A comprehensive media guide to ESPN and the NFL Network's coverage of this year's NFL draft in Chicago.
We are a nation of draftniks. Last year ESPN’s live telecast of the first round of the 2014 NFL draft averaged 9.943 million viewers, the most-viewed NFL draft telecast in the network’s 35 years of presenting the event. The NFL Network’s first day coverage also set a record, drawing 2.4 million viewers. Over the course of the three-day Goodell-aplooza last year, the two networks combined for an average of 5.4 million viewers, which was up 35 percent in viewership over 2013. (Thanks, Johnny Manziel).
I’d expect the overall average viewership numbers to fall slightly this year given the television competition (May 2 is a loaded sports day) but interest in the draft as a viewership property remains sky-high. Below, in honor of the 32 picks in the opening round, we offer 32 items on this year’s draft coverage:
The 2015 NFL draft kicks off Thursday at 8:00 PM ET, with live coverage of Round 1 on ESPN and the NFL Network. Rounds 2-3 will air Friday, beginning at 7:00 PM ET. On Saturday, Rounds 4-7 start at noon ET. SiriusXM NFL Radio and ESPN Radio will carry the draft on audio. Live streaming of the NFL Network’s coverage is available on mobile phones via NFL Mobile from Verizon and on tablets, PCs and Xbox One via Watch NFL Network (NFL.com/Watch). Additionally, ESPN’s live draft coverage will be accessible via WatchESPN online at WatchESPN.com, on smartphones and tablets via the WatchESPN app and through Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick, Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.
Once again, neither ESPN nor NFL Network staffers will give away picks in advance on Twitter and others social media services during the opening round.
“We want to keep the suspense of the draft,” said ESPN senior coordinating producer Seth Markman, ESPN’s lead executive for the event. “This is purely listening to the viewers and what they want. It was overwhelming that our consumers, our viewers, our fans do not want us to spoil the draft experience. I know some of our competitors will tweet picks, but they are not telecasting the draft. I am sure there is a segment of the population that wants it as soon as possible, but our responsibility is to our viewers. It’s not some big journalism discussion in my mind. It’s ‘I don’t like angering our viewers’.”
One of ESPN’s and NFL Network’s main Twitter competitors—Jason LaCanfora of CBS Sports—is often ahead of the draft broadcast on Twitter. He does not have any Twitter restrictions on his reporting but said on Sunday that he will be part of a live, on-line show this year so he won’t be approaching the draft on Twitter as he had in previous years.
The Thursday and Friday portion of the draft will be held at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, on the campus of Roosevelt University. The draft then moves outdoors to Grant Park on Saturday. It is the first time the draft has been held outside of New York City since 1964 (when it also took place in Chicago).
Philosophically, ESPN and the NFL Network differ in approaches to coverage. ESPN has streamlined its coverage to have fewer voices on set, especially on the first day. The network believes with the speed of the draft, fewer voices make for a tighter broadcast. The NFL Network thinks opposite. They want analysts who specialize in the positions of the picks so you’ll hear many more people on that network.
With an outdoor set for all three days (ESPN will have a set in Grant Park only on Saturday), the NFL Network will use the city of Chicago and the thousands of fans expected to be in the park as part of its narrative, much more than ESPN. NFL Network execs say they will show footage of Selection Square inside Grant Park where team tables for all 32 NFL teams will make their draft selections throughout the three days.
“We will have aerial coverage as if it’s a Rose Bowl, covering and shooting the thousands and thousands of people in Grant Park—a Lollapalooza type thing,” said NFL Network executive producer Eric Weinberger. “It gives us the opportunity to engage and include fans in the show, and more so than we could with the and inside Radio City.”
Which broadcasters are assigned to Round One?
Chris Berman hosts the opening night of ESPN’s coverage, with main set analysts Jon Gruden, Mel Kiper Jr. and Ray Lewis. Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter serve as NFL insiders. Suzy Kolber will interview draftees.
Rich Eisen hosts the NFL Network’s main set coverage, with analysts Mike Mayock, Steve Mariucci, and Stanford head coach David Shaw. The NFL Network’s outside (Grant Park) desk for the opening round consists of host Rose and analysts Marshall Faulk, Michael Irvin and Kurt Warner. Charles Davis and Daniel Jeremiah will provide additional analysis. Ian Rapoport is the NFL Network insider and will be based in Grant Park for all three days. Deion Sanders will ask questions on stage while Melissa Stark will appear backstage.
