Never forget that the NFL draft is a television show at its core, a non-event that has morphed into a mega-event every April. How big has the Goodellapalooza become? Last year, ESPN and the NFL Network combined for an average of 8.1 million viewers for its opening-round coverage, an increase of 16 percent from the previous year and the second-most-watched first round ever. (To wit: Those numbers would top last year's NBA Western Conference finals between the Thunder and the Spurs, which averaged 7.82 million viewers on TNT.) It is, as Joe Biden might say, a big freaking deal.
While ESPN and NFL Network will compete fiercely for audience this week, they have once again come together for a gentleman's agreement on the subject of tipping draft picks. Both networks have pledged not to show images of players on the phone in the green room at Radio City Music Hall. In addition to that, both networks tell SI.com that they will tell staffers not to report pick-by-pick selections on their Twitter feeds prior to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announcing the picks on the podium. The Twitter edict will extend into the second round of the draft. Teams have 10 minutes to pick in the first round, seven minutes in the second round and five minutes for the rest of the draft.
"Our fans have told us they would rather hear from the Commissioner and I think it is a better TV show when we speculate and let the Commissioner do it," said ESPN NFL senior coordinating producer Seth Markman, who oversees draft coverage for the network. "I have said in the past that [ESPN reporters] Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen can basically announce all the picks before they are made if they really wanted to. It goes against a lot of our instincts as journalists and it's totally different than anything I deal with, but we feel like it is a win for the fans and our viewers."
Adam Schefter added that Twitter is "such a part of the life we live now so it just figures it would extend to the NFL draft." But he still realizes the importance of the experience of watching the draft unfold on TV rather than the computer. "Some people like having that news instantaneously," he said. "Many don't like the surprise to be spoiled. I am not looking to spoil the drama or ruin the experience."
Markman and NFL Network executive producer Eric Weinberger ironed out the agreement via emails and phone calls this month, and through discussions with the NFL broadcasting department. Will ESPN and NFL Network on-air staffers still speculate on who will be drafted? Yes. But both Markman and Weinberger insist that no on-air talent is ever tipped of the pick prior to the announcement. Both executives reiterated they are given the team selections from the league 30 to 60 seconds before the pick happens so they can align graphics and be ready for the show production. "They [our on-air talent] will be speculating," Weinberger said. "They will be using their informed analysis but they will not know who the pick is until the Commissioner announces it."
Markman reiterated Weinberger's point, and insisted the talent does not know the pick ahead of time. "We get a little bit of a heads up as producers -- a very short heads up -- but we have never, ever, ever, I promise you, told the pick to any of our talent," he said.
Each network has made changes in both personnel and production for the draft, which begins Thursday (Round 1 starts at 8 p.m. ET) and extends to Friday (Rounds 2-3; 6:30 p.m.) and Saturday (Rounds 4-7; 12 p.m.)
Below, we offer extended notes on what ESPN and the NFL Network have in store for viewers:
The Noise Report
Viewers will see a dramatically different main set for Friday (Round 2-3) and Saturday (Rounds 4-7) when Trey Wingo replaces Berman as host and analyst Trent Dilfer and draft expert Todd McShay join Kiper. Former NFL GM Bill Polian will be added beginning on the second night.
Eisen and Mayock continue their roles on Friday night (Rounds 2 and 3) while Brian Billick and Charles Davis shift into analyst roles. Melissa Stark takes over for Sanders on the second night of coverage. For coverage of Rounds 4-7, the main set will consist of Eisen, Mayock, Davis, and a revolving cast of college coaches beginning with Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly (10:30 a.m.-1 p.m. ET), LSU coach Les Miles (1:00-3:15 p.m.), and Stanford coach David Shaw (3:00-5:15 p.m.). Throughout the weekend, look for the NFL Network to call on analysts who played the same position as those drafted (for instance, Kurt Warner will weigh in from the network's Los Angeles studios on quarterback selections). Former general managers Charley Casserly and Scott Pioli will also be part of the coverage.
Mortensen continued: "Goodell's decision to squeeze time limits between picks has made for pretty terrific prime-time viewing if you're a football fan. For a reporter, it's created some frustration but it's not about us unless we have a significant development while teams are on the clock in which we will report first on TV but possibly turn to Twitter if we're in commercial break or if we have moved on to the next pick...It is my responsibility and pleasure to deliver as many notes as possible on Twitter...Seemingly every NFL and college player is on Twitter, relaying news, a nice background piece of information or even some outrageous reaction. The trap is obvious. Does it meet the journalistic standard? What is that standard? Is it a playground or workplace? Both, right? I'd add that leading up to the draft, NFL teams assign their own staffers and security people to review Twitter and Facebook postings to assist in building a profile of that particular player."
? SI.com's S.L. Price elegantly captured the feeling in the city of Boston following the bombing.
? Really liked how Joe Posnanski of NBC Sports handled his tribute to the late Pat Summerall.
? WNBA top overall pick Brittany Griner discussed her sexuality for the first time extensively in a well done interview with SI Video host Maggie Gray.
? If interested, I went on The Dan Patrick Show to talk about Griner and how the media covers a gay athlete in pro sports.
Two non-sports notes: