Media Circus: How ESPN, NFL Network will cover 2017 NFL draft

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Media Circus: Preparing for NFL Draft
Sunday April 23rd, 2017

Trey Wingo calls the NFL draft the most unpredictable event in all of sports television. “We don’t have a script; there is no second take,” the longtime ESPN anchor said this week. “It plays out as it plays out. You could have made a lot of money last year if you put down a prop bet saying we would use the words ‘gas mask bong’ on the first night of the NFL draft.”

Of all the production bells and whistles for ESPN and the NFL Network coming this week from the NFL Draft Theatre at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, the most notable change in either production is Wingo anchoring the first night of the NFL draft for ESPN. He replaces Chris Berman, who is stepping away from the event after hosting it for ESPN since 1987. For viewers, this is a positive development. The addition of Wingo on night one and Louis Riddick solidifying his role as one of the focal points of ESPN’s coverage has (at least in my mind) made it an even draw on which network to watch. (In years past, the first night of the NFL draft was always an NFL Network night at La Casa Deitsch.)

Wingo said the only thing that will change regarding his preparation this year is that there will be more of it. “The first round of the draft are names even casual football fans are somewhat familiar with, so the only difference is doing what I do for Rounds 2–7 and applying those things for Round 1,” said Wingo, whose first assignment was in 2001 as part of a live ESPN streaming broadcast.

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I asked Wingo if he considers the NFL Network a competitor. “Absolutely,” he said. “We are both trying to get the same audience. While there is no question there is competition, I do think there is a friendly camaraderie about all this.”

Both networks have a lot in store for you as first round coverage from Philadelphia kicks off Thursday at 8 p.m. ET. Rounds 2–3 air Friday beginning at 7 p.m. ET. Rounds 4–7 start at noon on Saturday.

Once again both networks have agreed that their staffers will not tip picks on social media during the first round prior to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announcing the pick at the podium.

Here’s a breakdown of each network’s coverage:

ESPN

• Wingo will host all seven rounds for the first time. He’s joined by analysts Mel Kiper Jr., Jon Gruden and Riddick in Round 1, and Kiper, Riddick and Todd McShay for Rounds 2–7. Chris Mortensen, Adam Schefter and Suzy Kolber will also be part of ESPN’s coverage onsite in Philadelphia. The reporters at team facilities include Josina Anderson (Browns), Jeff Darlington (49ers), Britt McHenry (Cardinals), Sal Paolantonio (Jets) and Ed Werder (Saints).

“There are no real production changes happening based on Trey replacing Chris,” said ESPN senior coordinating producer Seth Markman. “Trey is a pro. He’s been ready for this opportunity for many years. We always felt fortunate to have him waiting in the wings. Chris basically invented the position of being the host of draft coverage. We will miss him but know we are in the best hands possible. The one advantage Trey has is that he works with these guys for weeks leading up to the draft and he has met with Jon down in Tampa. He lives this stuff every day and I think the viewers will see that.”

• ESPN’s NFL draft personnel held a pre-draft meeting in Tampa at Gruden’s office (the site of his QB Camp show) last week where Gruden, Kiper, Kolber, Riddick, Wingo and a handful of producers sat around a table and talked about this year’s prospects. “It was a chance to get everyone together and go through what may or may not happen,” Wingo said. “It’s truly one of the great days of the year. For me, it was great to get a sense of where they [his analysts] might go with a player and that really helps me ask my questions of them.”

• ESPN said the first hour of its draft coverage will air with limited commercial interruption for the sixth straight year.

As mentioned above, Markman says that ESPN staffers will not tweet out picks in the first round ahead of Goodell. “We will allow our staffers to tweet any behind the scenes conversations teams are having, trade talks, debates, etc., but what we won’t allow is for them to flat out give away draft picks before the commissioner announces them,” Markman said. “As I have said in the past, our viewers have overwhelmingly told us that they do not want us to spoil the drama of the draft in any way. This goes for Twitter, too. I realize that there are those who disagree with this approach, but we are not in the business of angering our loyal viewers and I personally like the unspoiled nature of this event. Fans love sitting on the edge of their seats to hear what the commissioner says. Trust me, Adam Schefter could easily report who each team is going to pick minutes before the commissioner announces it. That would be terrible TV and he has no interest in proving that he could do this anyway.”