Why did ESPN select its group for Round One?
“I think this is our best group for the first day,” Markman said. “This Is Chris Berman’s 35th consecutive draft. In this day and age that is a pretty amazing accomplishment. To me, he has been the face of the NFL on TV for a long time. I know he will do a great job. Mel is the dean. I know you like Mayock the best now and that’s fine. But Mel is a legend. He does not miss a beat. I know how hard Jon Gruden works and I love working with the guy. He will be phenomenal. Adam and Mort, to me, there are no better information guys. That is a huge value to viewers. And we have the best interviewer in Suzy Kolber. We don’t need 20 people and three different sets. The show moves too fast.”
Why did the NFL Network select its group for Round One? “We strive to get every expert we have on the air,” Weinberger said. “One move we made this year was to move our college coaches to Thursday and Friday. We think we have had tremendous success with our college coaches. We really think that broadens our coverage to all football and these college coaches really bridge the gap from college to the NFL. Charles Davis will be heavily used on Thursday. We think we have two of the preeminent voices nationally with Charles Davis being Fox Sports’ lead voice during the college season and Mike Mayock being the voice on NBC for Notre Dame. We think the two of them cover so much ground and bring so much depth. We also can mix in our coach (Steve Mariucci) and our three Hall of Famers (Irvin, Sanders and Warner).
ESPN and NFL Network switch off each year on who first gets to interview the No. 1 overall pick. This year ESPN has the odd-number picks (thus, No. 1) so if Winston is drafted first overall, they will get the first interview with him followed by the NFL Network. Last year the NFL Network had Jadeveon Clowney first.
Which broadcasters are assigned to Rounds 2-3 and 4-7?
For Rounds 2-3 on Friday, ESPN brings in its best group with Trey Wingo hosting alongside analysts Kiper, Trent Dilfer, Todd McShay, Mortensen, Schefter and Kolber. For Rounds 4-7 Wingo hosts with Kiper, McShay, Bill Polian, Mortensen and Schefter. ESPN will have bureau reporters at multiple sites and has assigned Tom Rinaldi to cover Jameis Winston in Alabama and Shelley Smith to cover Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota in Hawaii. Ed Werder is assigned to the Buccaneers, who hold the No. 1 pick in the draft.
For the NFL Network, Eisen hosts the Friday main set with analysts Davis, Mayock, and Texas head coach Charlie Strong. The outside desk consists of Chris Rose, Jeremiah, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Brian Billick. Rapoport and Stark will also appear. Eisen hosts the main set on Day Three, with Mayock, Davis, and Jeremiah. Stark will host a second set on Saturday with Northwestern University head coach Pat Fitzgerald as an analyst. The NFL Network has 15 reporters assigned to 15 teams as well as Mariotta (Tiffany Blackmon) and Winston (Steve Wyche). Judy Battista is assigned the Bucs.
ESPN’s Lewis faced criticism last year for his work as a debut analyst. Why is he a good fit? “I think people make a mistake to compare a guy like Ray with Mel or Mike Mayock,” said Markman. “That is not his role on the draft. If people don’t think he should be there, I disagree. We have asked him to study the defensive players because that is his expertise. He’ll have strong opinions on them. He is a not a draft analyst. He is there to give us a contemporary feel. I think he brought a unique perspective last year. You want a diverse group where each person brings you something different.”
How does a host prepare for the draft? “Luckily, my regular gigs help me prepare for the draft,” Eisen said. “I’ve been talking about the prospects and their prospects of getting drafted on my daily TV/radio/live-streamed show every day since the calendar turned. Thanks to hosting live-coverage of all four days of the NFL Scouting Combine, I personally eye-balled a group of players that, on annual average, will comprise 98 percent of the first three-rounds of the NFL draft. I’ve also gotten to hear what Mike Mayock thought of them at the time, which helps me place his comments in perspective when he makes them sitting across the set from me for the live, three-day coverage of the draft. Then there’s the oodles of information sent my way by NFL research. In other words, I’m ready.”
