In a World Without Live Sports, Virtual NFL Draft Gets Brands Back in the Game

The league and its brand partners add a fundraising element

roger goodell at a podium
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will coordinate the 2020 draft from his basement.
Photo Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Source: Getty Images

Key insights:

Since March, sports (outside of baseball in Taiwan) have been canceled. The Covid-19 crisis has put nearly the entire global sports industry on hold, pulling the plug on leagues both amateur and professional—in some instances right before their seasons were set to kick off.

But that isn’t stopping the National Football League, now considered a year-round sport, from holding its annual draft. Instead of hosting it in sunny Sin City, the league’s 2020 recruitment event has shifted to the world wide web.

Although not literally a sporting event, the NFL Draft is as close as we’re getting for the foreseeable future, with winners, losers and fans unsure which category their teams will fall under unless they tune in.

Kicking off tonight, the draft will air on ESPN, ABC and the league’s own NFL Network through Saturday night, with each channel broadcasting all seven rounds. ABC will feature ESPN talent to focus on the human interest angles of the draft, while ESPN and the NFL Network will provide more of the athletic analysis diehard fans are accustomed to.

In a press release, Disney, which owns ESPN and ABC, said the networks had seen “unprecedented demand” from over 100 brands hoping to advertise during one of the first live American sporting events in over a month. Sixty of those brands are first-time advertisers with the draft.

Despite the demand, there was one casualty. Courtyard by Marriott, a longtime NFL partner of nearly a decade and a previous sponsor, was originally slated to be the draft’s presenting sponsor. But the hospitality brand, like all travel brands, has been decimated by virtually nonexistent travel demand, and has pulled out of the event. Marriott declined to comment.

Lowe’s Home Improvement, considered an essential business, will take its place.

Once a mere corporate business meeting, the NFL Draft has turned into a glitzy affair, with ESPN producing and airing the show since 1980. In 2017, the draft transitioned from its longtime home at Radio City Music Hall in New York to a touring production, with cities such as Philadelphia, Dallas and Nashville serving as the host.

Maybe the most jarring aspect of this year’s draft will be the missing fans. In 2019, more than 600,000 spectators took part in the league’s draft celebrations in Nashville over the course of its three days. Now, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will be broadcasting from his basement (don’t fret, Bud Light Seltzer is keeping the booing tradition alive).

“Something has to give going virtual,” said Laura Gentile, ESPN’s svp of marketing. “That’s just something in the sports world we’re going to have to get our head around because even when sports returns, it’ll return largely without fans.”

To bring some of their energy into the show, ESPN will be scouring social media for fan reactions on Twitter, TikTok and Instagram, sharing them on its own channels.

“There’s a ton of anticipation for this event given the landscape,” Gentile said. “We’re anticipating a great response and great engagement simply because our fans are looking for it. They’re looking for an escape; they’re basically starved for live content.”

Similar to Jerry Lewis and his famed telethons for muscular dystrophy, the league will also be hosting a “Draft-a-Thon” simultaneously during the draft to raise money for Covid-19 relief efforts, supporting charities including the American Red Cross, Feeding America and the CDC Foundation’s All of US: Combat Coronavirus Campaign.

The Draft-a-Thon will feature the NFL’s brand partners during a live auction for NFL memorabilia. It will be streamed on the league’s social channels and digital platforms, as well as woven into each network’s broadcast. So far, the league alone has donated $76 million.

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