• Regarding production highlights, ESPN said it has close to 500 player highlight packages, 50 player personality bumps and more than 40 specialty technical breakdowns with analysis from Gruden, Riddick and McShay. Those who deserve citations here are lead producer Bryan Ryder and the following production staffers: Joe Smiley, Aaron Pepper, Matt Brooks, Carlie McCall, Aaron Hilton, Josh Kramer, Steven Bishop, Matt Wheeler, Adam Bauer, Aaron Thompson, Lauren Manderson, Fidelis Lusompa, Quianna Lige, Ryan Lachler, Steven Kim, Corey Taylor, Mike Weltman and Brandon Barrad. “These are the real stars of our coverage,” Markman said.

• The network will have a camera at Myles Garrett’s draft party in Dallas and at Christian McCaffrey’s draft party in Denver.

• Wingo said he does not feel pressure as the new lead host but rather a responsibility to maintain a high standard. “Let’s be honest: The draft is really a list of names called out in a certain order,” Wingo said. “When ESPN years ago went to the NFL and said, ‘We want to televise the draft,’ I think their response understandably was, ‘Why?’ One of the reasons people watched the draft is because of what Chris Berman was able to do. He made it more than a list of names. He made it an entertaining process and got fans excited. My responsibility here is just not to burn the house. The hard part was laying the foundation. My part is putting a deck on what is a nice place to live.”

• ESPN Radio always produces a quality NFL draft broadcast. This year it’ll broadcast Rounds 1–3 featuring host Dari Nowkhah, NFL front office insider Bill Polian, NFL insider John Clayton and ESPN New York 98.7 FM host Chris Canty.

• Wingo said Berman reached out to him (and he reached out to Berman) prior to the official announcement that he would do Day 1. “Boom could not have been better to me throughout this entire process,” Wingo said. “I assumed it was going this way for awhile and we talked about it at the Super Bowl. He could not have been more gracious.”

• Markman said ESPN has interesting features for the final day of the draft. “I would say that Pittsburgh running back James Conner is probably the best chance for us to tell a terrific story of a player that everyone can root for,” he said. “I should also mention Travis Rudolph, a wide receiver from Florida State, who sat with an elementary school child with autism at lunch which became a national story.”

• ESPN drew 6.289 million viewers for its opening round coverage of the draft last year, down from 2015 (7,026,000 viewers) and significantly down from 2014, which included Johnny Manziel, and stands as the most-viewed (9,943,000 viewers) opening night in draft history. WatchESPN delivered an average minute audience of 198,000 for Round 1 of the NFL draft, a 37% gain year-over-year.

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The NFL Network

• Specialization is the buzzword of the NFL Network’s draft coverage, at least when it comes to on-air talent. The network has traditionally used a lot of on-set analysts and therefore it is covered depending on the position of the draft pick. For instance, quarterback analysis will be handled by Kurt Warner, while newcomer Steve Smith Sr. will handle the wide receivers.

The main desk at the Philadelphia Art Museum will consist of host Rich Eisen, analysts Mike Mayock and Daniel Jeremiah, and Stanford head coach David Shaw. This will be Shaw’s sixth consecutive year joining the coverage. There will also be a set at the Franklin Institute featuring Charles Davis, Steve Mariucci and Smith Sr. NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport will be part of the main coverage from the Logan Hotel. Deion Sanders remains the on-set interviewer.

“We always have a coverage plan in place but you also understand that the plan might not see itself through,” said NFL Network coordinating producer Charlie Yook. “The draft is a living breathing news event. You can never predict breaking news but you can prepare for it.”

• Rounds 2–3 on Friday at the Philadelphia Art Museum will feature Eisen, Mayock, Jeremiah and Davis. Chris Rose will host the Franklin Institute set with analyst Brian Billick and reporter Peter Schrager. Melissa Stark takes over the Sanders role for Round 2.

• For the Saturday slog, Eisen, Mayock Jeremiah and Davis will be at the Philadelphia Art Museum set, with additional aid from Rapoport, and Colleen Wolfe, who will be roaming the scene at Draft Experience.

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• The NFL Network is a big believer in having cameras in team draft war rooms. The network will be at 20 team facilities this year, including the Browns, 49ers, Titans, Jets, Chargers, Panthers, Cardinals, Colts, Buccaneers, Broncos, Lions, Texans, Seahawks, Chiefs, Cowboys, Packers. Steelers, Falcons, Rams and Vikings.

