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NFL Draft Returns for its Second Pandemic Edition but Could It Set Another Ratings Record?

It was a ratings bonanza last spring but will it perform an encore this spring?

The NFL Draft, the annual rite of passage where college football’s best turns pro, arrives again this week. For many years, the announcement of drafted players became a weekend-only event. But within the past decade, the NFL sought to show off its might as the nation’s dominant sport by moving its early rounds to prime time starting on Thursday nights. The shift has been a boon for the draft. turning it into “the” must-see event of the spring in between NCAA March Madness and the NBA Finals.

The spring months on the sports calendar are synonymous with the start of baseball’s regular season while the NBA and NHL both enter their postseason phases. However, the COVID-19 pandemic denied sports fans of those events in the spring of 2020. Six weeks in to last year’s lockdown, the NFL Draft remained determined to proceed how ever possible, and strove to hold the event as advertised. In exchange of the originally planned glitzy showcase that Las Vegas would have offered, the 2020 draft was an all-remote production. TV personalities, football teams’ personnel and prospective players were mostly at home but still conducting business as usual for the National Football League.

For the sports fan deprived of game action at the time, the 2020 NFL Draft resonated, providing a slight sense of normalcy for our nation. A record TV crowd of 15.6 million viewers tuned in on the networks of ABC, ESPN and NFL Network. This blew past the previous high watermark set two years prior which was at 11.4 million.

During those lockdown months, television viewing increased nearly ten percent above normal levels. Various long-running series like “Survivor” and “Mom” hit multi-year ratings highs, as a result. The NFL Draft, no doubt, also rode that positive wave.

Here we are, exactly one year later, and the TV landscape seems to have reverted back to its trend of erosion. Those in the young adult demographics were already fleeing linear television in droves and continue to do so for other sources of entertainment, particularly on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and the many other streamers. TV even more likely to be put on the back burner with an overwhelming sense of pandemic fatigue accelerated by an ever-increasing amount of citizens getting vaccinated, making them freer for outdoor activities as warmer weather becomes more prominent. One huge sign of this were the recent major award shows, all of them down by more than half of last year’s viewership. Events like the Oscars and the Grammys honored those from the past year; the NFL Draft recognizes those of what’s to come. While the draft is remembered as a symbol of the start of a player’s legendary career, it’s also notorious for the wildly incorrect missteps and takes made by teams and analysts alike. Like other sports leagues’ drafts, it usually takes a few years to know if any of these prospects were worthy of being selected.

How will the 2021 NFL Draft fare? It will kick off with much interest for the casual football fan. Once-national champion Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence will be the draft’s first overall pick, made by the Jacksonville Jaguars that just hired Urban Meyer, one of college football’s premier coaches of the past two decades. Two franchises from major markets are also likely to select quarterbacks — the New York Jets at No. 2 for BYU’s Zach Wilson and the San Francisco 49ers at No. 3 for Alabama’s Mac Jones. Justin Fields, the Ohio State quarterback who is also among college’s most notable players in recent years, is also expected to be taken in the first round; some mock drafts predict he’ll go to the New England Patriots.

The NFL, still the dominant ratings force on television, was not immune to having suffered year-to-year declines this season. Though not nearly as steep a drop compared to other sports, the Super Bowl drew its lowest audience in 14 years, despite two of its biggest current stars Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes competing. Could this downward trend extend to the upcoming NFL Draft? Or, is it possible there’s even more interest? I inquired with several professionals in the media industry to offer their ratings prognostications. The following are their takes — as for mine, the draft was the only live sports-related event of last April; this year, it’ll do well but will face some competition from the other sports. Enough to siphon some of last year’s record amount but still manage a potent and second-best ever 11.5 million viewers, which will effectively beat the much-less intriguing recent Oscars.

Jon Lewis, Sports Media Watch

Safe bet that NFL Draft viewership will decline. Last year’s circumstances will hopefully not be replicated any time soon. As of now, there are a combined 21 NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball games currently scheduled to air opposite Thursday night’s first round — more than last year’s zero. That alone should result in fewer viewers. With that said, viewership should still clock in higher than in 2019, when the first round aired opposite NBA and NHL playoff games. I’ll go with a combined 12.1 million.

