What to Make of the NFL’s Experiment with Putting the Draft on Broadcast

The NFL Draft this past weekend aired on broadcast television for the first time ever. The first two nights of the draft saw NFL Network’s coverage simulcast on Fox, which will be NFLN’s Thursday Night Football partner next season. ESPN, which had long resisted the league’s calls to put its draft coverage on ABC, acquiesced to simulcasting its coverage of the third day on ABC.

For the league, the hope was that this would just be the beginning. The league made noise about the draft potentially being treated as an event on par with the presidential election, with coverage on every network, earning widespread mockery and being held up as more evidence of the league’s hubris. Even at its most popular, the draft has but a fraction of the popularity of election coverage, or even of most regular season games. Simulcasting the Super Bowl across several networks might theoretically make sense, though that would potentially cause it to lose its status as the premier advertising showcase if several different networks were running their own ads, as well as diluting its status as the biggest lead-in of the season. But most networks bail out of putting on anything people might actually want to watch against the Super Bowl; no one ran scared from the NFL Draft, except possibly Fox itself. Besides, splitting the draft across every network is a terrible idea in its own right. The league is highly concerned about tipping picks and pressures reporters not to do so on social media, but the best way to minimize the impact of tipping picks is minimizing the time between when the pick comes in and when it’s announced. That’s already a challenge with two draft productions that need to synchronize their ad breaks and need to have each of their reporters interview draft picks after they come out of the green room. Can you imagine how bad it could be with four or five?

The result of this year’s experiment might give the league pause about its “presidential election” ambitions. The league boasted the most-watched draft ever, but that was mostly attributable to the move to broadcast, and given that the boost in ratings was fairly modest (especially given how top-heavy the first round was with quarterbacks from name schools and the presence of both New York teams picking in the top three). Fox failed to win the night either on Thursday or Friday, which makes any “presidential election” talk seem downright ludicrous, at least for now. Given that, what’s the best path for how the league should handle the draft going forward? The way I see it, there are three broad options, which can be arranged on a scale:

  • The “presidential election” approach with every network broadcasting the draft.
  • Something like the status quo, with ESPN, NFLN, and a broadcast network showing the draft, with the latter either simulcasting an existing feed or providing its own production.
  • Giving the draft exclusively to a single network, like how ESPN handled the draft on its own before NFLN started muscling in.

Let’s look at the ratings for each day of the draft and see what it tells us about what the best approach is for the league going forward.

Day 1: For the night, Fox’s coverage of the NFL Draft drew a 1.1 rating in the lucrative adults 18-49 demo, good for second place for the night behind CBS and barely edging out ABC. If you’re Fox and the league, you point to the fact that, despite one’s expectation that numbers would erode as the night wore on and you got away from the early, star picks, numbers not only remained mostly steady throughout the night but actually rose as the night went on, from a 1.1 at 8 PM to a 1.3 at 10 PM before crashing back down to a 1.0 at 10:30, suggesting more people discovered the draft was on broadcast at all as the night wore on and the numbers earlier on would be higher in future years. Certainly that’s what you say if you want to convince ABC to give up its Thursday night for the draft, including Grey’s Anatomy, which earned a 1.5 in the demo at 8 PM. But it’s hard to imagine CBS giving up its Thursday night, including the wildly popular Big Bang Theory (2.0 in the demo), for the draft without exclusivity. CBS was willing to move BBT to Mondays during Thursday Night Football season, but that was an actual game taking up multiple weeks; pre-empting BBT a single week for something drawing noticeably lower ratings is a nonstarter. If you gave CBS a captive audience for the draft, and the entire 4.04 demo rating the draft drew on all three networks (and possibly also the .04 ESPN2’s college-centric coverage drew), it might be a different story.

The previous week, Fox’s lineup of Gotham and Showtime at the Apollo drew .6 demo ratings, last place among the Big Four, so Fox would seem to be on board with doing it again next year under the status quo.

Day 2: Fridays typically draw a smaller audience than Thursdays, so the inevitable decline in ratings for the second night of the draft wouldn’t necessarily kick it off a broadcast network. Unfortunately, Fox’s .6 demo rating tied it with NBC for second behind CBS, and NBC was propelled by Dateline‘s .7 from 9 to 11 more than Blindspot‘s .5 at 8. NBC would be crazy to air the third round of the draft instead of that, at least not without exclusivity. All three of CBS’ shows outpaced the draft at the same time – MacGyver at 8 only drew a .7, but Fox drew consistent .6’s all night until 10:30 when it slipped to a .5. Even Fox itself might not be happy with these numbers; the previous week, MasterChef Junior actually won the night with a .8. It might make sense for Fox’s proposed refocusing of its network towards sports and news programming once its deal with Disney to sell its studio goes through, but who knows if that would actually herald the departure of a reality show like MasterChef. (It’s worth noting that the numbers are more forgiving in 18-34, where a .4 rating tied for the highest-rated show of the night.)

ABC would seem to be the only network willing to give up its Friday primetime for coverage of the second night of the draft, which raises an interesting prospect. Suppose ESPN tells the NFL it’s willing to put its entire draft coverage on ABC if the league doesn’t simulcast NFLN’s coverage on another network again, or in general gives another broadcast network an in. That could mean putting ESPN’s coverage of the second night of the draft on ABC… and only ABC, leaving ESPN to cover the NBA Playoffs and allowing a third or fourth playoff game that night to air on ESPN2 without getting bumped to ESPNEWS. Of course that’s likely to give ABC marks significantly higher than .6, and the temptation on ABC’s side would be to do the same thing with the first night and make it easier to swallow pre-empting Grey’s Anatomy. By my reckoning, coverage of the second night on ESPN and ESPN2 averaged a .59 for the night, though it’s doubtful all of that would devolve to ABC if NFL Network still had its own coverage, especially with an NBA Playoff game on ESPN2 drawing higher numbers than on ESPNEWS. It does show that giving exclusivity would again be enough to convince any network to show the second night; a 1.2 would be the highest-rated show of the night by a significant margin even before adding NFLN’s .39.

