ESPN’s Suzy Kolber (above), Sal Paolantonio (below left) and the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock (bottom) will get lots of face time
Tonight’s pre-draft storylines involving Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles, Derek Carr and Teddy Bridgewater are expected to provide a nice viewership bump for the NFL draft-airing networks: Last year ESPN’s first round coverage averaged 6.61 million viewers, down seven percent from the 2012 draft (which featured Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden). The NFL Network’s first-round coverage last year averaged 1.5 million viewers, up seven percent over 2012 though factor in that the network was in 71.2 million U.S. homes in April 2013 versus 59.1 million in April 2012.
This year’s draft viewership will also be aided by the event moving back two weeks from its usual start date. That’s two additional weeks of conjecture, mock drafts, and publicity for the annual Goodellapoolza.
“We thought this could be a highly-viewed draft because of the star power,” said NFL Network executive producer Eric Weinberger said. “It will be interesting to see what the extra two weeks will mean. You can’t go apples to apples from this year’s draft to last year but there were not as many big names last year. This one is very deep, with a lot of quarterbacks, and we are expecting some big viewership.”
While ESPN and NFL Network will compete fiercely for audience, once again the networks have 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 and not to report pick-by-pick selections on the Twitter feeds of staffers prior to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announcing the picks on the podium. That Twitter agreement carries through at least the first two rounds.
Each network has made changes in personnel for live coverage, which begins Thursday (Round 1 starts at 8 p.m. ET) and extends to Friday (Rounds 2-3; 7 p.m.) and Saturday (Rounds 4-7; 12 p.m.). Below, we offer a viewers guide:
The vitals: This is the 35th year ESPN will broadcast the NFL draft.
Staffing: The main set for Round 1 consists of host Chris Berman and analysts Jon Gruden, Mel Kiper Jr. and newcomer Ray Lewis. NFL insiders Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter will report from an additional set on all three days. Suzy Kolber will interview players following their selection. Trey Wingo will replace Berman on the main set for Days 2 and 3 and be joined by analysts Trent Dilfer, Kiper and Todd McShay. Front office insider Bill Polian will split time with Dilfer on the main set on Saturday and will weigh in on Friday and Saturday at different times from an additional pit at Radio City.
What’s New I: Ray Lewis. The former Ravens linebacker will be on the main set on Day One and his bosses assigned him 40 guys to focus on for the opening round.
“This guy was a film junkie as a player,” said ESPN senior coordinating producer Seth Markman. “I don’t care about Ray calling people around the league. I want his opinion on guys as he watches tape. He has strong opinions on players in this draft, positive and negative. This will not be Ray mailing it in. You will not watch the draft and say this guy was unprepared. His take on [defensive players] Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack and C.J. Mosely will be huge. But he has strong opinions on Manziel, Bortles, Carr and Bridgewater too.”
What’s New II: Markman said ESPN will have subtle changes this year on Days 2 and 3. The coverage will focus less on big picture topics and more on the pick by pick selections. To wit, there will be no set (and no analysts) based in Bristol during Days 2 and 3 of the draft, though Kolber will be there to do some interviews and give Wingo a breather. “In the past we have had a set in Bristol on Saturday and pin-balled back and forth,” Markman said.
“This year we will stay in Radio City for virtually all of Saturday.”
Numbers of interest: ESPN says it has 316 player highlight packages available. They will have 23 cameras at Radio City.
Celebrity connections: The opening tease to ESPN’s coverage features Seahawks stars Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman talking about how big a moment it was to be drafted, with Aloe Blac singing “The Man” to a montage of draft picks.
The ground game: ESPN’s reporters at team sites include Josina Anderson (St. Louis Rams), Bob Holtzman (Minnesota Vikings), Britt McHenry (Jacksonville Jaguars), Sal Paolantonio (Cleveland Browns), Michele Steele (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Ed Werder (Houston Texans).
Odds and ends: ESPN Radio will broadcast the NFL draft live on Thursday at 7 p.m. from Radio City with host Dari Nowkhah, analysts Louis Riddick and Mark Schlereth and ESPN.com senior NFL writer John Clayton. Coverage resumes Friday with Nowkhah, Riddick, Schlereth and Clayton. ESPN International will offer television coverage of the Draft to more than 31 million households in 41 countries and territories.
The vitals: This is the 10th draft the NFL Network has covered since it debuted in Nov. 2003.
Staffing: The main set for Round 1 consists of Rich Eisen, Marshall Faulk, Mike Mayock, Steve Mariucci, and Michael Irvin. Deion Sanders will interview draft picks on stage. The Radio City Music pit includes insiders Ian Rapoport and Daniel Jeremiah. Kurt Warner will weigh in from a studio in Los Angeles. For Rounds 2-3, Eisen will host the main set with analysts Mayock, Charles Davis, and Brian Billick. Melissa Stark will handle the interviews in the Green Room. Warner will also weigh in on Day Two. For Day 3 (Rounds 4-7), the main set will be Eisen, Mayock, Davis and Jeremiah. The Saturday coverage will include Stanford coach David Shaw (11 a.m. – 2:45 p.m. ET) and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher (3-5 p.m. ET).
“We are trying tighten up our analysis before and after picks,” said Weinberger. What does that mean? It means a faster rhythm to get in and out of picks rather than have every main set staffer weigh in on every selection.
What’s New?: The NFL Network has added more voices to its opening night coverage including for the first time someone not in NYC: Warner has his own Warner’s Corner segment in Los Angeles and when every quarterback gets picked, viewers will hear from him second. Look for NFL Network analyst Warren Sapp to weigh in when Clowney is selected. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer will appear prior to Friday’s draft coverage at 5:30 ET p.m.
Numbers of interest: The network will have approximately 2,500 player video highlight packages available — the most they’ve ever had. That’s tape on approximately 750 players.
Celebrity connections: Prior to the start of the first round on Thursday, Stark and Kevin Frasier will conduct the annual sycophantic, ass-kissing festival that is the red-carpet. They’ll interview each of the 23 prospects attending in the hours leading up to the live draft coverage.
The ground game: The following staffers will be assigned around the country: Michelle Beisner (Rams); Albert Breer (Vikings on Thursday and Redskins on Friday); Stacey Dales (Patriots); Jeff Darlington (Jaguars on Thursday/Friday, and Dolphins on Saturday); Alex Flanagan (Seahawks); Rebecca Haarlow (Bears); Rich Hollenberg (Atlanta Falcons); Kimberly Jones (Giants on Thursday and Jets on Saturday); Aditi Kinkhabwala (Browns on Thursday; Ravens on Friday, and Steelers on Saturday; Randy Moss (Jets); Desmond Purnell (Cowboys); Omar Ruiz (Raiders on Thursday; Niners on Friday and Saturday; Mike Silver (Rams); Ari Wolfe (Eagles) and Steve Wyche (Texans).