• Yook said that NFL Network staffers will not be tipping any picks on Twitter on the second round as well.

• The NFL Network has hundreds of player highlight tapes for eligible draftees as well as 100 player comparison setups. Those who procure and cut all the prospect tapes for the NFL Network’s draft coverage are often young people grinding at the beginning of their careers. That group this year includes highlight supervisor Zach Arnstein, associate producer Matt Schumacher, associate producer Ben Fennell and production assistants Ben Allen and Spencer Bruno.

• Yook said he is particularly excited about the NFL Network’s features, including Denver Broncos star Von Miller going back to Texas A&M to hang out with and interview Myles Garrett. That will air on the first night. Mayock also goes back to his alma mater (Boston College) to talk to John Johnson. Reporter Andrea Kremer has an interview airing on Friday with Texas running back D'Onta Foreman, who played through unimaginable personal pain and tragedy.

• When I asked The NFL Network why Michael Irvin will not be a part of this year's coverage, a spokesperson responded with: "Given the Philadelphia/Rocky connection, we decided to have Carl Weathers cover the Red Carpet for NFL Network." Last year, Irvin worked the NFL Draft Red Carpet Special. 

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• The opening round of last year’s NFL Network coverage drew 2,039,000 viewers, up 12% from 1.82 million in 2015. That was impressive given ESPN’s drop and it pointed to people (at least in small numbers) shifting from ESPN to The NFL Network. Of course, WWE Smackdown beat the NFL Network (2.1 million to 2.039 million) on Day One, so it's good to keep things in perspective. The NFL Network’s Day Two draft coverage last year was the most-watched ever coverage for Day Two on the network.

One final note: One of the better ways to consume the NFL draft is via SiriusXM NFL Radio (channel 88 on satellite radios and on the SiriusXM app). It’ll air every pick from every round, live from Philadelphia. The host is Jason Horowitz, with analysts Gil Brandt, Pat Kirwan, Jim Miller and Phil Savage. Sirius said former NFL wide receiver Torry Holt will makes his debut as a SiriusXM analyst next week on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio. He will also work on SiriusXM NFL Radio during the year. Fox Sports Radio will be broadcasting live throughout the entire first round on Thursday, from the Hard Rock Cafe in downtown Philadelphia. Jay Glazer, Joel Klatt and Chris Spielman will work the broadcast for FSR.

The Noise Report

(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. Episode 114 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features sports broadcaster Kevin Harlan, who works for multiple outlets including Turner Sports, CBS Sports and Westwood One.

In this podcast, Harlan discusses preparing to call multiple series in multiple cities for TNT during the NBA playoffs; why the NFL is the hardest of the major sports to cover; why he thinks Doc Emrick is best suited for quick-twitch sports; how he morphed from calling Kansas City-area sports (Chiefs, Kings and Kansas athletics) to a national job; whether it’s good to be known for catchphrases such as “no regard for human life;” the reality of knowing he will never call an NBA Finals or a Super Bowl on television; the advice he gave his daughter Olivia, who works for ESPN and travels with the Atlanta Hawks for Fox Sports Southeast; how he’d approach calling the games of Olivia’s boyfriend (Sam Dekker, who plays for the Rockets); how he adjusts to new partners; the differences regarding the networks he works for; growing in up in Green Bay as the son of Packers CEO Bob Harlan; his now famous call from Sept. 2016 of a fan running onto the field during a Monday Night Football game between the 49ers and Rams; why he remains not altogether comfortable with doing that call; his fondness for Doug Collins, and much more.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

2. This is a great piece by Anthony Crupi of Ad Age that takes you inside how sports networks pitch to advertisers. In this case, Crupi shadowed Fox Sports on its barnstorming tour of the country's top media-buying agencies. He highlights Fox Sports president Eric Shanks selling the Cowboys and Packers brands (Fox owns the NFC package) as well as Fox Sports kicking off its six-year, $1.44 billion deal with the Big Ten Conference this year. Fox now has the annual Ohio State-Michigan game and the Big Ten football championship game in December. "Their message is 'We own the fall,' so it makes sense for Fox to lean hard on the stuff that really delivers," one TV buyer told Crupi. "Leave out sports and you're left with a bunch of sizzle reels for new shows that probably won't rate. And that's true across the board."

