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James Fenn | The virtual NFL Draft offers three lessons for the future of post-Covid-19 sports events

James Fenn, content and publishing strategist in the sports and partnership marketing team at Hill and Knowlton Strategies, explains how the NFL made its virtual NFL draft an immediate success.

James Fenn

Even for a big NFL fan, the motivation to tune in to the NFL’s virtual draft included a healthy dose of morbid curiosity. Surely someone would forget to unmute themselves? Surely the wi-fi would drop out just as the commissioner was about to announce a key pick? Surely a draft that was transitioning from 600,000 fans on the streets of Nashville in 2019 to essentially one big Zoom call would be best-case tedious, and worse-case, total disaster?

Far from it. Instead the virtual NFL Draft was a success beyond even the NFL’s wildest dreams. In terms of ratings, the draft was the most-watched ever, drawing in a staggering 55 million viewers across the three-day event. The NFL Draft-a-thon fundraising event that ran in parallel on social media raised $6.6m (€6.1m).

Perhaps most important for the NFL, was the public reaction. Given the current sensitivities about staying at home due to Covid-19, the decision to go ahead with the event with even the limited contact required to deliver it virtually could easily have become a lightning rod for intense criticism.

But instead, fans were delighted to have something to consume. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, with fans and media members delighted to have sport back in some form and grateful towards the NFL for making it happen. These are just some of the examples:

My newsfeed was certainly glowing with praise for the NFL, but did that really reflect the whole conversation? The answer, based on research from H+K Strategies Data and Analytics team, was and emphatic ‘yes’.

This year’s draft received 25-per-cent more social conversation compared to the previous two years, and 68 per cent of the social conversation was positive, higher than either of the two previous drafts.

An illustration of how successful the event was is how normal it felt. Social conversation overwhelmingly featured commentary around the picks, rather than being distracted by the fact it was a virtual event.

Smooth transition should be a KPI example for the organisers who would have been nervous of a backlash ahead of the draft. Those that did speak about the transition to virtual draft were almost entirely positive about the situation. Over 400 people spoke in support of the transition versus just 20 against. And the messages of support were much stronger than those against, who mostly didn’t feel the same as with the live event.

It was a resounding success for the NFL. So how did they pull it off? And what does it tell us about the roadmap for a successful return for sport over the coming weeks and months?

1. Get the tone right

One of the biggest challenges for any sporting event, looking to return post-Covid-19 shutdown, is going to be the return. How to transition back to reality? How to reference the horrendous level of death and disruption we’ve seen? How to give back some sense of normality, but also, given lockdown rules will likely still be in place, encourage fans to continue to stay home? To reference the crisis, without making everything about the crisis.

Striking the right balance and tone was one of the NFL’s great challenges. A challenge they most certainly overcame.

The NFL struck exactly the right balance between addressing the Covid-19 pandemic, and also delivering a much-needed escape from it. The broadcast opened with a film, narrated by NFL legend Peyton Manning, titled ‘Hope’. In a very authentic and touching way, the film connected the hope we are all desperate for in this situation with the hope felt every year by fans at the draft. It could have felt like an overly forced exercise, but the quality and sincerity of the piece felt like it struck exactly the right tone.

Then NFL commissioner Roger Goodell invited scientist Dr Anthony Fauci, the face of the US Covid-19 response, on to the telecast to send a message to NFL fans. It was an incredibly smart way of placing the NFL on the side of the scientists, showing that hosting the NFL Draft during a lockdown wasn’t a UFC-esque act of defiance, but was supported by the scientific community. Borrowing Fauci’s credibility was a smart move that certainly helped address any question that hosting the event was irresponsible.

From that point on, while there were regular interludes to celebrate frontline healthcare workers and others fighting the coronavirus, the focus was clearly on the job at hand: The NFL Draft. The rest of the broadcast didn’t feel dominated by Covid-19, it felt like a celebration of sporting talent and a moment of hope for all NFL fans.

The focus was clearly on the players drafted and telling their stories to an audience that may know little-to-nothing about them. There was a concerted effort to profile the human interest stories of the players to broaden the appeal of the draft. ESPN has faced some criticism after the fact for going overboard with negative stories. This reflects the fact that while fans appreciate knowing more about the prospects, they don’t want their sporting events to become overly negative affairs.

That’s where the NFL, mostly, got it right. By addressing Covid-19 in the right way, with the right voices, but then focusing on the distraction fans truly needed, the NFL certainly created a model for how sports may begin to communicate in a post-Covid-19 world.

2. Trust the technology

This was collectively the NFL’s biggest fear going into the night. From coaches to general managers to broadcasters, everyone seemed to be most worried about the internet failing at an opportune moment.

The ‘practice draft’ all teams took part in earlier in the week didn’t do much to re-assure teams. It was, according to some reports, a bit of a disaster.

But when the virtual curtain lifted, everything went off without a hitch. The huge amount of time and money invested by the NFL to ensure their IT was on-point worked perfectly. So much so, that some speculated if the NFL leaked the reports of a disastrous practice to try and draw in audience for the real thing.

In retrospect, this was always going to work out. The NFL is a billion-dollar industry which was always going to throw huge resources at the issue – to the point where every team seemingly had a portable IT department camped out in their front garden. It certainly serves as a lesson to the other major leagues: Solutions are possible with modern technology, if you are willing to pay for them.

Such was the success, that coaches and general managers are already talking about how elements of the process can be repeated in future years. There is a real culture in the NFL, as in many sports, of celebrating coaches and executives who work all hours a day for the cause, who practically live in team facilities. Detroit Lions GM Bob Quinn is just one of the voices who has pointed to the improved work/life balance the draft offered – and suggested it may be something they look to repeat.

The NFL has shown that technology can support hosting events like this in remote locations, which potentially sets up big changes in the way sports operate, both in terms of big events and the day-to-day operation. Whether that holds post Covid-19, remains to be seen.

3. You don’t need big production for big viral impact

Every year, the NFL Draft is a tentpole moment for the league. The NFL and its teams invest a huge amount in original programming and content, to capitalise on fan interest and keep the focus on the sport year-round.

With much of the US under stay-at-home orders, creating the usual high-quality companion content that the show contains was always going to be tough. Would the draft be able to hold fan interest without it? Would it still be able to trigger viral fan conversation, when the world is dominated by Covid-19?

Well, luckily for the NFL, the internet remains undefeated. Even in the face of a global pandemic.

With a much more lo-fi approach to production, mostly characterised by Zoom calls and live cameras in homes, the draft still managed to produce a series of moments that got social media talking.

From players being over protective with their phonesto coaches showing off extravagant homesto dogs playing the part of coach towell whatever this was, there was huge entertainment to be found in just putting a camera in the homes of the drafts key protagonists.

This success definitely speaks to what has been one of the great trends of comms during the pandemic. High-production original content has been impossible to create, but fans are still enthusiastic to consume more raw, lo-fi content. As sport returns it is an important lesson for sports, brands and marketers alike.

In the midst of any significant global event, there is always a rush to say that ‘things have changed forever.’ Whether that will be the case for sport events like the NFL Draft remains to be seen. It may well be that in a few years it is back to a 600,000 fan live extravaganza just as it was last year. But if nothing else, the 2020 Virtual NFL Draft gave us a playbook for how the first stages of the return of sporting events could play out. Now it is for other sports and leagues around the world, to see if they can follow its success.

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