The NFL Network will have cameras in 16 team facilities, featuring video access as team executives make their selections. Those teams include the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who hold first overall pick, the Titans (No. 2), Jaguars (3), Jets (6) Falcons (8) Rams (10); Vikings (11); Browns (12 & 19); 49ers (15); Chiefs (18); Cardinals (24); Panthers (25); Cowboys (27); Broncos (28); Packers (30) and Seahawks (no first round pick). In total, the NFL Network will have over 50 remote locations outside of Chicago.
Gruden waved the flag heavy for Manziel during last year’s draft to the point where he called for nearly every team to pick him. How much should viewers judge Gruden’s value as a draft analyst based on last year’s evaluation of Manziel?
“Yes, he had an off-the-field problem and you can’t predict that but I would argue that let’s wait five or six years to judge whether Jon was wrong,” said Markman. “By the way, if Jon was wrong on Johnny Manziel, the draft is the most inexact science there is. Tell me some NFL evaluator who has a great record on the draft? They still miss many times. Even the best guys in the league have had misses. So I am not ready to say Jon was wrong on Johnny Manziel.”
For the fourth consecutive year Stanford head coach David Shaw will be part of NFL Network’s coverage. That’s terrific news for viewers as the cogent Shaw has been a boon for the network’s draft analysis. He’ll join Eisen, Mayock and Mariucci for the first round on Thursday night. Every television executive I’ve spoken with is interested in Shaw should he ever leave coaching for broadcasting.
What Day Three story could resonate with viewers?
“While we can’t predict what big-name talent could fall to Day Three, there is a name that our viewers can root for, and that’s Texas long snapper Nate Boyer, a 34-year-old former Green Beret trying to live out his NFL dream,” said NFL Network coordinating producer Charlie Yook. “We have a wonderful piece on Nate that will introduce him to our audience, done by Melissa Stark and produced by Hilary Guy. It will air on Friday night right before the draft starts, and will air again on Saturday. On Friday night, Texas head coach Charlie Strong is with us and will share his thoughts on Nate.”
The NFL Network has a whopping 2,500 player highlight tapes ready to go on 750 players. Those behind-the-scenes responsible for procuring and cutting the tape: NFL Network graphics supervisor Zach Arnstein, segment producer Tom Self, remote productions tape supervisor Scott Sellz, NFL.com producer-editor Dan Simmons, production assistants Jared Harburn, Joby Joy, Patrick Serleto and Greg Sharron, and NFL Films producer Ben Fennell.
Gruden was asked on a conference call about quarterback sleepers in this draft. “I like Garrett Grayson at Colorado State,” said Gruden. “His measurables are good. He runs a 4.7. And he's proven that he's a good pocket passer. He's played for two coaches that have been in the NFL, Steve Fairchild and Jim McElwain. I got a feeling he's going to be a good pro quarterback, provided that he gets on the team where there's some continuity. I mean, some of these young quarterbacks have no chance, the way they change coaches and coordinators every single year. It's astonishing to me. But I do like Grayson.”
Dick Butkus, the Hall of Fame linebacker and an iconic Chicago sports figure, is doing the voiceover to open the NFL Network’s coverage. The Butkus open will also air at the start of the Friday broadcast.
Eisen said he is not personally competitive with ESPN’s coverage. “It’s nothing I can control,” Eisen said. “Because I’ve hosted every draft on NFL Network since its inception, the last time I watched a draft on ESPN was 13 years ago. Therefore I know very little about their coverage. With the exception being that you tell all your readers to watch me on the first night of the draft because you, in essence, find me more tolerable than Chris Berman.”
But make no mistake, the production staffs of each networks are highly competitive, including which set looks better on television to which group breaks the most stories.
Weinberger said Winston’s off-the-field issues will be discussed on-air. Shaw recruited him, and Mariucci and Mayock have spent time with him. “We are fully loaded to talk on field and off field before and after the pick,” Weinberger said. “There will be a lot of voices talking about Winston.”
For the first time in league history the NFL will digitally archive every pick of the draft. You can watch each of the picks being selected on NFL Now, the digital arm of NFL.com.
SiriusXM’s coverage of the NFL draft is always comprehensive and once again every selection will air on SiriusXM NFL Radio (Channel 88) and SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio channels. The on-site broadcast team includes Gil Brandt, the former VP of Player Personnel for the Dallas Cowboys; Pat Kirwan, a former NFL scout; former NFL quarterback Jim Miller; former NFL general manager Phil Savage; and host Jason Horowitz.
