ESPN Leans On Large Tech Infrastructure For Smooth Virtual NFL Draft

    • Disney’s DTCI will route more than 150 feeds to ESPN from the homes of prospects and on-air talent.
    • Company staff will be working from home and on its Bristol campus while adhering to CDC guidelines.

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ESPN expected to broadcast the NFL Draft live from Las Vegas this year, with thousands of rabid football fans in attendance. By mid-March, the network realized those plans would change drastically in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

ESPN and the NFL are now getting set to produce a three-day remote show beginning Thursday, with draft prospects and on-air talent reporting from home.

More than 150 feeds will be aggregated and sent to the media company’s campus in Bristol, Connecticut, by the engineering and transmission team of Walt Disney’s Direct To Consumer & International. The tech unit supports Disney’s media networks and platforms, which includes ESPN.

“We were full steam ahead for the draft in Las Vegas and that seemingly changed overnight,” Mike Feinberg, coordinating director of studio directing and production at ESPN, said. “We basically brought all that production stuff in-house.”

In addition to draft prospects and on-air talent, cameras will also be set up at different team sites, according to Dave Johnson, vice president of engineering and media distribution at DTCI. Certain locations, including NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s home, will have satellite trucks on-site in the event that primary Internet connections fail. ESPN and DTCI will have staff at home monitoring feeds as well as on-campus to handle more intense troubleshooting.

“You can’t control the Internet and what is going through people’s homes,” Johnson said. “You’ll always have some challenges there, but we will stay ahead of it. We will have a team watching feeds closely and communicating with the control room.”

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Whereas the vast majority of the live shots for previous NFL Draft productions have been captured directly at the event and sent back to an on-site production truck, Johnson said, this edition will be much different. DTCI and ESPN will leverage fiber, IP, and satellite technology for the acquisition and distribution of content during the virtual draft – also airing on the NFL Network and ABC.

ESPN conducted major mock draft check-ins with NFL personnel, prospects, and talent on April 22, which followed external tests by the NFL earlier in the week. Draft personnel and participants have been sent production kits by the NFL or ESPN in the lead up to the event. NFL kits, as an example, include two iPhones, basic lighting equipment, and a pair of Bose headsets.

Most ESPN talent have already created in-home studios in efforts to produce and create the network’s flagship shows remotely, such as ESPN First Take and Get Up! Ninety-percent of ESPN programming is now edited at home – amounting to roughly 5,000 radio and TV clips a week.

ESPN says it has a plan in place to determine the order in which it will route feeds for its broadcast. While the company expects some latency issues, the biggest challenge lies in ensuring talent stands out as they would under normal circumstances.

“I’ve directed drafts in the past. How do you create that engagement between a Mel Kiper and a Louis Riddick when they strongly disagree over a pick?“ Feinberg said. “That’s the challenge when you factor in remote locations, and it’s something we’ve been talking about internally.”

READ MORE: Q&A: ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio on Covering the First ‘Virtual’ NFL Draft

More than 250 people across DTCI and ESPN will be responsible for creating the remote draft experience for fans. NFL Network talent will come in through a separate workflow, the companies said. DTCI normally allocates one or two staffers to help produce the NFL Draft. That number will increase significantly this year due to the complexity of the event.

“We will have 11 people on-site and at home during the event – the biggest team we’ve had for the draft,” Johnson said. “We’ve pulled this off pretty quickly, in a matter of weeks, and that’s a credit to the technology we have available.”