(Reuters) - The National Football League’s biggest off-season bash, planned as a Las Vegas extravaganza, will instead be an online Draft Day house party hosted by commissioner Roger Goodell from his basement on Thursday, the latest sports tradition forced to adjust to the realities of the coronavirus pandemic.
Everyone who has access to Wifi or cable is invited to join the virtual fun, as broadcasters ESPN and NFL Network perform a technological high-wire act handling feeds from nearly 200 different players and team officials scattered around the United States.
In a sports world shuttered and starved of content by the pandemic, the NFL will serve up a three-day feast for gridiron fans as the league’s 32 teams restock their ranks with top college players.
“These are very challenging circumstances but we have a great opportunity here to bring fans across the country a little bit of hope, a little bit of joy and maybe a bit of an escape,” Seth Markman, a producer at ESPN, told reporters on a recent conference call.
The draft is not the Super Bowl, but fans eagerly waiting to see who their teams will select will provide some actual suspense.
Each pick through seven rounds will be dissected, debated and digested as fans look to the future rather than reliving the past through re-runs of great moments broadcast by television networks desperate to fill thousands of hours of programming wiped out by the coronavirus.
While an abstract concept to sports fans outside North America, the draft is the life blood of leagues operating in the United States and Canada, providing competitive balance by allowing the weakest teams first dibs on the best young players.
The Cincinnati Bengals, coming off an NFL-worst 2-14 season, are widely expected use their No 1. overall pick on quarterback Joe Burrow, who led Louisiana State University to a national championship and won the 2019 Heisman Trophy as college football’s top player.
Cincinnati will be followed by the Washington Redskins, the Detroit Lions and New York Giants, rounding out the top four. The Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs will have the final pick of Thursday’s opening round.
While fundamentals of the draft remain unchanged, the switch to the virtual world will offer a very different look and vibe.
Instead of the Las Vegas Strip providing a glitzy, high-energy backdrop, the big reveal will be decidedly low key with Goodell staring into a laptop or camera in the basement of his home in the New York City suburb of Bronxville to announce the No. 1 selection.
And the young player’s dream-come-true moment will not feature the usual exuberant in-person embrace with the commissioner in what has become a hug-free environment.
Last year’s draft in Nashville set records with 600,000 fans filling the streets for the three-day festival and hundreds of thousands more attending packed team parties.
But with most of the United States observing strict social distancing guidelines this year’s parties, like the draft itself, will go virtual, with supporter groups meeting up online through team websites and other platforms like Twitter and Zoom.
“We’re excited to ... create these experiences for our fans and hope they provide them with some enjoyment during this challenging time,” said Alex Chang, chief marketing officer for the San Francisco 49ers, who have two first-round picks - 13th via a trade and their own 31st overall pick.
Advertisers and gamblers, who have had precious little to bet on, are also excited.
Commercial time for the draft sold out while search interest around betting on the proceedings is up more than 200% from last year.
“I think it will garner significant interest because people are desperate for something (in sports),” said Dave Campanelli, chief investment officer at Horizon Media.
Amy Rumpler, vice-president of digital ad agency Centro, said Google has been offering sponsorship opportunities for the NFL and NFL Network channels on YouTube, highlighting a spike in internet search interest around the draft.
“A lot of advertisers who were heavily invested in sports sponsorships before now are trying to figure out where to put those dollars,” said Rumpler. “The NFL Draft is basically the only sporting event happening right now.”
As the draft moves online, one new concern is the threat of cyber attacks, with cybersecurity experts saying teams are vulnerable to mischief-makers.
The virtual draft also represents uncharted territory for the teams forced to find imaginative ways to evaluate talent from a distance in the face of a highly contagious pathogen present in all 50 U.S. states.
“I think there are challenges, but it’s nothing compared to what the rest of the world is facing,” said Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury. “Doctors and nurses and people working in stores - you have to keep things in perspective.
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Additional reporting Amy Tennery, Frank Pingue, Rory Carrol, Katie Paul, Sheila Dang; Editing by Bill Berkrot