Day 3: The third day of the draft appeals mostly to hardcore NFL nerds who are actually willing to do a deep dive into the remaining players and who’s likely to actually make an impact in the league. It doesn’t have the sort of broad popularity the earlier days do; while ESPN and NFL Network have gotten better at treating the fourth round close to on par with the third, NFLN especially tends to devolve into regurgitating the earlier rounds, presenting offbeat and human-interest stories, engaging in frivolous games with the personalities on set, and generally just killing time until Mr. Irrelevant. ESPN is better, but honestly the best coverage of the third day for those who actually care about who’s still getting drafted might be the live stream NFL Now does on NFL.com; it covers the later rounds almost to a fault, delaying and re-airing the pick announcements if they come during a break rather than simply getting caught up like ESPN would.

There’s a case to be made for airing the first three hours on a broadcast network to take care of the fourth round, but while ABC didn’t have anything else to do the rest of the day and could show the entire final day, CBS or NBC would need to air golf coverage starting at 3 PM ET, and Fox might want to show NASCAR racing as they did this weekend. On this occasion there were actually conflicts earlier, as NBC was showing a Premier League game and Fox was showing Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series qualifying from Talladega.

On this front the verdicts are not good. For the entire day, ABC drew 1.008 million total viewers and just 314,000 demo viewers, less than what ESPN drew for its half of the simulcast. The good news is those numbers are still better across the board than the early competition, except total viewers for the NASCAR qualifying. It’s not as friendly to the later competition, where it lost in both measures to the Xfinity Series race on Fox and the Stanley Cup Playoffs on NBC, and in total viewers to golf on CBS.

Combined, coverage of the third day on all three networks drew 2.914 million total viewers and 1.197 million demo viewers. That would make it the second-most-watched non-NBA sports-related event of the weekend behind the actual NASCAR race on Sunday, and only the NBA would top it in the demo. That doesn’t necessarily mean the other networks would fall over themselves to air the whole day with exclusivity, but it might if the networks could get around existing contractual commitments. Of the late afternoon sporting events, the NHL game did best in the demo with 644,000 viewers, just over half of the draft’s audience, while the Xfinity Series race did best in total viewers with 1.899 million. That suggests the decline as the third day wears on would have to be pretty precipitous for bailing out of exclusive coverage to be the best approach from a pure ratings standpoint, at least in the demo. But it’s hard to see the other networks taking that bargain without using it as a lead-in for an actual sporting event.

Where does the NFL go from here? The notion of treating the draft like the presidential election is probably dead for the foreseeable future, with CBS in particular laughing the prospect out of the room. If the draft ever does become popular enough for all four networks to drop out of their Thursday primetime lineups to simulcast just the first day, it’ll probably be more because of the decline of scripted programming on broadcast than the increased popularity of the draft itself.

The NFL and Fox would probably want to perform the same experiment again next year to establish how popular the draft could be on broadcast if more people are used to it, but depending on where Fox is a year or two from now, they would probably be fine if ESPN and ABC decided to go ahead and put their entire draft broadcast on their broadcast network, with the league preferring the simplicity of not switching networks mid-draft and Fox preferring higher-rated programming on Friday nights. ESPN would lose most if not all of the benefit the draft would provide to its subscriber fees, but those benefits have been neutered anyway with NFLN carrying the draft and now showing it on broadcast without them. But given how much this draft had going for it from a ratings standpoint, I could see them wanting to see at least another year’s worth of numbers before deciding to pre-empt Grey’s for the draft.

The real question comes when the current rights agreements come up for renewal in a few years, when the league will have to consider how best to maximize the popularity of the draft. Ideally, that would involve simulcasting it on as many networks as possible, which would mean maintaining some variant of the status quo. But the days when the league could give the draft to an upstart cable outlet that doesn’t air games because they don’t see how it would make good television are over, so if ESPN decides not to re-up for Monday Night Football, I could see the league taking away the ESPN and NFLN broadcasts of the draft and offering to rotate exclusive draft rights between the three remaining broadcast partners, perhaps going to the network that’s between Super Bowls, so this past draft would still go to Fox since the last Super Bowl was on NBC and the next one will be on CBS, but then next year’s draft would be on NBC, and the one after that would go to CBS. At minimum, the network that gets the draft would have to air the first two nights, but the league could be open to at least allowing the network to show only the first three hours of the third day, with the rest airing on NFL Network (as long as all three networks do the same thing). CBS would take the most convincing to dump BBT (if it’s still on) for its own production, trotting out Jim Nantz, James Brown, Tony Romo, Bill Cowher, Gary Danielson, Tracy Wolfson, and whoever they got to be their equivalent of Mel Kiper Jr., all for something that would get barely double the demo ratings, and the league could just end up handing every draft to Fox or NBC, but given where the state of television is likely to be in a few years it still shouldn’t take much. If the league is honest with itself, that’s a far more honest assessment of the future of the NFL Draft than its ludicrous “presidential election” dreams.

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