Weinberger said NFL Network reporter assignments are initially based on geography but the network’s editors also make decisions on which reporter has a good relationship with a team. On that note, NFLN insider Mike Silver is expected to be embedded with Jacksonville team officials.
Prior to the start of the first round, Stark and Kevin Frasier will conduct the annual bootlicking festival that is the (draft gold) red carpet. They'll interview prospects attending the event at the Auditorium Theatre.
ESPN has 325 player highlight packages, 50 different player personality bumps and 25 specialty technical breakdowns with analysis from Gruden, Lewis and McShay.
I asked Eisen the toughest name he’s ever had to pronounce for the draft. “There’s Ndamukong Suh and Star Lotulelei and, of course, 2005 draftee Craphonso Thorpe, but no one has approached the polysyllabic nightmare that is Michael Hoomanawanui, the 132nd overall pick of the 2010 NFL draft chosen by the Rams,” he said. “He’s still in the league so he’s still a frequent Hooked On Phonics lesson for me.”
This will be Chris Berman's 28th year hosting the NFL draft for ESPN, one year fewer than the rule of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
Where Shaw and Strong have significant television experience on ESPN and the NFL Network, Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald makes his NFL draft debut on Saturday. Network execs are high on the media-friendly Fitzgerald should he ever leave coaching.
ESPN Radio will broadcast Rounds 1 and 2 of the draft on Thursday and Friday. Dari Nowkhah will host the coverage alongside NFL analyst Louis Riddick and NFL Insider John Clayton. Freddie Coleman will host post-draft coverage on the audio network with NFL Insider Adam Caplan.
Shelley Smith, the longtime ESPN journalist, announced last October that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the last six months Smith has taken time off from ESPN to undergo multiple radiation treatments with the final cycle concluding last week. She’s been assigned to report on Marcus Mariota for the draft and will be with the Oregon quarterback when he is selected in the first round. Of note on Smith, she will appear on-air bald. “I get stronger every day and that really helps my confidence,” Smith said. “You never really know how strong you are until you go through something like this and I feel really strong. I’m excited to get back to work.”
My ideal Day One broadcast lineups:
ESPN: Wingo (host), Kiper, McShay, Louis Riddick, Polian (analysts), Schefter, Mortenson, Jim Trotter (insiders), Kolber and Smith (interviews).
NFL Network: Eisen (host), Mayock, Davis, Shaw (analysts), Battista, Jeremiah, Rapoport, Silver (insiders), Stark and Wyche (interviews).
The Noise Report
SI.com looks at some of the bigger stories of the week in the sports media
1. Games 7s between the Capitals and Islanders have significance for NBC NHL gamecaller Mike Emrick. Twenty-eight years ago, on April 18, 1987, Emrick called the last Game 7 between the teams, a Patrick Division semifinal on ESPN that went four overtimes and ran into early Easter Sunday morning. Pat LaFontaine’s goal to give the Isles the win sealed the memorable game that would become known as the “Easter Epic.” The game still stands as the longest Game 7 in NHL history. Emrick will call (with Ed Olczyk and Pierre McGuire) Monday’s Game 7 between the teams on NBCSN at 7:30 p.m. ET.
1a. Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp reported last week that regular season viewership for TNT's NBA games were down 12 percent, lowest since '07-08. ESPN’s game viewership was down 10 percent, with the net’s average of 1.51 million viewers the lowest since ’07-08. NBA TV drew 291,000 average viewers for 98 games in ’14-15, the net’s lowest figure since 2010-11.
2. NBC’s coverage commitment to the Kentucky Derby is impressive. The network will air will 15.5 live hours—a record for the event—between NBC and NBCSN. Derby Day coverage begins at Noon ET on NBCSN before moving to NBC at 4 p.m. ET. The network will also have live coverage of the Kentucky Derby Draw on Wednesday, at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.
According to a press release, NBC said it will use more than 50 cameras, including a camera suspended 80-feet high on the Churchill Downs video board structure, an 80-foot crane on Turn 1, a 4K main play-by-play camera, a robotic camera in the paddock saddling area, and a 4K super-slow-motion reverse finish-line camera. The talent includes Tom Hammond, Randy Moss and Jerry Bailey at the main desk with Bob Costas as host and Donna Brothers as the on-course reporter. Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski return as fashion and lifestyle reporters.
