In a World Without Live Sports, Virtual NFL Draft Gets Brands Back in the Game

The league and its brand partners add a fundraising element

roger goodell at a podium
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will coordinate the 2020 draft from his basement. Photo Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Source: Getty Images

Key insights:

Since March, sports (outside of baseball in Taiwan) have been canceled. The Covid-19 crisis has put nearly the entire global sports industry on hold, pulling the plug on leagues both amateur and professional—in some instances right before their seasons were set to kick off.

But that isn’t stopping the National Football League, now considered a year-round sport, from holding its annual draft. Instead of hosting it in sunny Sin City, the league’s 2020 recruitment event has shifted to the world wide web.

Although not literally a sporting event, the NFL Draft is as close as we’re getting for the foreseeable future, with winners, losers and fans unsure which category their teams will fall under unless they tune in.

Kicking off tonight, the draft will air on ESPN, ABC and the league’s own NFL Network through Saturday night, with each channel broadcasting all seven rounds. ABC will feature ESPN talent to focus on the human interest angles of the draft, while ESPN and the NFL Network will provide more of the athletic analysis diehard fans are accustomed to.

In a press release, Disney, which owns ESPN and ABC, said the networks had seen “unprecedented demand” from over 100 brands hoping to advertise during one of the first live American sporting events in over a month. Sixty of those brands are first-time advertisers with the draft.

Despite the demand, there was one casualty. Courtyard by Marriott, a longtime NFL partner of nearly a decade and a previous sponsor, was originally slated to be the draft’s presenting sponsor. But the hospitality brand, like all travel brands, has been decimated by virtually nonexistent travel demand, and has pulled out of the event. Marriott declined to comment.

Lowe’s Home Improvement, considered an essential business, will take its place.

Once a mere corporate business meeting, the NFL Draft has turned into a glitzy affair, with ESPN producing and airing the show since 1980. In 2017, the draft transitioned from its longtime home at Radio City Music Hall in New York to a touring production, with cities such as Philadelphia, Dallas and Nashville serving as the host.

Maybe the most jarring aspect of this year’s draft will be the missing fans. In 2019, more than 600,000 spectators took part in the league’s draft celebrations in Nashville over the course of its three days. Now, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will be broadcasting from his basement (don’t fret, Bud Light Seltzer is keeping the booing tradition alive).

“Something has to give going virtual,” said Laura Gentile, ESPN’s svp of marketing. “That’s just something in the sports world we’re going to have to get our head around because even when sports returns, it’ll return largely without fans.”

To bring some of their energy into the show, ESPN will be scouring social media for fan reactions on Twitter, TikTok and Instagram, sharing them on its own channels.

“There’s a ton of anticipation for this event given the landscape,” Gentile said. “We’re anticipating a great response and great engagement simply because our fans are looking for it. They’re looking for an escape; they’re basically starved for live content.”

Similar to Jerry Lewis and his famed telethons for muscular dystrophy, the league will also be hosting a “Draft-a-Thon” simultaneously during the draft to raise money for Covid-19 relief efforts, supporting charities including the American Red Cross, Feeding America and the CDC Foundation’s All of US: Combat Coronavirus Campaign.

The Draft-a-Thon will feature the NFL’s brand partners during a live auction for NFL memorabilia. It will be streamed on the league’s social channels and digital platforms, as well as woven into each network’s broadcast. So far, the league alone has donated $76 million.

“We didn’t have CEOs necessarily coming to Vegas, but we have CEOs being represented in Draft-a-Thon,” according to Tracie Rodburg, the league’s head of sponsorship.

Although expected to be the largest, the NFL won’t be the first league to give ESPN’s virtual draft experience a whirl. Last Friday, the WNBA hosted its draft, increasing viewership by 123% year-over-year. It became the second-most-watched WNBA draft of all time.

ESPN has been marketing its own production with two separate campaigns. In the lead-up to the draft, the network has been running a promo on its own channels and across parent company Walt Disney Television networks and platforms. Once the draft kicks off, it’ll run a promo titled “Where Football Meets Football.”

Neither advertisements mention Covid-19, or the fact that the draft will be held online, without the handshakes, uncomfortable green rooms and wide shots of anxious fans viewers are accustomed to.

“If you look at our take of what the central, most interesting part of the draft is, it’s really the stories around the players,” Gentile said. “Yeah, it’s virtual this year, but we’ve been following these athletes since they were freshmen in college and even before that. We’re uniquely positioned to talk about their journey.”

The NFL’s advertising partners have taken a different approach.

An ad from Gillette set to air during and after the broadcast shows the brand’s namesake stadium near Boston, home of the New England Patriots, sitting empty, and soon-to-be professional football players Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa lift weights far removed from their personal trainers and fancy training rooms. “In an uncertain year, every day needs our best,” the ad reads. “Every day is game day.”

The Lowe’s campaign features its own essential workers, emphasizing the idea of home even when we might be tired of being stuck inside them, a subtle but obvious nod to the current pandemic.

Without the chance to run activations or any experimental marketing like in previous drafts or at the league’s headquarters in Miami during the Super Bowl, brands have leaned into virtual integration. Bose sent 132 headphones to the teams; Verizon made sure coaches and staff had service in their homes.

“Doing something virtual is very different than being in Las Vegas, but it still provides our partners with the ability to get their message out there to our fans in their own voice,” Rodburg said.

Verizon will also sponsor a “prospect cam” and Bud Light Seltzer will sponsor a Virtual Huddle, although it’s still unclear what these activations will look like.

“It was a lot of working behind the scenes to really understand how things are going to work so we can make smart recommendations to our brand partners about where they could integrate,” said Deidra Maddock, vp of sports brand solutions at Disney Advertising.

As far as messaging, and how much Covid-19 is mentioned during the broadcast, brands may be walking a fine line.

“If you seem tone-deaf now, the consumer’s never going to let you forget it,” said Joe Favorito, a sports marketing expert. “By creating a story around what [brands] are doing, showing humanity and humility, that is more important than trying to sell me something directly right now that I may not be able to afford to buy.”

But the draw of live sports remain.

“It’s the only live thing right now,” Favorito said. “It’s the only reason you have to turn on a television at a certain point.”


@RyanBarwick ryan.barwick@adweek.com Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.
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