, one of which they donned after being selected. In total, more than 600 camera feeds from across the U.S. were used during the broadcast.

In addition to players, staff, and commentators, fans were also front and center during the broadcast, which was presented across ABC, ESPN, and the NFL Network. For the past few years during the live draft event, avid fans have been able to gather in designated team sections, known as the “inner circle,” located directly in front of the stage.

To recreate a similar energy within the broadcast, Shapiro said that the NFL worked with each of the clubs to identify fans to include via video conference calls during the Thursday and Friday night broadcasts. “Part of what makes the draft so special on site is the fans and their passion and their cheering—and in some cases, their booing. Being able to bring those fans in was hugely important for us,” he added. “Fans became the centerpiece of the broadcast.”

Shapiro noted that the rowdy crowd booing the commissioner is a hallmark of that event, and a tradition organizers wanted to keep alive even if it was digitally. At the start of the draft, Bud Light asked fans to post videos on social media of themselves booing Goodell using the hashtag #BooTheCommish.

The NFL designed a robust second-screen experience called 'Draft-A-Thon LIVE,' which was available through NFL digital properties as well as a number of digital platforms including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, TikTok, Reddit, TuneIn, Yahoo! Sports, and more than 100 news websites.The NFL designed a robust second-screen experience called "Draft-A-Thon LIVE," which was available through NFL digital properties as well as a number of digital platforms including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, TikTok, Reddit, TuneIn, Yahoo! Sports, and more than 100 news websites.Photo: Courtesy of YouTube/NFLTo complement the network broadcast of the draft, the NFL also designed a robust second-screen experience called "Draft-A-Thon LIVE." It was available through NFL digital properties as well as a number of digital platforms including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, TikTok, Reddit, TuneIn, Yahoo! Sports, and more than 100 news websites. Celebrities such as Kevin Hart, Blake Shelton, Jeff Daniels, DJ Khaled, Ninja, and Carli Lloyd joined dozens of current and former NFL players during this digital-only event.

Along with offering supplementary content for fans, the Draft-A-Thon also served as a fundraising campaign to support nonprofit organizations and their COVID-19 relief efforts. So far, the NFL has raised more than $100 million toward the effort. Bud Light also donated $1 for every virtual boo the brand collected, up to $500,000, to the Draft-A-Thon.

Shapiro explained that the NFL sought to maintain "the balance of energy, excitement, hopefulness, and positivity with acknowledging the seriousness of the state of the world right now.” Adding that, “we put a lot of focus on making sure we were appropriately thanking and honoring the healthcare workers and frontline workers while balancing the excitement about the NFL draft and the excitement that these players were feeling as they were being selected.”

In addition to raising money, the social media content was “potentially appealing to a different demographic given the number of celebrities and influencers,” Shapiro noted, whereas the network broadcasts were more football-focused. “Our goal was to provide something for everyone, whether it’s our avid fan who wanted to know about the specific statistics and performance of the draft pick, or someone who wanted to hear Kevin Hart and Blake Shelton and DJ Khaled talk about it.”

That strategy seemed to work: This year’s draft reached more than 55 million total viewers over the three-day event, up 16 percent compared to 2019, and an average of over 5.4 million daily viewers tuned into the Draft-A-Thon LIVE.

“I think interest in the NFL is at an all-time high. I think fans’ hunger for live sports content is also at an all-time high right now. And I think the uniqueness of the way that this year’s draft was constructed was the third factor,” Shapiro said about the record viewership.

Next year, the NFL draft is slated to take place in Cleveland, and it was recently announced that Las Vegas will host the 87th annual draft in 2022. While 2020 will most likely be the one and only virtual draft, there were elements from this year's experience that the league will try to integrate into live events going forward.

“I think one of the things that was really special this year was the intimacy that you don’t always see,” Shapiro said. “I think people responded well to seeing a general manager make a selection and in that moment of joy being able to hug his kids. I think that really struck a chord with people who were also stuck at home with their families. Seeing the power of families and being in their homes at this moment in time was really special, and we’ll do a lot of thinking about how that might translate into live events in the future.”

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