In the 30 years that have passed since ESPN acquired the broadcast rights to the NFL Draft, the event has transformed from a weekend slog for NFL diehards into a primetime ratings monster. Thirty-two million people tuned in to last year’s telecast, a 28 percent increase from 2013 and more than the average number of people that tuned in to game seven of the 2014 World Series, game seven of the 2013 NBA Finals or the championship game of the 2015 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. It’s also a larger audience than the Grammys attracted this year, and not far off the 36 million people that watched this year’s Oscars.
But as American media consumption drifts more and more onto mobile devices, a big chunk of that audience is watching the draft unfold on other screens too. “The NFL Draft is now one of the biggest digital events there is,” said Jeff Gerttula, the senior vice president and general manager of CBS Sports Digital. “It's unlike anything in sports.”
It is so big, in fact, that numerous broadcasters have launched significant second screen coverage plans to piggyback on the popularity of the Draft, and on ESPN and NFL Network’s telecasts. By supplementing their coverage, rivals are, essentially, able to have the draft without broadcasting the draft.
“We want to make sure fans can follow the draft wherever they are,” Gerttula said.
During the first round, which airs in primetime Thursday, Fox Sports will be broadcasting live coverage using its top football talent, both on its TV everywhere app, Fox Sports Go and on Periscope. Through all three days of the draft, CBS Sports’s app is playing host to “Draft Grades Live,” a kind of instant reaction show featuring its top talent breaking down each team’s selection. 120 Sports, a Time Inc.-owned digital video network that launched last June, will have pre-draft coverage of the players’ fashion choices, interviews with recently drafted players published minutes after they’re conducted, and live coverage of fan reactions. Staff will spend all of today interviewing the draft’s top prospects.
“Pretty much all hands have been on deck this week,” 120 Sports executive producer Joe Riley said. “Today is probably the most hectic I've ever seen it.”
It is, essentially, wall-to-wall coverage of an event that none of the above broadcasters are allowed to film or report on directly. Only ESPN and the NFL Network are allowed to have cameras or recording devices inside the theater where the actual draft unfolds, and they are also the only ones who are allowed to break the news generated by each team’s moves.
According to NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, reporters who work for the league’s broadcast partners are prohibited from breaking news about picks or trades before they are officially announced. In other words, if CBS Sports’s Jason La Canfora gets word that the Eagles are in fact going to trade up to grab Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariotta, he has to keep it to himself until NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announces the trade from the podium.
“We look closely to make sure our network partners aren't infringing our rights,” McCarthy said.
But because the Draft moves at such a slow pace – teams have a full 15 minutes to make their selections or trade their picks in the first round – there is plenty of down time that rival networks are hoping fans will fill with their content. They have an opportunity – according to research published on eMarketer, more than 70 percent of adult Internet users check their mobile devices while watching television, though just nine percent actually interact with content that’s related to what they’re watching while it’s on; 16 percent do so during commercial breaks.
But that doesn’t mean broadcasters aren’t attracting huge interest from advertisers. “This is one of our major sponsorship products,” CBS’s Gerttula said. “It's an opportunity for a sponsor to be around for a one-of-a-kind event.” This year, CBS secured Volvo as presenting sponsor. 120 Sports’ Riley said sponsors will be integrated into their NFL Draft coverage, and that the company’s extensive NFL Draft coverage was a key selling point. “It’s part of the reason they came on,” he said.
For people who don’t quite understand the appeal of the NFL, the thought of watching a bunch of experts dissect college prospects might sound dreadfully dull. But for football fans, the draft is different. “For NFL fans, it's a time of hope,” Gerttula said. “Everybody's tied. Everybody has a chance to win the Super Bowl."