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The NFL Draft in Our Current State of the World: How Many Viewers Will It Draw?

Several media professionals provide their takes on the interest level of this year’s event amidst the global pandemic

March 11th, 2020.

It was the date when the entire sports landscape in the United States first took official drastic action due to the COVID-19 pandemic. An NBA player — later to be revealed as star Jazz center Rudy Gobert — was discovered to having the virus just minutes before tip-off of a Utah Jazz-Oklahoma City Thunder game. That game would be swiftly canceled and soon after, so too would the rest of the NBA season. In the days thereafter, the other leagues also suspended action; there’d be no more spring training games in baseball, no NHL hockey and no March Madness for college basketball. Sports, as we knew it, grinded to an abrupt halt.

On the nights and weekends that TV used to offer various sporting events have since resorted to airing classic games of months or years past, video game simulations and documentaries about sports personalities.

Six weeks in, though, there is one major event on the sports calendar that will still go on as scheduled: the NFL Draft. This year, the original glitzy plans that the city of Las Vegas had in store will now be replaced by all happenings occurring at remote locations including from the many living rooms of the participants involved.

The primarily at-home look and feel to the draft will surely be unique to the league but not unprecedented to viewers over the past month: local news and talk shows have produced editions from the hosts’ and guests’ homes, and recent music specials featuring superstar talent have garnered large audiences. The WNBA Draft on Apr. 17, considered as a sort-of tune-up for the NFL’s version, went smoothly. It became the league’s second most-watched draft in its history — a 16-year high in total viewers (387,000 on ESPN).

Like last year, the draft — starting Thursday, Apr. 23 at 8 p.m. ET — will air across three networks: ABC, ESPN and NFL Network. The two cable outlets will provide a joint production so expect each network’s analysts and personalities to appear on both channels.

As for the prospects of the draft itself, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow (fresh off a national championship) is slated for the Cincinnati Bengals who have this year’s No. 1 selection. Highly regarded defensive end Chase Young from Ohio State is expected to be picked second to the Washington Redskins. Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa, a former contender to be the top draft pick until a hip injury sidelined him last fall, may also possibly be selected high, either by the No. 5 Miami Dolphins or No. 6 Los Angeles Chargers. And, it could be a make-or-break draft for the oft-maligned New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman who’s got the No. 4 pick in the first round.

Sports fans are hankering for anything new right now. They turned out in droves to ESPN on Apr. 19 for “The Last Dance” documentary, the look into the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls season. At a two-episode average of 6.1 million viewers, it far surpassed the network’s previous record holder for a documentary’s viewership (You Don’t Know Bo drew 3.6 million in Dec. 8, 2012).

Anchor – football predictionsThe novelty aspect to this particular NFL Draft (including the eerie curiosity — at least for me! — of what NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s basement looks like) coupled by a return, of sorts, to some normalcy for the football fan — in this country, there are a whole lot of them; moreso than for the NBA — aims to be the most-watched draft in the league’s history. All it’ll take is besting the 12.4 million viewers from 2014 (the famous Johnny Manziel-to-the-Browns night). My prediction for Round One on Thursday night: 13 million.

Will ratings success be on the horizon for the NFL Draft? Or, will the limitations of the live setup make for a less engaging product? I inquired with many professionals in the media industry to provide their ratings prognostications for the upcoming draft’s first round. To compare or contrast with my predictions, here are their takes:

Jon Lewis, Sports Media Watch

I’ll go with 10.7 million across ESPN/ABC/NFLN. While the draft will benefit from the lack of other sports competition, I’m not sure what the appetite for such a lo-fi version will be — and I think the broader circumstances have probably sapped interest in the event among at least some viewers.

Andrew Marchand, New York Post sports media columnist

12.9 million. I think the numbers and interest will be great, but there are still a finite of people who are into the topic.

Eric Deggans, TV critic for NPR

12-13 million viewers; because sports fans are starved for new programming that isn’t documentaries about games already played.

Rich Greenfield, Media and Technology Analyst at LightShed Partners

At least 15 million – we are craving any form of sports right now and while this will be a very different draft done remotely, sports fan have nothing else to watch so look for a BIG number that breaks records. 

Neil Best, Newsday sports columnist

15.2 million. Not only is watching the NFL Draft better than doing a jigsaw puzzle, you can easily do both at the same time!

David Barron, Houston Chronicle sports media columnist

I’ll guess 11.2 million. There doesn’t seem to be much potential drama, but it’s the only event on the schedule.

Maury Brown, Forbes

10.6 million. Might seem odd that in a time where there’s a thirst for anything live sports related that ratings will go down, but I’m saying as much for this year’s Draft. Why? It’s being done virtually and will lack the sizzle that it would normally have.

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

I expect a 20 percent increase, which translates to about 13.3 million viewers for this year’s NFL Draft. Sports fans are desperate for something, anything fresh, and it will be promoted heavily all week via talk radio and talk TV.

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

I’ll take 12.3 million. TV usage is up and that combined with what’s obviously a deep desire for a live sports event that actual matters will work together to offset current over consumption of live news and entertainment programming just enough to post growth over last year.

Austin Karp, Sports Business Journal Managing Editor/Digital

14.3 million viewers. The virtual aspect of this Draft doesn’t concern me. It will be weird to not hear fans boo Roger Goodell throughout the first round, but this is among the first legitimate pieces of big live sports content since the shutdown began. If the numbers for the premiere of “The Last Dance” showed us anything, it’s that fans are starved for fresh content. The NFL Draft delivers that and more.

Dan Serafin, News 12 The Bronx/Brooklyn sports anchor

Combined, I see this breaking viewership records. As we saw from Friday’s WNBA Draft numbers, people need any sports programming right now. 15 million amongst the 3 networks seems to me to be a safe estimate. Although ABC is obviously the most accessible, I think ESPN will lead the way in viewers.

Evan Boyd, Stats by STATS researcher

Because of the current situation in the country, the NFL Draft will either have a dramatic drop in view due to it being a remote draft and there is nothing going on, or it could get even more viewership because people are dying for sports coverage. My guess is the former – there will be about 8 million viewers.

Scott Nolte, KUYY deejay/sports announcer

12.1 million. Sports enthusiasts are looking for any kind of sports right now and I feel they will be watching on Thursday to get any kind of sports they can.

Jason Jacobs, KUOO deejay/sports announcer

I think given people are quarantined and that they are desperate for anything sports, you will see a serious increase in the ratings for this year’s NFL draft. I would be surprised if it doesn’t hit 15 million viewers across the different platforms. I also think people will be interested to see how the virtual draft will work.

Bobby Goodsby, sports podcaster of “Clupp and the Goods” / “Big Brother” live feed updater for Rob Has A Podcast

It’s going to be more viewers this year because of the fact that most people are stuck at home right now due to the Coronavirus but I’m actually not quite sure. Mainly because there hasn’t been a ton of lead up to this point about the draft due to everything going on in today’s world. That being said I think boredom and being stuck at home will take precedence and we will see around 12 million viewers. However, I understand it could totally go the opposite way as well.