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Live from Roger Goodell’s basement: the tech-heavy NFL Draft

Despite a coronavirus pandemic that’s shut down a glitzy live event, the NFL and its broadcast partners are managing to make the 2020 NFL Draft a primetime happening—thanks to tech.

The 2020 NFL Draft had been set for a big Las Vegas event, as befitting a major event on the league calendar, but the coronavirus pandemic took the coverge from an elaborate stage next to Caesars Forum on the Strip to various home-based locations, including Roger Goodell’s basement. All the action will be virtual, with ESPN coverage originating in Bristol, CT studios (yes, everyone will adhere to proper social distancing guidelines and local workplace rules) and analysts, reporters and other experts contributing remotely from home studios virtually. (Yes, we can’t wait to see Mel Kiper Jr. and Booger McFarland are working from remotely.) It is set to be broadcast on ABC (which will broadcast the first three rounds), ESPN and the NFL Network.

Turning a glitzy Las Vegas show into the NFL equivalent of a Wayne’s World broadcast is certainly a change, and to their credit NFL officials are treating the event as the entertainment it is during hard times.

“We recognize the challenging times we are living in, but we are looking forward to presenting the 2020 NFL Draft and providing some hope for football fans everywhere,” said Seth Markman, ESPN vice president, production, via press statement. “For the past couple of years, ESPN’s NFL and college teams have worked together on our draft coverage, and it has been a win for our viewers. This year, we are further excited to collaborate with the NFL Network creating an All-Star broadcast. We are also committed to producing the ESPN/NFL Network and ABC shows in the safest possible environment for our announcers and production teams.”

And, as another way to sell the draft as a worthwhile diversion, the NFL Draft will also feature a “Draft-A-Thon” which will pay tribute to healthcare workers and first responders in a variety of ways—including raising funds for the work being done to combat the impact of COVID-19. Funds will help support six national nonprofits and their respective COVID-19 relief efforts.


One impact on tonight’s draft will be the lack of in-person scouting, shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Technology via virtual scouting has been drafted to help inform NFL teams with their picks.

The 2020 scouting process had begun with pro days and individual workouts before travel was shut down by the league, but it’s clear scouts had not done all the work they anticipated before the draft. Game video has helped fill the gaps, but scouts want to see more: they want to see how players react in specific game situations.

Enter Slants, a sports-tech startup that analyses game data and extrapolates from that game data via artificial intelligence. The Brooklyn firm has worked with several teams on performance analysis, per The New York Times:

In the past month, more N.F.L. teams have been sending Slants video of dozens of plays from college games and asking for predictive statistics on players — particularly wide receivers, running backs and defensive backs. Some teams are using Slants’s findings to confirm data that their scouts collected in games or drills. In other cases, Slants is providing new information.

“It kind of feels guilty to say with everything going on in the world, but it’s helped show people the value of this technology,” said Ali Shah, the company’s other co-founder.

N.F.L. teams are reluctant to openly discuss how they use the technology for fear of giving their rivals an advantage. But one person in charge of analytics at an N.F.L. team who spoke on condition of anonymity said that he is using Slants to help evaluate some of the 3,000 or so college players he has tracked ahead of this year’s draft. His team also uses Pro Football Focus, which grades college players from the Power 5 conferences. His staff also watches video to subjectively evaluate lesser known players.


One element of the draft that will change because of the coronavirus: the ritualistic booing of Goodell as he announces draft choices. Yeah, it’s irrational, and yeah, it’s more the result of drunken bros gathering than any well-reason criticism of Goodell’s policies or deep analysis of team draft picks. But there are two promos designed to measure how fans are virtually booing Goodell.

A Bud Light promo, in conjunction with the NFL, asks fans to boo on Twitter while tagging @budlight and including a hashtag #BooTheCommish. For every tweet, Budweiser will donate $1 to the Draft-A-Thon fund mentioned above, up to $500,000. Not the most imaginative of promos and even by Budweiser standards extremely self-serving.

The better tracker of response to NFL draft picks may be a real-time reaction tracker of Reddit users. Caio Brighenti, a student at Colgate University and a disciple of Big Data, is setting up a real-time tracker of fan sentiment based on Reddit postings, with the results to be posted on Twitch. From the Wall Street Journal:

Reddit, in particular, is perfect for parsing through the psychoses of NFL fans on draft day. The popular website’s set-up makes it possible for him to scrape their comments immediately. There are also nearly two million members of the NFL’s sub-Reddit, plus the ones on individual team pages, giving him an even larger sample size than the tens of thousands of people who show up to the draft in a given year. And there’s a tool on Reddit for all of those fans to identify their favorite team, so Brighenti knows if every post is coming from someone who loves the Bengals or the Cowboys.

The program pulls every new post as soon as it goes up and places it in a spreadsheet that’s the digitized version of a sports bar where everyone is arguing. Then each comment is evaluated by an analysis tool that rates the text on a scale from -1 to 1; lower figures are angrier and more negative and higher ones are happier and more positive.

“It basically keeps a rolling average of the sentiment of the fan base,” Brighenti says.

Of course, it’s less satisfying to post a strongly worded reaction on Reddit than to yell at Goodell on the Las Vegas Strip with beer and indignation in hand. But in this time of coronavirus, we all must make sacrifices.

Photo courtesy Paramount.

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