Another interesting note: Shanks said in a bid to siphon off English-speaking Hispanic viewers from Telemundo, Fox will cover the Mexican national squad "as if it's a second home team" during the lead-up to the 2018 World Cup. Fox has previously said it is betting big on soccer, which it believes can be a major TV sport given the demographics.

2a. The MMQB’s Peter King did his annual piece on how the NFL schedule is made. Worth reading for sports media observers.

2b. Aaron Hernandez, According to the Journalists Who Covered Him. By Kalyn Kahler. 

2c. SI.com’s Mitch Goldich on the 10 worst television games of the 2017 season

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3. The noted baseball analyst and writer Keith Law has a new book out Tuesday titled Smart Baseball. The book aims to explain what numbers in baseball actually work, and explores what the rise of Big Data means for the future of the sport. A longtime ESPN analyst, I floated Law some sports media-centric Qs on the eve of his book launch.

SI.com: What is your best suggestion to make baseball more television friendly and why?

Keith Law: Some of it is about the game itself, and some about how we—everyone—shows the games. I do think game length is an issue, although I know reasonable people who disagree on this. But I think the main contributor is commercials—the number and length of commercial breaks. Between innings, sure, but do we have to go to commercial for every pitching change? I understand that commercials provide revenue for the broadcaster, but in a world of seemingly infinite choices, commercial breaks prompt people to change the channel, leave the room, fold the laundry, etc. They interrupt the flow of the viewing experience—you were wrapped up in the game, oh, yeah, let's bring in the specialist reliever to face one batter, next pitch is in three minutes. I can get a lot done in three minutes, none of which involves sitting there and watching commercials.

This may be specific to me, but I also find there's too much uninformative content in a lot of game broadcasts—stories that don't relate to the action or the teams on the field, clichés in lieu of analysis, clips that cut away from the action. If I were producing a game broadcast, anything that makes the viewer miss even a single pitch would be a cardinal sin. (Not a Cardinal sin, which would be the Best Sin in Baseball.) If you don't have anything informative to say, say nothing. I have only done a few games as a color guy, but I really try to follow that one rule. I'm here to share what I know with the viewers, and it should be stuff most viewers don't know already or might not have noticed on the field. I will say, however, that it's not easy, when you're talking live on air, you have a very short window in which to make your point, and you don't get to triple-check every fact while you're in the middle of talking.

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SI.com: What elements are needed for a successful baseball studio show, regardless on medium, and why?

KL: I think the era of the highlight show is over. We all get highlights through other media now, whether it's on Twitter or Facebook, or directly through a sports league's app. MLB At Bat/MLB.TV are unbelievable products, and they deliver more information and video to the consumer, faster, than ever before. When CB Bucknor botched that game-ending third strike (he called it a foul tip, even though the batter didn't come within 12 parsecs of the pitch), I jumped into the app, went to the video stream, backed up just enough to watch that sequence four times, and posted a screenshot, all in a few minutes. So seeing that play on TV an hour later doesn't do a whole lot for me.

That means that the entire concept of a baseball studio show has to change. It needs to be either analysis-driven—here are things that happened with explanations why; here's why this team made this move; or theme-driven, thinking topically (but, please, no hot takes). The key driver here is the same as it is for color commentary on games: You must educate the viewer about the topic at hand. It can be a debate, on a topic with multiple reasonable viewpoints, or it can be one person explaining something (like I've done, with the help of my BBTN producers, in "Law School" segments), but it has to give the viewer something he or she didn't already know, or something to think about going forward.

SI.com: As someone who offers political thoughts or forwards politically oriented material on Twitter, how, if at all, has that impacted your interactions with readers and viewers on social media?

KL: I try to focus on two areas in that sphere—science issues and civil rights. The former has always been an interest for me. I remember my dad had a chemistry text in the house when I was a kid and I would read it like it was a novel . I find it appalling that, say, the House Committee on Science is chaired by a climate-change denier and whose religion refuses vaccinations. The conclusions of science should not be subject to approval by politicians. I stand with science and will continue to do so, just as I will continue to stand up for equal rights for everyone—women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, anyone who wasn't born into the same kind of privilege I was as a straight, white, cis man.

