As it turned out, the biggest glitch in the joint ESPN/NFL Network production of the NFL Draft on Thursday night was not technical but rather human, in the form of a robotic performance by Roger Goodell.
The commissioner never quite warmed to the camera in his basement, strangely changed from a sports jacket to a sweater in midstream, mistakenly announced that Las Vegas will host the NFL Draft in 2020 — he meant 2022 — and awkwardly interacted with virtual fans on a screen behind him.
But perhaps we are being too harsh here. Goodell was doing his best given the limitations of his self-described “man cave” in Bronxville, without the usual motivations of bro hugs with draft picks and booing from fans.
That is what makes the rest of the production so impressive. If we choose to grade Goodell on a curve, everyone else involved graded off the charts, given the challenge of the first virtual draft.
The event was a technical marvel, conjured with a skeleton staff in ESPN’s Connecticut headquarters while most analysts, players, coaches and team executives appeared via remote cameras during the COVID-19 lockdown.
What made it even more remarkable was that while ESPN and NFLN were doing a mostly seamless simulcast, ABC was producing an entirely separate account of the draft that focused more on human interest angles.
As expected, the first round drew a record-breaking audience, averaging 15.6 million viewers across all television and digital platforms, breaking the previous mark of 12.4 million set in 2014. The three markets with the highest ratings – Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati – all are in Ohio, where top overall pick Joe Burrow grew up and now will play for the Bengals and where the top three picks once were teammates at Ohio State.
So kudos to the on-air folks, including studio quarterbacks Trey Wingo and Rece Davis, but much more so to the behind-the-scenes tech wizards who allowed fans to focus on picks and not on production nitpicks.
Not that everything was normal. Aside from the absent hugs and boos, the most noticeable missing ingredient was interviews with draft picks and team personnel.
Suzy Kolber was on hand to interview quarterbacks such as Joe Burrow and Jordan Love, but most players in between were left un-talked-to. (ABC picked up some of the interview slack.)
The reason was logistics. In a normal draft, ESPN and NFLN get access to picks shortly after they leave the stage.
This year, by the time they were done celebrating with family and finding their ways to a camera, the next pick was closing in, and producers did not want to fall behind.
The audio and video quality of feeds from the network analysts’ homes generally was good, but those from players, coaches and executives were more varied.
It always is fun to get a peek into these folks’ real lives and homes, though.
Thankfully, more executives and coaches went with inviting their children to join in the experience than went with the cliched background bookcase route.
Giants GM Dave Gettleman and coach Joe Judge opted for ultra-bland with their home sets. Jets GM Joe Douglas hugged his kids.
Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians chilled out on his outdoor patio. Come to think of it, almost everyone stayed on-brand in their remote presentations, from Jon Gruden to Bill Belichick.
The telecast paid proper tribute to medical workers and other first responders during the COVID-19 crisis, and there was a fundraising component of the show, too.
But most of all, the event gave fans something to do and talk about, validating the NFL’s decision to go ahead with free agency and the draft as scheduled.
The draft is not over, though.
As well as things went for the first round, the degree of difficulty will increase for the second and third on Friday, and ramp up even more on Saturday, with picks coming faster and variables multiplying.
It would be a surprise if there were no significant glitches, but at this point it’s all gravy for the league and its TV partners. The Commish just needs to loosen up. Someone in his family should give him a hug. Or boo him.