Dave Bauder, Associated Press

14.4 million. It’s obviously becoming even more of an event, but last year’s numbers may have been inflated by the pandemic and lack of sports on the air.

Jason Jacobs, Northwest Iowa Campus Radio 103.9 (KUOO) deejay-sports announcer

The NFL is certainly still the top sports dog but last year’s draft saw a bump because people were locked down at home and there was nothing else on. A slight dip to 14.2 million for the first round coverage.

Scott Nolte, Northwest Iowa Y100.1 FM (KUYY) deejay-sports announcer

12.2 million viewers. It will not be as high as last year because we have sports going on this year compared to last year.  However, the numbers will be good because the NFL still draws a big crowd.

Bobby Goodsby, podcaster for Reality NSFW

Around 12-13 million viewers for the NFL Draft on Thursday. The NFL would be thrilled if those numbers actually came to fruition. The main reason last year that the draft brought in as high of ratings as it did was because of COVID. This year, the numbers will still be high but, with places opening back up, people finally have the freedom to leave their house and get away from the T.V. Despite this, the NFL still rules all, will top its competition on the other networks and will sit somewhere in the 12-13 million viewers area.

Mari Forth, co-host of the Wrestling RHAPup at Rob Has A Podcast

The NFL Draft will break last year’s record coming in around 16 million viewers. The pandemic helped boost ratings last year. With the combination of the pandemic’s continuation and the trades that have already been made this offseason, there is a lot more excitement going into this year’s draft. Excitement plus people still being stuck in the house should equal record breaking ratings.

Jay Posner, sports editor of San Diego Union-Tribune

13.8 million. Interest will be high, especially with the early QB intrigue, but unlike last year the NFL won’t have the sports night to itself so expect a bit of a drop.

Dan Serafin, News 12 The Bronx/Brooklyn sports anchor

Last year was the perfect atmosphere for people to sit and watch the draft. While we’ll see higher numbers than the 2017-2019 Drafts, we won’t see the number we saw last year… predicting 13 million viewers.

Maury Brown, Forbes

16.2 million. While we’re still in the pandemic, the NFL Draft will once again see fans and players in attendance. That while Trevor Lawerence will reportedly not be in attendance and instead opt to watch from Clemson, he adds some excitement to the mix.

Jimmy Traina, writer at Sports Illustrated and host of SI Media Podcast

13.9 million. There’s a lot of interest in this Draft because of intrigue at the top, but unlike last year, this Draft faces some competition. Other sports are going on and people are no longer stuck in their houses.

Andrew Marchand, New York Post sports media columnist

16.2 million. The draft reaches another stratosphere as a cultural event.

Richard Deitsch, sports media columnist at The Athletic and co-host of Prime Time Sports on Toronto’s Sportsnet 590 The Fan

I’ll go 13.4 million.

Evan Boyd, Stats by STATS researcher

The number of viewers in 2020 shocked me last year, but maybe it was because the pandemic started to hit and people needed things to watch. I think there will be less interest in it this year, but we still have some high caliber names that will be interesting to watch, especially at the quarterback level (Lawrence, Fields, etc.). I’ll say 12.5 million viewers will tune in.

Lou D’Ermilio, LOUD Communications, former Senior Vice President of Fox Sports media relations

Viewership for this year’s NFL Draft will be in the neighborhood of 10.5 million viewers. Last year, fans were deprived of live games by the pandemic, resulting is a bloated audience. No such deprivation exists this year, and this draft lacks the buzz of last year.

Patrick Crakes, Crakes Media Consulting, former Senior Vice President of Fox Sports Senior Vice President Programming in Research & Content Strategy

10.5 million. The NFL Draft has a unique profile (more entertainment program than sports event/program) which actually helps it reach a broad audience & while that figure is a step back from the past couple years it’s on the low end of trend.