Rich Eisen does not hide his enthusiasm. Like many of his colleagues at the NFL Network and his competitors at ESPN, Eisen is genuinely excited about the NFL draft being in Chicago this year.
“Even being a native New Yorker, I felt it was also time to see what the draft looks like in another city, and I can’t think of a better one than Chicago to host it,” says Eisen, the host of the NFL Network’s draft coverage and an alum of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. “The Midwest is a football-crazed region.
“When the Super Bowl was in Indianapolis, I was overwhelmed by the number of fans who flocked to the city from states far away just to take part in an NFL event that had never before hit the area. I fully expect this to happen again for the draft. Over the past 10 years, I did not hear a boo or a peep in Radio City Music Hall when the Bears went on the clock. That will change this year. Same for when the Packers hit the clock. And Vikings. Or Colts and Rams. Perhaps we might hear a cheer for the Jets, thanks to the three guys named Vinny who may drive overnight from Queens to sleep outside Michigan Avenue for tickets.”
Eisen isn’t alone. If you speak to ESPN, NFL Network and NFL officials about this week’s draft, they tend to channel their-inner Sammy Cahn, the famed songwriter who pledged in “My Kind Of Town” that Chicago is a place that won't let you down.
The league is particularly excited about the optics of two distinct draft venues, separated by Michigan Avenue in the South Loop. The first two days of the draft—at least for television purposes—will revolve around the Auditorium Theatre, where the picks on Thursday and Friday (rounds one through three) will be made. Logistically, the new venue created some challenges for the league and its broadcast partners; the Auditorium is about one-third the size of Radio City Music Hall and the size of each broadcast set had to be reduced. “On TV the viewer may notice that it looks tighter and the stage is closer,” says ESPN senior coordinating producer Seth Markman, the network’s point person for the draft. “It won’t look like Radio City.”
On Saturday, all the picks (rounds four through seven) will be made outside in Grant Park, in area dubbed Selection Square. (Peter King provided a good description of where all 32 teams will be located and where the picks and trades will be called.) Unlike ESPN, which will only have a set inside Grant Park on Saturday, the NFL Network will be there for all three days of the draft. NFL Network executive producer Eric Weinberger estimates that 25 percent of their analysis will originate from +beyond the walls of the Auditorium Theatre.
Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’ senior vice president of events, showed renderings of the 2015 draft earlier this month in Chicago. (Kiichiro Sato/AP)
“As much as I love New York and I like the draft being in New York, I do think there is a jolt of energy from being somewhere else this year,” Weinberger says. “I’ve noticed it every time we have visited. We have been sort of energized by it. We will have a set outside in Grant Park and there are huge expectations that there will be thousands and thousands of people in the park. But we do have to be careful. As much as our production will highlight Chicago—whether it’s the music or video of the city—I always want to make sure we are true to why we are there and that is the draft itself.”
Onnie Bose, the league’s vice president of broadcasting, says one of the overarching goals of moving to Chicago—or out of New York—was to engage fans more significantly than they had before. Bose said the Saturday portion of draft has always been an issue because the theater experience didn’t produce great visuals for later rounds.
“If you were watching it on television, it really was a bunch of talking heads,” Bose says. “Honestly, the coverage might as well have been from Culver City [home of the NFL Network] or Bristol [ESPN headquarters] at that point. Radio City was just a backdrop. So when the decision was made to take it out of New York we thought, How do we keep the elevated stature of Thursday and Friday night and create opportunity for Saturday?”
Bose cited the energy of ESPN’s College GameDay as the template the league desires, and it was NFL execs who pushed the networks to air from an outside venue on the third day. “Look, Saturday will still be driven by analysts,” Bose says. “We get that. But if you are showcasing behind them the atmosphere in Chicago, that’s a positive.”
Will Chicago have an impact on ratings? “Honestly, I’m not sure the viewers care too much about where these things are,” Markman says. “I think sometimes that’s an inside-baseball mentality, whether in the media or in the NFL. We will make Chicago an organic part of the broadcast, but the draft is the star.”
Viewership for the first round of the NFL draft is always dictated by star power at skill positions, and while there aren’t any Johnny Manziel-like figures this year, there’s still the storyline surrounding Jameis Winston and the first overall pick. Beyond the first night, the networks and the league do have an opportunity for some word-of-mouth viewership if the visuals on Saturday look appealing on TV. Teams will be announcing those picks from their home markets as part of their respective draft parties, both networks will have access to those visuals. “We look at Chicago as the hub and there are 31 other spokes on Saturday,” Bose says.
“I think there will be a huge difference in energy on Saturday,” Weinberger says. “Sometimes on Day 3, we take shots of people sleeping at Radio City. That won’t be the case this year.”
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