No, Rob Manfred will not announce picks while wearing a T-shirt and sitting in his basement. When the MLB Draft starts on Wednesday, the commissioner is expected to appear from a TV studio in Secaucus, New Jersey.
But even if the vibe will be different from the well-received NFL version in April — starring commissioner Roger Goodell in his man cave — ESPN and MLB Network expect to take lessons from that virtual experiment to this one.
“I have to say the NFL and everybody in the sports community has been very transparent and open about their experiences and what they learned,” said Susan Stone, MLB Network’s senior VP of operations and engineering.
Many elements will be similar, notably remote cameras to reach a general manager or other key decision-maker from all 30 teams, as well as cameras in the homes of top draft prospects.
That technical infrastructure will be shared by ESPN and MLBN. But unlike the NFL Draft, which was produced jointly by ESPN and the NFL Network, each channel will provide its own hosts, analysts and reporters.
This will be the first time in the event’s history two networks are televising it live. ESPN aired the draft in 2007 and 2008, and MLB Network has done so exclusively since, but never before has shown every round.
It also will be the first time the event lasts only five rounds, with the first — plus Competitive Balance Round A, through pick No. 37 overall — set for Wednesday and the rest on Thursday.
Given the increasing visibility of college players and the increasing pressure on teams to deploy young players in the majors sooner, interest in the MLB Draft has grown in recent years.
But the dearth of live sports because of the COVID-19 pandemic presumably will focus additional attention on it this season, whether or not MLB and its players agree to a plan to play in 2020 by then.
“I really think people are starving for live sports, whether it’s an event or a game,” said Dave Patterson, MLBN’s senior VP of production. “Especially since we’re doing both nights, it’s a great opportunity for people who have never seen the draft.”
Whether baseball returns in 2020 or 2021, the narrative focus for fans unfamiliar with the leading prospects will be the potential impact on their favorite team.
Karl Ravech, who will host ESPN’s coverage, said, “There are certainly a handful of kids coming out who if we have a season could end up pitching in the major leagues and affecting a pennant race . . . I think that’s the way you sell it.”
ESPN will have Ravech and draft expert Kiley McDaniel at its Bristol, Connecticut, studios, while other analysts and reporters will appear remotely.
“We have a lot of resources,” said Mark Gross, senior VP of production for ESPN. “Technology is our friend. We haven’t done the baseball draft in a number of years. We’re looking forward to getting back in the game.”
MLB Network will spread its personnel across three studios in Secaucus, including one in which Manfred will stand safely apart from other people.
Stone said MLBN also will use three control rooms rather than one. “We spent a lot of time with tape measures making sure that everybody in our control room is far enough apart,” she said.
The network has a crowded roster of hosts, reporters and analysts, including Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin, whose infielder, Austin Martin, is projected to be selected within the top two picks.
One element that is out of the television people’s hands is the state of negotiations over salvaging the season. If there is to be a season, the draft will be part of that celebration. If not, things could turn a bit funereal.
Ravech said he has thought about how that could affect the tone.
“It absolutely will change it,” he said. “It’s not going to change whether it’s on or not. But it certainly will be part of the bigger conversation.”
And if there is no baseball in 2020, all the more reason to talk about what comes next, and the players who will be part of it.
“Whatever Major League Baseball decides, that would be the approach: Look, this is the future of Major League Baseball,” Ravech said.
“The present may suck, but this is the future we’re talking about tonight, and there will be a future. Whether it’s in a month or in 18 months, there will be a future.”