Yes, that does attract some negative feedback on Twitter, and occasionally on my personal site. I employ the mute and block functions heavily on Twitter, have banned many people from my personal Facebook page, and even blocked a few commenters on the dish, for using bigoted language, profanity, or, my favorite, telling me what I can and can't do with my personal accounts and blog. You have the right to think that vaccines cause autism (they don't) or that being gay/transgender is a "lifestyle choice" (it isn't) but I sure as heck don't have to listen to you. And if this means I lose a few racists as potential Smart Baseball readers, I'm okay with that.

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3a. Through Thursday's games, TNT said it had averaged 3.7 million viewers for NBA playoffs, up 13% vs. 2016 and the most viewed to-date playoffs since 2014.

4. Sports pieces of note:

• Thought this Donald G. McRae interview of former NBA player Craig Hodges for The Guardian was fascinating.

• Eye-opening reporting from ESPN’s Paula Lavigne on allegations of how Indiana University treated its injured athletes. The Hoosier Sports Report spoke with Lavigne and producer Willie Weinbaum on their reporting. 

• Deadspin’s Kevin Draper and Nick Martin listened to the show Mike and the Mad Dog on Sept. 12, 2001. Here’s what they found

• Via Cody J Tucker the Lansing State Journal: Finding Charles Rogers.

• Bleacher Report’s Erik Malinowski profiled Warriors coach Steve Kerr.

•​ Some pieces worth reading on the death of Aaron Hernandez:
-Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel: Aaron Hernandez exhibited the slightest change in his final days
-The MMQB’s Albert Breer: Aaron Hernandez’s Suicide: The Questions We’re Left Asking
-The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins: Aaron Hernandez was no innocent bystander in a bloodstained life.
-SI.com’s Michael Rosenberg: Aaron Hernandez's brother retraces former NFL star's path

The New Yorker’s Eben Pindyck on trying to describe Giannis Antetokounmpo

• Tennis all but disappeared in Cuba after the 1959 revolution. Now, it is making a comeback. From Nick Pachelli of the New York Times.

Non sports pieces of note:

Must-reading from The Washington Post’s John Woodrow Cox: For a second-grader, gunfire, school lockdowns, then the worst violence of all. 

The New York Times reporter Tejal Rao on Kabir Ahmed, who runs a halal cart in New York City. 

• 25 Years After the Riots: The Washington Post's Ruben Castaneda Recalls a Near-Suicide Mission.

• From The New Yorker’s Lauren Collins: The founder of a popular South Carolina barbecue restaurant was a white supremacist. Now that his children have taken over, is it O.K. to eat there?

• From Eliana Johnson of Politico: How Trump Blew Up the Conservative Media.

• Wired’s Erika Hayasaki, on the end of pain

• NYT reporters Matt Apuzzo, Michael S. Schmidt, Adam Goldman and Eric Lichtblau had a deep dive on FBI director James Comey. Impressive reporting. 

• From Quartz: Can you scheme with fellow passengers to make the airline pay?

Inside the hunt for Russia’s hackers, via Buzzfeed’s Sheera Frenkel. 

5. For golf fans, here's what was happening inside the CBS production truck on Masters Sunday during Sergio Garcia’s winning putt. 

5a. A rough proofreading miss:

5b. During an interview between NBC Sports NHL play-by-play announcer Mike Emrick and Nashville sports talk host Darren McFarland that ran during the Predators' pre-game show prior to Game 2 of the Blackhawks series on 102.5 The Game in Nashville, Emrick actually gave his email on air for any young broadcaster to contact him interested in getting feedback. Pretty amazing, given Emrick’s stature.

5c. I heard from longtime New York Post sports media writer Phil Mushnick on Friday—not a call I get every day—who passed along that he was not asked to be part of the Mike and the Mad Dog documentary that will air in July as part of the “30 for 30” series. Or at least Mushnick did not remember being asked by the producers. “I’d have jumped at the opportunity,” Mushnick said.

Mushnick is a longtime critic of Francesa and particularly was incensed about what he says he heard during the shows following Sept. 11, 2001. Mushnick pointed out that the Deadspin story above was not the show he listened to where he claims Francesa and colleague Chris Russo questioned the loyalty of all Jewish-Americans.

For what it’s worth, director Daniel Forer told SI.com in early April that he reached out to Mushnick, as well as Bill Parcells, a one-time close friend of Francesa’s, and Mike Piazza, who likely arrived in New York because of the radio show, but said the schedule did not work out with any of the trio. The one-hour doc debuts on July 13 on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET.

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