3 Lessons from the NFL’s First Virtual Draft

Author: Casey Gale       

digital events

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell accepts the boos of famous football fans during the virtual NFL Draft. Despite the 2020 draft going only online, the NFL stuck to some traditions, like the boos.

Last year, approximately 600,000 football fans lined the streets of Nashville during the three-day National Football League draft, held every April to announce NFL teams’ picks for new players. As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, the NFL — like many event organizers today — turned its highly attended in-person event into an entirely digital experience.

The first round of the draft was televised on April 23, alongside a Draft-a-Thon streamed on social media to help raise money for the COVID-19 relief efforts of the American Red Cross, the CDC Foundation, Feeding America, Meals on Wheels, the Salvation Army, and United Way. At the time of publishing, the Draft-a-Thon has raised nearly $4 million. Here are some takeaways from the NFL’s first attempt at a virtual draft that can help inform digital events being held during the coronavirus crisis.

  1. Remind attendees they’re not “stuck” at home; they’re “safe” at home. Instead of mourning the fact that the NFL draft could not be held in Las Vegas this year as originally planned, the night kicked off with a message of hope delivered by famed former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning (watch below). “This may look like separation, but it’s actually solidarity,” Manning said, adding that “there’s no better reason than that for hope. Hope is something we sports fans know all about.” The annual NFL draft is when hope is renewed for football fans, but this year, Manning said, the draft represented far more than the promise of a new star player — it’s the hope of a future filled with full arenas and the ability to celebrate football together.
    Before the first draft pick was announced, Anthony Fauci, M.D., National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) director and adviser to the president on domestic and global health issues, also appeared with a message of support and praise for the NFL’s efforts to protect the “life, safety, and health of the American public” by conducting a virtual draft. “I know it disturbs the normal pattern, but it really is for your good and the good of the country.”
  1. Transforming a F2F event into a digital experience doesn’t mean you need to part with tradition. In years past, NFL fans have been known for booing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell when he steps out on stage to announce draft picks. Though Goodell could have used the virtual draft as an excuse to avoid abuse, instead he played along as he allowed NFL fans to boo him this year over Zoom. There was a charitable element to the inside joke, too — for every fan that tweeted #BootheCommish, Bud Light donated $1 to the NFL’s Draft-a-Thon. The NFL also provided fans some familiarity by still kicking off the first day of the draft with a performance of the National Anthem. Harry Connick Jr., a New Orleans Saints fan, performed a rousing rendition from his home.
  1. We don’t need to just stick to the business at hand. The NFL took the three-and-a-half-hour period on air to honor first responders, health-care workers, and essential personnel throughout the program by showing video footage and images of doctors at work, neighborhoods applauding health-care workers, and individuals who are making the best of social distancing — including the joyful viral video of a nursing home that created a life-sized game of Hungry Hungry Hippos. The NFL also carved out time to hold a moment of silence to remember those whose lives have been lost during the pandemic.

Casey Gale is an associate editor at Convene.

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