Kirk Herbstreit will return to ABC’s coverage of the 2021 NFL Draft, sources tell Front Office Sports.
The popular analyst for ESPN’s “College GameDay” will headline draft coverage on ABC, which will focus more on storytelling for casual NFL and college football fans.
Herbstreit’s “College GameDay” castmates Rece Davis, Desmond Howard, and David Pollack have joined him for ABC’s coverage the last two years, which delves more into the personal journeys of top draft picks from college ball to the pros.
Draft guru Todd McShay was scheduled to be part of last year’s crew — but had to bow out after testing positive for COVID-19. McShay’s expected to play a big part in this year’s draft coverage for ESPN’s sister network. Maria Taylor and Jesse Palmer were part of the 2020 coverage. Both are expected to return this year.
With popular storyteller Tom Rinaldi now at Fox Sports, that key role has opened up. ESPN has plenty of reporters who could potentially fill Rinaldi’s essayist role, including Jeremy Schaap, Gene Wojciechowski, Jen Lada, and Wright Thompson.
The Walt Disney Co.’s expected to have most of its talent from ABC and ESPN on-site in Cleveland, with others contributing remotely. ESPN is finalizing its full Draft coverage plans and is expected to announce them later this week.
ABC, ESPN and the league’s own NFL Network will telecast all three days of the draft from April 29 to May 1. Plans include two nights of primetime coverage on Thursday and Friday nights, according to the NFL.
Herbstreit, a five-time Emmy Award winner — three for Best Studio Analyst and two for Outstanding Event Analyst — has been a game-changer for Disney when it comes to the battle for NFL Draft rights.
ESPN discovered the NFL Draft as a TV property back in 1980 and owned exclusive coverage for 25 years (NFL Network kicked off its own coverage in 2006). But ESPN was shocked to its core when the NFL invited rival Fox Sports to telecast its own draft coverage in 2018.
A year later, Disney fought back by having Herbstreit and Robin Roberts of “Good Morning America” host a more consumer-focused draft special on ABC that aired alongside ESPN’s coverage for more hardcore fans.
The gambit was a strategic success. ABC’s distinct telecast helped attract more casual fans and female viewers. Along with the league’s own 24/7 channel, Disney’s ABC and ESPN have controlled NFL Draft coverage ever since. An envious Fox has been left on the outside, looking in.
Covering the draft from the perspective of college prospects and their families has been of “enormous value” to TV viewers, said Matalon Media founder Gerry Matalon. “College GameDay” fans want to hear from “their guys” about where “their players” are headed, he said.
“The genius of this concept is exploiting the deep, intimate knowledge Rece and his team of analysts have of the college players, the coaches they played for, and the schools at which they played. It’s been shown to be a superior complement to the overall service that Disney and ESPN provide and is a challenge for others to match,” Matalon said. “Much like other entities that cover the draft in different ways by exploiting the unique genius they possess (ie: how Pro Football Focus brings a superior analytical broadcast coverage to the draft online), ESPN/Disney is doing the same thing.”
ESPN has been using Herbstreit in more creative ways. He and Davis hosted “College GameDay” from Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters, in November. Herbstreit and longtime play-by-play partner Chris Fowler called their first “Monday Night Football” game in September after calling seven straight college football national championship games.
Meanwhile, Mike Greenberg will make his debut as host of ESPN’s more traditional coverage. Greenberg will anchor Days 1 and 2 of the draft (the first three rounds), while Davis will anchor Day 3 (the last four rounds) which will be simulcast on both ESPN and ABC.
Greenberg will be joined by ESPN’s longtime draft guru Mel Kiper Jr., NFL analysts Louis Riddick and Booger McFarland and NFL Insiders Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen. Host/Reporter Suzky Kolber will interview draftees.
Greenberg, the star of ESPN’s “Get Up” weekday morning show, will be only the fifth host in ESPN’s 41-year history of covering the draft. He succeeds Trey Wingo (2017-2020), Chris Berman (1987-2016), George Grande (1981-1986) and Joe Thomas (1980).
“As our viewers have witnessed for almost 25 years now, Greeny is extremely talented, and he excels at asking smart questions and setting up our NFL experts to do what they do best – share important information, compelling stories and insightful analysis,” said Seth Markman, ESPN’s vice president of production in a statement.
Last year’s “virtual” NFL Draft was televised during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic. It became the most-watched draft ever, reaching 55 million viewers over three days.
An average audience of 8.4 million viewers watched coverage across ABC, ESPN, ESPN Deportes, NFL Network and digital channels, up 35% from an average of 6.2 million viewers the year before.
UPDATE: The Walt Disney officially announced March 24 both ABC and ESPN will offer distinct primetime presentations durings Days 1 and 2 of the 2021 NFL Draft. Disney confirmed Herbstreit, Davis, Taylor, McShay, Howard, Pollack and Palmer will all play key roles in ABC’s college football-focused coverage. But Disney didn’t specify who will fill Rinaldi’s essayist role.