The NFL's annual selection draft kicks off tonight. Although Big Media favors single narratives to drive viewership and digital interaction (think: Wimbledon), the NFL draft since 2006 has been broadcast by both ESPN and the NFL Network.
As media companies look to control their investments, the draft is an increasing rarity: a rapidly growing property with split coverage. Why is the NFL willing to provoke one of its most important rights holders, ESPN? How long will either the NFL Network or ESPN tolerate receiving less than max ad revenue from the draft? The answers depend on a bigger question: What are the NFL’s ultimate aims for its NFL Network?
Combined viewership for the first night of the 2012 NFL draft averaged 8.1 million viewers, outperforming events such as the NBA’s Western Conference Finals, MLB’s American League Championship, and even the second presidential debate. Furthermore, 2012 mobile viewership jumped to a per-minute average of 21,000, which is particularly impressive given that users with a data plan likely log out during the breaks between picks. In sum, these numbers reflected a 16 percent increase in traditional viewership, and more than a doubling of mobile and digital viewership, compared to the previous year. That’s why coverage will grow to 43 hours this year, why the NFL is willing to provoke ESPN, and why ESPN should be annoyed.
Draft advertisers thus face an opportunity with a built-in dilemma. Last year, Adidas built a predraft campaign around Robert Griffin III, and Bud Light used the draft to kick off its new six-year NFL deal. But advertisers want to control their messaging and big investments. Should a sponsor go with the NFL Network or ESPN? Or should it split between the two, losing the opportunity for true consumer engagement?
We Got Here
In 1980, fledgling ESPN began broadcasting the NFL draft, which then had many more rounds and took place on weekdays. This was awkward TV, and draftniks with jobs were more likely to call Sportsphone. In 1988, ESPN moved the draft to one entire April weekend, a monstrously popular format. In the years since, the draft has kept getting shorter, technology and production values have soared, and the Internet and digital explosion has enriched the draft experience. “Draft gurus,” such as Mel Kiper, Jr., and Todd McShay, have taken to the airwaves, and war room interviews (and confrontations) have become good TV.
More recently, the NFL Network has also helped make it great narrative. The network started televising the NFL Scouting Combine in 2004, the draft in 2006, and the Senior Bowl in 2007. It thus builds a draft narrative starting in January, meanwhile building audiences during its down season. And with little competition for resources, the NFL Network can devote 40 people to covering the 2013 draft, versus 25 for ESPN. Finally, it has invested in its own draft experts, such as Mike Maycock, who can give viewers deeper insights.
So what started in 2006 as complementary coverage has evolved into direct competition. The NFL Network now seems to be infringing on ESPN’s ability to build a story. And although the competition has made both production teams improve their games, it’s highly duplicative and scatters the audience.
As advertisers become savvier and prefer integrated media relationships, ESPN and the NFL Network are disadvantaged. Marketers increasingly prefer to link entertainment, endorsements, special content, and social buzz to create a “surround sound” effect that multiplies the impact of advertising dollars. But how do you do that when neither network offers full control?
I see this situation playing out in one of three scenarios over the coming years:
1. Continued competition would strain the ESPN-NFL relationship, keep the audience fragmented, and prevent the draft from maximizing its ratings and revenues. And the shows could suffer. This year, both networks instituted a “no-tweeting” policy to prevent spoiling the big announcement moments. But with the two networks competing, will the agreement continue in future years?
2. A more meaningful partnership is perhaps more likely. Although the NFL Network has been signing up more cable deals, ESPN is still much bigger—and irreplaceable on basic cable. If the NFL’s 32 team owners decided to leave the peddling of networks to professionals, then perhaps the NFL Network could join the uber-successful ESPN family (indeed, rumors have suggested that the NFL Network might replace ESPN Classic).
3. Alternatively, an increasingly ambitious NFL Network might buy into the hype of ever-growing revenues from broadcast, cable, digital and mobile. If so, it could decide to cut partners out completely. If the NFL owners were particularly ruthless, they might seek to become both supplier and distributor of not only the draft, but also all pro football games, across all platforms.
For now the problem is the NFL Network has the better show (or at least the capability to generate a better show), but ESPN has broader access. Those factors won’t change. If the NFL’s goal is to maximize the value of its draft as a media/marketing property, then the answer is simple: It needs to find a single rights holder that can expand the single narrative.
If the NFL conducted an auction for draft broadcast rights—total control over a prime property—it would attract plenty of bidders. Would ESPN want to be the top bidder in that auction? Could the network walk away from an event it has built across 33 years? Those answers are yet to be determined; as the old adage goes, that’s why they play the games.
Call me crazy, but in the wake of the draft’s success, we wonder if that auction itself might make for a dramatic TV event.