How ESPN and NFL Network Teamed Up to Remotely Broadcast the NFL Draft

Having two distinct broadcasts “just didn’t make any sense,” Mark Quenzel, NFL Media vice president of production, says

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

While the coronavirus pandemic has benched every other sport, the NFL is moving ahead as if it’s business as usual. But nothing about the 2020 NFL Draft, which kicks off Thursday night, will be normal. The league was supposed to convene in Las Vegas this week to formally welcome Sin City into the exclusive club of NFL homes, with the Raiders’ move to the desert from the East Bay. Instead, commissioner Roger Goodell will announce the Cincinnati Bengals’ top overall pick from the socially-distanced comfort of his own basement. After years of separately producing their own telecasts, NFL Network and ESPN will team up for this year’s unprecedented and unusual event, one that will rely on call centers handling some 180 different remote feeds coming in from around the country. “This is the most complicated event I personally have been involved in,” ESPN’s vice president of production Seth Markman said last week during a conference call with reporters. The three-day broadcast — ABC will still produce its own separate show, as it did last year — will incorporate 58 different prospects, including the consensus top pick Joe Burrow, joining over WiFi signals, along with team officials, fans and even some first responders and medical professionals. The sheer amount of remote feeds is too much for one studio to handle, forcing the producers to run them through video call centers, which will send them in smaller batches to ESPN’s Bristol, Conn. campus. “The number of assets that you have and number of sources that you have is just mind-boggling,” Mark Quenzel, NFL Media vice president of production, added. “We’re trying to make sure that we streamline that into ESPN and into Bristol, so it becomes more manageable.” For the ESPN and NFL Network simulcast, Trey Wingo will host solo from ESPN’s headquarters, with both ESPN and NFL Network analysts working remotely on the same broadcast. ABC will have a three-person studio but will maintain social distancing guidelines. Rich Eisen, who normally would host the telecast for NFL Network, will instead host a telethon to raise money for six different charities, which will be weaved into the broadcast. “The NFL came up with the idea of creating a digital and social-driven broadcast that was charity-centric, and I was all in,” Eisen told TheWrap. “I’m just going to be sitting on one end of my desk of my home office talking to a laptop. Talking to whoever gets put into that ‘Zoom Room.’” Eisen is co-hosting with Deion Sanders, with Kevin Hart also joining. Even Eisen has no idea how the whole thing will go. “I don’t know. It’s never been attempted before. There’s no track record,” he said. “I’m not going to wear a suit and tie. My kids might barge in.” Quenzel said early on they decided to work with ESPN on one telecast, given the unique setup. “The lift here technically and operationally from a production standpoint is extraordinary. Not just in terms of the overall [effort], but in terms of doing so many things that we haven’t done before,” he explained. “To sit here and say, well, so that we can have two distinct broadcasts we’re going to do all of that twice. It just didn’t make any sense.”
The NFL Draft will not look at all like this in 2020 (Getty Images)
Despite the lack of live sports, ESPN has been putting out its daily studio shows like “SportsCenter” and “Get Up” since the shutdowns began more than a month ago. That time has allowed the network to get to somewhat of a “new normal” working environment. “We’ve gotten some amazing things in place already that have made it really safe,” Markman said. He explained that they’re splitting up their typical broadcast control room into two separate rooms, so that what would normally be one room of about 20 different people will have no more than seven. And everyone behind-the-scenes will have to wear a face mask, which only adds to the challenge of trying to communicate in what are already hectic conditions. “It’s not ideal, but we do believe it’s the safest environment in this broadcast,” he said. “And the Governor of Connecticut told us that we need to do it that way.” The NFL Draft has become a three-night block party that has moved from city to city in the last few years, taking over downtown Nashville and bringing in more than 600,000 people. This year, the league was banking on the glitz and glamour that Las Vegas is known for by having Goodell announce picks from in front of the Fountains of the Bellagio Hotel. But now, the draft telecast will be stripped down to the bone with decidedly less pomp and circumstance to better reflect the current mood of a country being ravaged by a deadly disease. “I think people understand it, and they’re appreciative that we’re trying to do our best to create some normalcy, even though we can’t,” he said. “I think we’re going to be fine, but until we actually see it on the air we can’t be 100% sure.” Markman is hopeful that some of the adjustments that ESPN had to make with the pandemic forcing so many of their employees to work from home will linger once the global health crisis is in the past. For starters, their reporters and commentators know their way around operating cameras. “In the future when there’s major breaking news, we used to rely on a lot of phone calls in, and now we’ve had everybody’s homes outfitted in such that it will allow us to get many more faces and voices on TV instantly,” he said. “That’s just kinda one of the good things that I hope will come from this.” As the ratings for “The Last Dance” proved, sports fans are starved for content, with the two-hour debut of the Michael Jordan-led docuseries shattering the previous record for an ESPN documentary. The NFL Draft has broken its own ratings record each of the last two years, and last Friday’s WNBA draft on ESPN had its best performance in 16 years. At least at the beginning, the intrigue around such an unprecedented and unusual event should attract some people who are growing sick of sifting through Netflix every night. “It’s going to be a draft like we’ve never seen before,” says Eisen. “One that we will never forget, but hopefully never repeat.”