The NFL draft has become a supersized event, almost rivaling the league’s iconic Super Bowl. One published estimate put the crowd attending the event, which began on April 27 and ran during three days on the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, at 250,000 and setting a new NFL record. That’s far more than the nearly 61,000 fans who attended the 2016 Pro Bowl.
This year’s NFL draft spectacular took live-event production considerably further than in the past. The NFL managed the event completely in-house until 2015, when it hired production company C3 Presents. In 2015, C3 Presents created an outdoor complement in Chicago’s Grant Park to the league-directed draft production taking place inside the nearby Auditorium Theatre. Large LED screens kept fans outside the venue informed on the teams’ draft picks and entertainment surrounded the festive event.
This year, the entire event was moved outdoors, centered around the Philadelphia Art Museum, where a statue of Rocky Balboa overlooks the venue’s steps. Vendor VER provided audio and video services; Bandit Lites illuminated the whole production.
“We basically turned a theater inside out this year,” says Brandon Sossamon, senior production manager at the event for C3. “That let us go bigger, with more video for the main event than we could have had inside an actual theater venue.”
But there was one other element this year in which AV systems reflected contemporary sports’ obsession with data. Thirty-two 10-by-6-foot LED displays — one for each team in the NFL — lined the main road leading toward the main-event stage. Mounted in portrait mode about 2 feet off the ground and facing inward on both sides of the road, they formed a constantly refreshed, up-to-the-minute information highway for fans on the draft picks for each team.
“We were looking for another way to engage the fans at the draft event, and the idea of individual screens or each team with constant information updates felt good,” says Daniel Gibbs, C3 Presents’ director of visual media. “They were also a place for fans of the teams to meet and get together. The NFL liked it.”
C3 contracted with Vixi, a Culver City, Calif., company that integrates social media posts with broadcast-quality graphics. Vixi set up operations in a trailer onsite: Eight employees were assigned four NFL teams each, with every team having its own hashtag. They were supplied with constant streams coming in via the broadcast on ESPN, as well as data from NFL.com and other relevant sources. In addition, they secured feeds from the event’s intercom system, which allowed them to monitor the event-production director’s calls. As the production progressed, the hashtags went viral, with Twitter and Instagram posts also incorporated into the screen graphics.
The output of the Vixi operation was sent over fiber cabling to video processors located along the road where the LED displays were positioned, about a quarter mile away. From the processors, copper cable took each team’s information directly to its assigned LED display, where it played out in 520x312 — slightly less than SD resolution, a function of distance and format conversions. When especially newsworthy moments took place, such as the Cleveland Browns signing of rookie defensive lineman Myles Garre, or the Houston Texans' first-round pick of Deshaun Watson, the director could order a whole-system takeover, to bring the news to all screens.
Gibbs says the combination of constantly updating information portrayed using animated graphics — the graphics were powered by Unity, a cross-platform game engine developed by Unity Technologies and used by Sony’s PlayStation game platform, among others — was a breakthrough.
In the process, it created a sort of informational loop, in which fans at the various displays took pictures of themselves and posted them to social media, and those posts were then incorporated into the Vixi feed within minutes of the original posts. “It had never been done before in a live-event situation like this; we were really getting broadcast-quality video and graphics to convey dynamic information in real time,” he says. “It was quite a feat.”
Getting information to fans this way resulted in successful outcomes for the event. While an estimated 250,000 fans attended the NFL draft during three days in person in Philadelphia, ESPN announced that the broadcast garnered an average of nearly 6.7 million viewers throughout the nearly four-hour duration of the telecast, making it the most-watched program of the evening, even winning the night over an NBA playoff double-header on TNT. The numbers represented a 6 percent improvement in total viewers and a 3 percent increase in ratings over last year’s first-round draft broadcast. Live streaming added an average minute audience of 243,000 viewers on top of the traditional television viewers, a 23 percent increase over 2016.
Sports lives and dies by statistics. As AV gets used in more innovative ways for live events, those statistics become data. “Sports has always been about the numbers,” says Sossamon. “We were able to get a lot of numbers out to a lot of people this year.”