April 23, 2020, the National Football League kicked off the first virtual NFL Draft in the history of the league. With all professional sporting events cancelled or postponed in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, anxious NFL fans held on to hope for the continuation of the NFL’s most prestigious pre-season event.
Just three weeks prior to the annual ceremonial event, Commissioner Roger Goodell informed all 32 NFL football teams that the 2020 NFL Draft would proceed on time, with one significant modification- the annual live event, originally scheduled to be held live in Las Vegas, would now be conducted in an entirely virtual format. The NFL quickly sprang into action, partnering with top broadcast networks, including the NFL Network, ESPN and ABC to deliver an NFL Draft experience like never before, quickly adapting with the use of technology, to serve teams, draft picks, and most importantly, the loyal fans anticipating the annual unofficial opening of the National Football League’s upcoming season.
With league facilities set to remain closed indefinitely, to ensure NFL compliance with CDC regulations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teams were advised to conduct the draft outside of their facilities in separate locations, supplementing live experience with phone and internet interaction. Roger Goodell hosted the event from his home basement studio, while coaches, teammates and draft picks streamed the live event from their homes. The only remaining challenge was finding a solution to conduct interaction between the Commissioner and fans of all 32 NFL teams during the live broadcast.
The fan-engaging “Inner Circle” concept was born when longtime NFL partners and fan experience agency, The Famous Group, collaborated with the NFL to design, plan and execute a one-of-a-kind experience that would incorporate 960 home-bound fans, including 480 fans selected to represent each of the 32 teams’ inner circles, into the live, virtual broadcast.
Quince Imaging, sports technology partner of the Famous Group, acted as the overall inner circle technical systems architect, providing custom control software and video systems to moderate and animate digital fan feeds. Quince Imaging leveraged experience from designing innovative technical solutions for live sporting events including NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB events, to develop a virtual automation application capable of moderating, directing and preparing each of the 480 inner circle fans across all 32 groups for live interaction with Roger Goodell throughout the 2-day live draft pick portion of the broadcast. The custom application, unlike other video conferencing platforms, was designed to give production staff complete control over the visual design, layout, and moderation of the participants, delivering a seamless technological workflow and broadcast quality to the home audience while creating a user-friendly interface for fans. Production took place from Quince Imaging’s remote production studio, located at their Northern Virginia headquarters, where inner circle content was fed to ESPN and Roger Goodell’s home basement studio.
In collaboration with The Famous Group’s production design and Quince Imaging’s control systems, LTN Global provided cloud infrastructure and cloud video architecture to manage the 480 inner circle fans. LTN Global’s Live Video Cloud enabled fans to seamlessly connect their video feed to the production chain, while receiving audio and video return from producers. LTN Live Video Cloud API driven workflows also allowed producers to route individual fan reactions instantaneously to generate each team’s unique mosaic presented behind the Commissioner while reacting in real-time to draft picks.
The combined effort of the fan experience team, comprised of The Famous Group, Quince Imaging and LTN Global, consisted of over 50 team members, spanning 50 remote locations throughout the United States. The synergistic contributions of each technology partner and individual team member culminated in virtual interaction of nearly 1000 fans throughout the live broadcast. “The most rewarding aspect of this project was experiencing the fans’ excitement the moment before going live to witness the announcement of their team’s draft pick. Seeing their faces light up, I could absolutely feel the unity and connection between them as they realized the impact of their involvement in the 2020 NFL Draft. This year, for the first time, they were more than spectators; they were active participants immersed in the live event, and in this extraordinary moment in NFL history,” said Eric Gazzillo, Executive Director, Quince Imaging.
Viewership was met with all-time high ratings; the NFL announced the virtual 2020 NFL Draft as the most-watched ever with more than 55 million viewers tuning in throughout the three-day event. Running concurrently with the draft, the NFL held a three-day fundraiser, raising a total of $6.6 million, with the proceeds going toward six charities offering aid to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The event was also met with acclaim throughout the sports industry, for both the NFL and the attention to fan experience throughout the virtual draft. CBS Sports’ David Samson of “Nothing Personal with David Samson,” weighed in on the success of the 2020 draft, stating, “What we’ve seen is that the NFL is an industry leader in connecting with fans,” Samson said. “Now they’ve got the product to do it because everyone is so interested in the draft. It’s always such a huge event to begin with. The NFL did it and I was proud of it.”