Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 26, 2020

A Virtual Draft Works, But Virtual Games Won’t

While not exactly a sports event, the NFL Draft is at least a significant occurrence on the calendar of the league that has the strongest hold on the attention of millions of fans across the land. That plus the current dearth of live competition in any sport made the three days of peeks into the basements and home offices of NFL coaches and general managers an even more highly watched spectacle than the usual elaborate extravaganza staged at a packed theater or arena. If nothing else the size of the audience, which was upwards of 15.6 million for Thursday’s night’s first round, established once and for all that after enough hours of watching competitive marble racing, even Roger Goodell reading from note cards starts to look interesting.

That number was much larger than the 11.4 million viewers who tuned into round one last year, and it also blew right past the previous record of 12.4 million who watched Johnny Manziel’s agonizing wait through twenty-one picks before he heard his name called two-thirds of the way through the first round in 2014. Even better measures of how desperate sports fans are for anything remotely qualifying as current action were the ratings for the second and third days of this year’s draft. Friday’s audience was up 40 percent over last year, and Saturday’s increased by 32 percent. Even in normal times many fans will take a little time to find out which collegiate stars are the top picks overall, and who their team chooses with its first-round selection. But as the rounds go on and certainly by the final selections on Saturday, the audience for the NFL Draft is usually limited to the hardest of hardcore faithful, presumably those with significant investments in either fantasy leagues or serious gambling.

For anyone who might not have hung on until the final moments of the seventh round, this year’s Mr. Irrelevant, the unfortunate nickname given to the last pick of every draft, was Dequartavous Crowder, a linebacker from the University of Georgia. Crowder, who goes by “Tae” to the undoubted relief of television announcers tasked with the unlikely but theoretically possible job of one day calling his name during an NFL game, will be reporting to training camp in East Rutherford after being named by the Giants as the 255th selection of this year’s draft.

What remains unknown is just when Tae Crowder, all the other draftees, and the hundreds of veterans whose jobs those newly minted professionals will be trying to steal will be reporting. For now, all dates on the NFL’s calendar, just like the draft, remain unchanged. But while it is possible to cancel flight and hotel reservations, do away with the elaborate team war rooms and instead set up video links to the residences of team GMs, there’s no such thing as a virtual training camp. Even as multiple professional leagues shut down in midseason, the NCAA cancelled not just its hugely profitable basketball tournaments but scores of other sports, and baseball came to a halt before it even got started, the NFL has been the beneficiary of the calendar. A few offseason training sessions have fallen victim to the pandemic, but with summer’s start of training camp and the season that follows till months away, the league could avoid the hard choices facing so many other sports.

Even as it gave fans something to watch the NFL Draft’s unique format was a reminder that football is not immune from the widespread effects of the coronavirus. That was driven home by the league’s announcement that no team’s facilities will open until they all can. That is both a responsible and fair decision, but it means that given the widely varying impact of the pandemic in different parts of the country, and even within some regions, football’s return could well be delayed. Two teams play just across the Hudson River from New York City, by far the most seriously impacted area in the country. Another calls New Orleans home, where hospitalizations have only now begun to drop after the city emerged as a COVID-19 hotspot. And just a week ago Wisconsin state health officials and the CDC warned of a sudden fourfold increase in cases in Brown County, the county seat of which is Green Bay.

August is still but a glimpse on the calendar’s horizon, and perhaps between now and then most of the news will be good. Widely available testing, continued adherence to social distancing requirements even as our culture and economy once again engage, and no ominous signs of a second wave, would all be welcome headlines as spring turns to summer. Add to that hopeful mix the restart of other leagues in some fashion, and perhaps the NFL will yet be able to adhere to its calendar.

But if that optimistic scenario comes to pass, it still won’t be business as usual. Goodell conceded as much to ESPN, saying “You have to be willing to be prepared to adapt. You can’t expect or anticipate every move, but your job is to try to be as prepared as possible.” For their part, fans should prepare for the near certainty that when it does return, the NFL will do so as a television-only sport. Whether at MetLife Stadium or the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, it is already all but impossible to envision seventy or eighty thousand fans screaming their support for the Giants, Jets or Saints come autumn. But if empty stadiums are what is required, surely the NFL will adapt.  Especially if it’s the only way to avoid the far worse outcome of a lost season in which every single draftee joined Tae Crowder in being Mr. Irrelevant.

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