‘College GameDay’ Success Fuels Disney’s Draft Approach on ABC

    • ‘GameDay’ crew bring college football expertise to draft, say coaches Mack Brown, James Franklin and Matt Campbell.
    • Disney leverages broadcast channels and personnel to expand coverage to the widest demographic possible.

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Over the last two years, The Walt Disney Company has taken a wall-to-wall coverage approach to the NFL Draft, broadcasting the event across several networks and platforms.

But while most of ESPN’s coverage takes the vantage point of the NFL, looking to fulfill hardcore football followers, the inspiration for ABC’s approach comes directly from “College GameDay,” the increasingly popular pregame show.

“GameDay’s” broadcast aims to provide an inside-out view of college football, while also speaking to a broader audience than the typical X’s and O’s draft coverage on ESPN or NFL Network. ABC, for example, employs more story-telling about top college prospects and their families, and less analysis of the draft needs of NFL teams, coaches and GM’s.

ABC intends to combine those efforts this year by featuring a mixture of college football-focused broadcasters like Kirk Herbstreit, Rece Davis, Maria Taylor, Desmond Howard and Tom Rinaldi.

Their purpose is to provide their own insights, different from those brought by typical NFL TV analysts on ESPN or NFL Network. And the overarching sentiment among college football coaches is that they’re able to accomplish just that. 

“The college commentators bring a unique perspective because they have interviewed these players, they have talked to them at length about their team, their leadership and what makes them tick,” said University of North Carolina head coach Mack Brown, who won the BCS National Championship with Texas in 2005.  

Penn State head coach James Franklin noted the “GameDay” crew understands college prospects in a way NFL TV draftniks don’t. They’re not just names and numbers on a draft board – in the college space, they’re people, too.

“These crews traveled the country during the season, post-season, and got a chance to not only see the best players play on the biggest stages, but also get to know them as well,” Franklin said. “Oftentimes they interface with these players multiple times over a few years. They interview these kids, watch them practice, and get a glimpse behind the curtain of who they are as people and student-athletes.”

The perspective of the “GameDay” crew, Franklin added, “is certainly different from an NFL draft expert – when Rece, Kirk, and Maria speak about college football players, they speak with a fondness, almost like they have an emotional connection to the players which is certainly both interesting and appealing.”

No one knows more about college football prospects than people who cover them day in and day out, Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell said.

“There was a real benefit with college announcers [and] broadcasters describing the players in the NFL Draft,” Campbell said. “Many of these professionals meet with our coaching staff throughout the year – they get more inside information on the prospects because they are committed to documenting their exploits during the season. I also feel many of them have viewed more film on the potential draftees because they work diligently each week when preparing for calling a game.”

Herbstreit tested a college-themed version of draft coverage on ESPN2 in 2018. But under the direction of ex-Disney executive turned ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN went all-in with the first “College GameDay”-driven draft telecast on ABC in 2019.

The combination of the popular “GameDay” crew, “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts and other ABC personalities was a hit. ABC averaged nearly as many viewers for its round 1 coverage as ESPN did: 4,539,000 vs. 4,864,000, respectively.

Even better, ABC’s audience was 46% women, according to Seth Markman, ESPN’s vice president of production. Since the ABC and ESPN telecasts were both produced by the company, it was also efficient from a cost standpoint.

“One of the mistakes that we made was thinking of this as only an NFL event. At least on our side, over the last couple of years, we said we’re undeserving a little bit of an audience here that’s two-fold. One would be a college audience that knows these players and spent the last three or four years with these players,” Markman said. “The other audience I think we underserved was the female audience and the general audience. I think, on the ABC side, that was something we focused on.”

While ESPN won’t address it publicly, there’s also a strong belief inside Bristol that adding “College GameDay” to its draft coverage helped stave off a challenge for the event from Fox Sports. 

ESPN discovered the once-sleepy draft as a TV property back in 1980: ESPN lore has it that when the new sports network asked NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle for permission to televise the event, even the media-savvy Rozelle asked, “Why?”

With personalities like Mel Kiper Jr. and Chris Berman helping to popularize the event, ESPN had sole draft coverage for 25 years. While NFL Network began broadcasting the draft in 2006, ESPN was still the primary choice of viewers. 

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But after Fox agreed to pay the NFL $3.3 billion for the rights to “Thursday Night Football” over five years in January 2018, the league allowed ESPN’s rival to broadcast its own-co-branded draft coverage with the NFL Network from the 2018 NFL Draft in Arlington, Texas.

During meetings with the NFL media executives in the spring and summer of 2018, ESPN fought back by proposing its own new programming strategy for the 2019 NFL Draft in Nashville.  

Part of that pitch was: what if ESPN’s “College GameDay” crew joined Robin Roberts for an “alternate” version of the draft on sister Disney broadcast network ABC?

The traditional NFL-focused telecast on ESPN with Trey Wingo, Louis Riddick, Kiper Jr., and others would remain, but there would be more personalized story-telling about the players and their families on ABC. The coverage would be as much about their journey as their ultimate destination on stage with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

With Roberts also interviewing celebrities like Nashville native, Taylor Swift, ABC’s coverage would also appeal to more casual fans.

Adding Disney’s ABC broadcast network would cancel out the breadth and reach of the Fox broadcast network. In short, the draft would no longer be an ESPN property. Instead, it would be a Disney property, enabling the integration of everything from “GameDay” to “GMA” to Marvel Entertainment into coverage.

That pitch won out. Outside of NFL Network, Disney scored exclusive rights to draft coverage in 2019 and again this year. The NFL’s press release states that for the second straight year “The Walt Disney Company has worked with the National Football League to offer a multi-network presentation for all seven rounds.” 

During a conference call, Herbstreit promised to again deliver what he described as the “college version” of the draft. 

“We’re not going to give you the inside scoop on what the Giants need to do – or what the Vikings need to,” Herbstreit said. “We’re really focused more on (No. 1 pick) Joe Burrow (of LSU) getting selected. We’re going to break down Joe Burrow and what our thoughts are on Joe Burrow, Tua (Tagovailoa of Alabama), or whoever it is.”

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That delivers a more well-rounded picture of the top prospects like Burrow, according to Brown, who’s worked for ESPN in between coaching gigs. 

“They watched them play, not only for one year, but through the recruiting process and their 3-5 years in college,” Brown said. “They bring a different perspective than someone who is looking at them only during this stage of their lives and where they might be drafted. These guys can tell a different story and take viewers behind the scenes.”