ESPN, NFL Network put competition aside for betterment of NFL Draft coverage

Since 2006, the draft has appeared on ESPN networks and NFL Network. The competition between the two was fierce.

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Las Vegas hosted the NFL Draft last year. It’s in Kansas City next weekend. The first round begins at 7 p.m. Thursday.

Vera Nieuwenhuis/AP

It’s rare for competing TV networks to air the same sporting event. CBS and NBC carried Super Bowl I in 1967. Fox and NBC aired the first game of the new USFL last year. But exclusivity is largely the rule.

Except for the NFL Draft.

Since 2006, the draft has appeared on ESPN networks and NFL Network. The competition between the two was fierce.

“There were times when ESPN would go to commercial and NFL Network would say, ‘If ESPN’s in commercial, we shouldn’t go to commercial,’ and vice versa,” said Seth Markman, a vice president of production at ESPN. “It made the telecast terrible overall because we were delaying the picks coming in.”

A few years ago, the networks decided it behooved them to work together. The friendship between Markman and NFL Network counterpart Charlie Yook aided the effort, which led to other collaborations, such as crossover appearances of network talent.

“When I first got here in ’06, if someone said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if Mel [Kiper] would come on our show and then our guys go on their show,’ it would never have happened,” said Yook, now the executive producer of NFL Media. “We’ve evolved. It’s a cool thing to cross-promote.”

The networks will come together again next week in Kansas City for the draft, which will air on Disney’s ABC and ESPN and the league’s network. The first round begins at 7 p.m. Thursday, Rounds 2-3 start at 6 p.m. Friday and Rounds 4-7 at 11 a.m. Saturday. To be sure, Markman and Yook want viewers to watch their respective shows. But it’s important to each that both productions do well.

“It’s a change in mentality,” Yook said. “Obviously, there’s a special consideration I make to what we’re doing, but there is also a genuine desire to ensure that our partners succeed. Business is good if people are watching the games on the networks. No different here.”

The networks are in the same meetings with the league for draft site surveys, which teams’ draft rooms will be covered and, yes, commercial breaks. They now try to break simultaneously so they can air picks at the same time. The networks coordinate with the league through essentially a party line in each production truck.

“The NFL’s king, and we want to keep it that way,” Yook said. “An event like this only helps when everyone does a great job.”

Here are scouting reports of the networks’ coverage:

ABC

For the fifth year, ABC will air a distinct telecast that focuses on storytelling, introducing the players and their families and sharing their journeys to the NFL. It will air for the first two nights. On Saturday, ABC will simulcast ESPN’s presentation.

“At first, I’m sure people were like, ‘Why are they doing two separate draft shows?’ ” Markman said. “But I really believe that the audience has come to understand what they’re going to get on ABC and on ESPN. I thought last year we really hit it right. We do focus groups and get research. We’re pleased with where we are.”

The show will have two sets, include nine broadcasters and feature draft analyst Todd McShay and cast members from “College GameDay.” “NFL Live” host Laura Rutledge will be in the green room. Though the show will provide some player analysis, it’s more of a human-interest endeavor.

ESPN

The network wrote the playbook for draft coverage, airing its first event in 1980.

“This is one of the few events that’s part of the DNA of ESPN,” said Markman, who’s overseeing his 11th draft in 24 years at the network. “Certainly before my time, we came up with the idea of putting it on TV. I think the NFL at the time thought we were crazy.”

ESPN’s traditional show will focus on the draftees and the teams and how the players will fit within each. Mike Greenberg, who had heart surgery (cardiac ablation) a month ago, will host his third consecutive draft as part of a seven-person cast.

The network differentiates itself with a star-studded stable of insiders. Mel Kiper, who helped make the draft a spectacle, will work his 40th. Adam Schefter seemingly can affect the stock market with a tweet. ESPN also has a rising draft analyst, Matt Miller, who used to make regular appearances on The Score.

“In jobs like I have, you always are thinking, ‘Who are the next Kipers and McShays?’ ” Markman said. “A couple of years ago, he reached out to me. I admired his work and said he’d be someone that would be interesting to start to groom a little bit for the future.”

Miller will make his debut on ESPN’s coverage Saturday, when he joins Kiper and McShay on the set. It should be a delight for draftniks and hard-core fans. Tip your hat to Kiper, who selflessly suggested to Markman that Miller join the show.

NFL Network

Rich Eisen returns as the only person to host the network’s coverage. Daniel Jeremiah has cemented his spot atop the draft-analyst industry since replacing Mike Mayock in 2019. CBS NFL analyst Charles Davis and Fox Sports college analyst Joel Klatt join them on the main set. Hall of Famer Kurt Warner and insider Ian Rapoport will appear on another set, and Melissa Stark will conduct interviews on-stage.

“We feel very strongly about where we’ve positioned ourselves for the first night and beyond,” said Yook, a Glenbrook South graduate who’s overseeing his ninth draft in 18 years at the network.

NFL Network is creating a megacast with separate crews on NFL+ (first round only) and the NFL Channel (all three days), the league’s free ad-supported streaming service. The first round also will stream on YouTube, putting the network’s coverage on linear, digital and direct-to-consumer platforms.

“We need to serve the viewer,” Yook said. “And the viewer right now, those that are well below my age, they’re not watching how I watch television. So we need to provide the avenue where they’re going to see our product.”

Yook said the NFL+ show will serve as a 33rd draft room, predicting teams’ picks. The NFL Channel will feature Lance Zierlein, who wrote the player profiles for NFL.com.

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