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Volume 20 No. 46
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Uncertainty over NFL draft picks adds suspense, but may hurt show’s ratings

With no big names in this year’s NFL draft, there may be more suspense in the selections than ever for viewers, but analysts expect television ratings to take a hit.

Last year, 8.1 million people watched to see quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III taken No. 1 and No. 2 overall in prime time on ESPN and the NFL Network. But football talent experts say that there are no quarterbacks of the caliber of Luck or Griffin in this year’s draft and that the first overall pick, as well as the composition of the entire first round, is up in the air.

NFL Network is expanding its coverage of team decision-makers before and after they make a pick.
“All our data and research tells us major sports names and personalities engage our audience, create interest and … drive up ratings,” said Neal Pilson, sports television consultant and former president of CBS Sports, via email. “Uncertainty over unknowns is not a recipe for strong ratings.”

Ed Desser, president of Desser Sports Media, agreed. There are three main constituencies that watch the NFL draft, he said: hard-core NFL fans, hard-core college football fans and casual fans. The difference between an average rating and a big rating is the casual fan. “I would expect the lack of names to have a deleterious effect,” Desser said.

ESPN and the NFL Network will broadcast the first round of the draft starting at 8 p.m. ET Thursday. Rounds two and three will be broadcast starting at 6:30 p.m. ET Friday on the NFL Network and ESPN and rounds four through seven will start at noon ET Saturday on the NFL Network and ESPN. ESPN2 will take over for the latter part of Friday and Saturday coverage.

The NFL began broadcasting the first round of the draft on Thursday night in prime time in 2010, and the number of viewers of that round shot to 8.3 million from 6.3 million the year before, when the draft began on Saturday afternoon.

Officials from both the NFL Network and ESPN declined to make any rating predictions or projections for this year’s draft

“On our end, we are embracing the uncertainty, and I think it makes for an intriguing broadcast,” said Charlie Yook, NFL Network coordinating producer and lead producer for draft coverage.

Yook noted that the ratings for the NFL Network’s coverage of the NFL Combine were up this year over last year, despite the lack of big-name players.

One thing NFL Network is expanding this year is its coverage of NFL club decision-makers before and after they make a pick. There will be coverage of at least 15 clubs, up from 12 last year, Yook said.

ESPN, meanwhile, will have cameras at about 20 NFL draft prospects’ homes, said Seth Markman, ESPN senior coordinating producer and the lead producer on the draft. In addition, there will be 23 prospects at the draft in New York.

Still, Markman said, it is possible the network will not be able to cover every top draft pick. “We might have kids in the green room after the first day, and I think there are some kids who will be in their living rooms that will get picked higher than we thought, because it is so wide open.”

Markman spoke last week after emerging from a pre-draft strategy meeting with ESPN broadcasters Mel Kiper Jr., Jon Gruden, Chris Berman and Adam Schefter. “We were talking about players, and we were talking about kids being picked No. 2 or 20th,” Markman said.

Both Markman and Yook said that although there is no standout player in this year’s draft, there are players sports fans are interested in, including quarterbacks Matt Barkley from USC and Geno Smith from West Virginia. Additionally, Yook noted, non-sports fans know about Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, because of mainstream coverage of his being the victim of a hoax involving a girlfriend who didn’t exist. Te’o is not one of the 23 players who have committed to come to the draft, but Markman said ESPN was “working on” trying to get a camera on Te’o.

Asked whether NFL Network was trying to get a camera on Te’o for the draft as well, Yook said, “I think everyone on planet Earth is trying to.”

Tom Condon, CAA Football co-head and Te’o’s agent, said via text message, “Manti will watch with family members.”

Gil Brandt, former Dallas Cowboys head of personnel and current writer, decides which players are invited to the draft every year. He said last week he hoped all 23 players he invited would be drafted in the first round but said he asked some players to stay over and attend the draft Friday if they were not picked in the first round on Thursday night.