The NFL Draft will be broadcast on 3 networks for the first time and it is an enormous blow to ESPN

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  • The NFL Draft will be broadcast on Fox for the first time, a move that ESPN reportedly viewed as a “slap to the face.”
  • The move puts the first round of the NFL Draft on network television, and for the first time, ESPN may not have a majority of the viewers for an event they helped create.
  • It is just one of the blows to ESPN in their strained relationship with the NFL.
  • ESPN has made efforts to mend the relationship, but it is unlikely that they will ever regain their prominence as the leading partner for the NFL’s premier offseason event.

The enormous power of the NFL may be best measured by how it still dominates the news even when there are no games, and the most impactful event during the offseason is the NFL Draft.

While the draft is an NFL product other pro sports leagues envy, it is ESPN that made the NFL Draft the juggernaut that it is today.

In 1979, during ESPN’s first year of existence, then-ESPN president Chet Simmons approached the NFL about broadcasting the draft. As legend has it, legendary NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle responded something along the lines of, “Why would anybody want to watch that?”

Nearly 40 years later, more than ten million people are expected to watch the first round of the NFL Draft alone. But instead of ESPN getting all of those viewers, they now have to share them with two other networks, and there is a good chance that, for the first time, fewer than 50% of those viewers will be on ESPN.

ESPN has been sharing coverage of the draft with the NFL Network since 2006, but while ESPN’s share of the ratings has fallen, they still attracted two-thirds of the viewers during the 2017 NFL Draft, according the Sports Business Journal and Pro Football Talk.

But now the NFL is forcing the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports” to share their baby with one of their rival networks, Fox. Not only is it a big blow to ESPN, but it is also just the latest shot in the strained relationship between ESPN and the NFL.

According to John Ourand of Sports Business Journal, ESPN executives were upset when they learned Fox would simulcast the NFL Network’s broadcast of the draft with co-branding and Fox on-air personalities.

“ESPN executives were angry,” Ourand wrote. “ESPN created the NFL draft as a TV show 38 years ago and popularised it to unprecedented heights over the years. It was one thing when the NFL Network started covering it. But when the NFL brought in a competitive broadcast network, it was seen as a slap in the face.”

Roger Goodell NFL DraftJeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

For the NFL, moving the draft to Fox was yet another way for the league to expand its reach by getting the biggest night of their offseason on network television.

ESPN countered by having their Saturday coverage of Rounds 4-7 simulcast on ABC. This marks the first time the entire NFL Draft is to be broadcast on network television, which should produce the event’s highest ratings yet.

ESPN also added a second broadcast of the NFL Draft, on ESPN2, that will be under the umbrella of ESPN’s “College Gameday” show and will focus on the event from a college football angle.

Still, it is just the latest blow to ESPN who pays $US1.9 billion annually to the NFL for one game a week (“Monday Night Football”) that is rarely a notable matchup, one playoff game (they may soon lose to Fox also), and access to the players and coaches.

Ourand blamed some of the tension between ESPN and the NFL on former ESPN President John Skipper, who is said to have favoured his relationship with the NBA.

While the moves by ESPN to enhance their coverage of the draft were seen as an attempt to get back in the good graces of the NFL, it is probably too little, too late. The genie is now out of the bottle, and soon ESPN will be the “other” network that airs the NFL Draft.

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