What used to be “Are you ready for football?” became: “Can you hear me now?”
As part of its unprecedented virtual production project in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL has sent “technology kits” to 58 prospects across the country. Each kit includes various ring lights, tripods and microphones, as well as two iPhones, allowing these future pros to transform their home into makeshift TV studios.
If this project were a wheel, the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, would be the hub – broadcasting from the basement of his New York home – with nearly 200 spokes distributed between the 32 teams, these 58 prospects and a collection of current and former players. These feeds will be collected by video call centers and then sent in batches to ESPN.
“We do it live,” said Michelle McKenna, NFL news manager. “It’s not like we can record it, edit it and make sure the sound and lighting are perfect. We will live directly.
“It’s exciting, and also very nerve-wracking.”
Despite the closure of other sports leagues during the crisis, the NFL decided to stick to its initial dates for the three-day draft from April 23 to 25, moving the Las Vegas event to dozens of sites distant, some with skeleton production personnel adhering to the rules of social isolation such as no more than 10 people in one room and everyone at least six feet from each other.
The project’s seven rounds will be featured on ABC, ESPN and NFL Network, and will double as the so-called Draft-A-Thon, a fundraiser for the benefit of six charities fighting the spread of COVID-19. While ESPN and NFL Network will combine to offer a single broadcast on both networks, ABC will present a program broadcast in prime time for rounds 1 to 3 – Thursday and Friday – then the simultaneous broadcast of rounds 4 to 7 with both other networks.
“It is important that we have an idea of what we are trying to accomplish,” said Mark Quenzel, executive vice president of programming and production at NFL Network. “Obviously, it’s about spotting players. But even more clearly, it’s about setting the tone that we understand that there is something much bigger in the world than us.”
For teams, with staff and coaches working from home because the club facilities are closed, this project presents new challenges. There will be no real “war rooms”, only virtual ones.
In a recent note to the 32 teams, Goodell wrote that clubs were asked to “prepare to conduct the 2020 project entirely outside of their facilities and in a fully virtual format, with club staff in separate locations and able to communicate with each other and Headquarters Project by phone or internet. We have discussed this matter in recent days with the Competition Committee and the CEC [NFL Management Council Executive Commmitee], and this will confirm that the clubs will conduct their draft operations remotely, with club staff located separately at their home. “
Over the past three years, Graves has annually reconfigured a room at the Thousand Oaks team training center so that Coach Sean McVay, General Manager Les Snead, Vice President Tony Pastoors and Chef de operating Kevin Demoff have “all the comforts of their offices” for the three-day project. Additional computers, docking stations, monitors and generators are kept nearby as backups.
This year, Graves is responsible for creating similar stations in the houses of McVay, Snead, Pastoors and Demoff.
Snead recently stated that making every home “locked and IT-loaded” was a priority. “Interestingly, in today’s time, I think we probably find that the number one obstacle is finding someone who has a real phone line, a land line,” said Snead.
But the challenge goes beyond.
Technicians must create “redundancy at every step” to ensure the systems are backed up, said Graves. This includes setting up an additional Internet service provider.
McVay, Snead, Pastoors and Demoff will participate in a web meeting throughout the project. There will also be a second meeting for coaches, scouts, medical staff and doctors. And a third web meeting with the NFL. They will also have telephones to communicate with other teams concerning the trades.
“We will make sure everything they are comfortable is set up and working – as long as we have all the security in place,” said Graves. “Because it’s my main concern: security.”
Rams and other teams should use multi-factor authentication and password protection among other security measures. The NFL IT community is generally ready to help other teams solve problems. But the first virtual project required a more isolated process.
The Chargers, who rank sixth overall, declined to provide their IT expert for this story.
On the day of the draft, the league authorized an IT person to be at the home of each stakeholder. These workers will practice social distance and wear masks and gloves.
This is the new reality of a virtual project.