2a. On Derby Day, NBC will air a second-round NHL Stanley Cup playoff game followed by the Kentucky Derby followed by primetime coverage of the PGA Tour's World Golf Championships-Cadillac Match Play from TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, Calif.
2b. NBC broadcaster Bob Neumeier is taping a piece for NBC’s coverage of the Kentucky Derby and will return fulltime to the on-air team for the Preakness. Neumeier suffered a stroke in October, which required 5.5 hours of brain surgery.
3. The face of ESPN’s Floyd Mayweather coverage has been commentator Stephen A. Smith, who recently conducted a multi-part infomercial with the boxer off a seven-hour interview session. Given Smith is more of a provocateur and pitchman than journalist these days, the final product wasn’t much of a surprise. Deadspin’s Daniel Roberts wrote a blistering piece on Saturday that highlighted Smith’s whitewashing of Mayweather’s domestic violence issues. So did Awful Announcing’s Andrew Bucholtz.
Smith has never been shy about highlighting his relationship with Mayweather, and this was clearly an access play, a friend interviewing a friend and a network benefiting from that access. Smith is also a made guy now at ESPN with a big contract extension and powerful management allies. That means he’ll be getting similar high-profile assignments in the future.
Clearly, SportsCenter is looking for avenues to attract attention given declining ratings the last two years, and ESPN did get cross-promotional pieces out of the interview. But at what price? The company was crushed in many quarters and while the usual trope from Bristol Pravda operatives is that Deadspin and its ilk (I’m part of the ilk on this one) are just bashing for page views and antihero street cred, the criticism went well beyond the sports blogopshere. I’d cite respected journalists Jamil Smith and Shalise Manza Young, as well as Hofstra University professor Brenda Elsey as just three small examples of people being disgusted.
Many ESPN staffers have said privately that they are being judged by one person's take on Mayweather. They are correct, and it’s frustrating and unfair in the same way if I was tagged for something another SI staffer wrote. I’d suggest they talk to their own management if they have issues with the First Take-ization across platforms. They have more power than they realize.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• This Jason Gay column on the f-word was a brilliant mixing of writer, subject and graphics.
• Cincinnati.com Reds beat writer C. Trent Rosecrans on one very interesting day on the (expletive) job. How was your day?
• ESPN’s Outside The Lines ESPN did a piece on Floyd Mayweather’s domestic violence record. Exceptionally well-done.
• The NYT’s Andrew Keh on NBA players attending chapel service.
• SI’s Justin Barrasso sat down with wrestling icons Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and Sean Waltman.
• An 8-year-old writes to Sports Illustrated on the importance of covering wrestling.
• The Economist obit on Richard Benaud, cricketer and commentator.
• Strong work by my SI colleague Maggie Gray with this interview of NFL draft prospect P.J. Williams.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• Here's the (Charleston) Post and Courier Pulitzer-winning series on domestic abuse murders in South Carolina.
• GQ profiles CNN's Don Lemon and make sure you read the first couple of paragraphs.
• "American Terrorist" was a tremendous documentary from Frontline and Pro Publica. Online here. Highly recommended.
• My j-school classmate Richard Marosi was a Pulitzer finalist this year for a piece on thousands of laborers at Mexico's mega-farm. Super-talented reporter.
• Strong work by Sharon Coolidge and Liz Dufour on child poverty in Cincinnati.
• Via The New Republic: How click farms have inflated social media currency.
• It will be very hard to top this New Yorker first sentence as the sentence of the week.
5. Fox Sports 1 analyst Gary Payton was suspended by the network after allegations of assault emerged.
5a. New York Times writer Richard Sandomir spoke with Pete Rose (and Fox executives) about Rose’s new TV gig on Fox Sports 1.
5b. Susan Reimer on the retirement of her sportswriter husband, USA Today's Gary Mihoces:
5c. LeBron James and Draymond Green are offering behind-the-scenes videos during the postseason as part of Bleacher Report’s Uninterrupted series.
5d. espnW staffers Kate Fagan, Jane McManus, and Sarah Spain discuss how to cover the Brittney Griner-Glory Johnson arrest.
5e. Washington Post writer Erik Wemple on what he calls the idiocy of suspensions by media organizations.