April 26 (Bloomberg) -- The National Football League, which produces the biggest audiences in U.S. broadcasting, is trying to engage a similar-size following on social media when its annual college player draft starts tonight at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
The league has a squad of players, analysts, team executives and television personalities armed with laptops to play online host to the biggest offseason event in the U.S.’s most popular sport. Commissioner Roger Goodell has called digital media “critical” for increasing the NFL’s more-than $9 billion annual revenue.
“The second the commissioner walks up to announce that first pick, you see this absolute explosion on all these platforms,” Jeff Berman, general manager for NFL Digital Media, said in a telephone interview. “What’s happening here is we’re catching a wave that’s been building for years.”
The NFL’s three-day draft begins with the Indianapolis Colts choosing first and the Washington Redskins second. The Colts said they will take Stanford University quarterback Andrew Luck; the Redskins probably will select Baylor University quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Fans aren’t waiting for television analysts such as ESPN’s Mel Kiper to break down the picks before beginning conversation on social media, said Frank Hawkins, a founder of New York-based consulting firm Scalar Media Partners LLC. Twitter mentions of the terms “NFL draft” and “#nfldraft” are up about 37 percent to 192,000 over the equivalent week last year, according to San Francisco-based Topsy Labs Inc.
King of Media
That activity supplements a telecast that has reinforced the NFL’s dominance of traditional broadcast media. The 2010 draft, the first in prime time, brought Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN unit the most viewers in more than three decades broadcasting the event.
The network said ratings rose 27 percent for its 14 1/2 hours of coverage on ESPN and ESPN2 after the league expanded the draft to three days and aired the first three rounds during television’s most-watched period. Last year’s draft was the second most-watched, with 42 million viewers tuning in to coverage on ESPN, ESPN2 and the NFL Network, the league said.
“There’s money to be made in making it easy for people to communicate with one another and get more involved with the draft,” said Hawkins, former head of strategic planning for the NFL’s media group. “They’re a media company, and over the years they’ve gotten better and better at not leaving any stones unturned.”
Part of Growth
Goodell, 53, in 2007 formed a digital media committee to explore increasing revenue from new technology. He said digital media will be a major part of the league’s growth, citing the RedZone Channel, which cuts from game to game as teams move into scoring position and is available on devices including mobile phones, as a model. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2010 that Verizon Communications Inc. had signed a four-year deal to carry the channel on mobile phones valued at $720 million.
The NFL currently earns about $4 billion annually in broadcast rights fees from companies including CBS Corp., News Corp.’s Fox unit, Comcast Corp.’s NBC, ESPN and DirecTV, with that total set to increase under extensions signed last year that run through 2022.
To expand the draft’s audience away from TV, when three Super Bowls and the finale of “M*A*S*H” are the only programs to exceed 100 million U.S. viewers, NFL’s digital arm has spent weeks preparing for the event, with its analysts including former league executive Michael Lombardi and anchor Rich Eisen working across platforms, Berman said. The goal is to create conversations, “just the way they happen around the water cooler.”
Goodell on Twitter
NFL Twitter users include Goodell, who tweets at @nflcommish and has about 250,000 followers. Saints quarterback Drew Brees, @drewbrees, and Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, @larryfitzgerald, are among players whose Twitter audience exceeds 1 million people.
Colts owner Jim Irsay has about 162,000 Twitter followers for @JimIrsay. He’s been discussing his team’s options on the social networking site since quarterback Peyton Manning left for the Denver Broncos this offseason.
The Colts are planning to use the Google+ social networking site to allow eight fans to visit with the top pick in an event sponsored by New Era Cap Co., the league’s official cap company, the team said in a statement.
Pat Hanlon, spokesman for the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, tweets to about 32,500 followers at @giantspathanlon. He said social media has put teams in direct contact with fans, allowing them to enhance events such as the draft with conversation.
“It has given our fans the ability to instantly react, discuss and debate their team’s selections,” Hanlon said.
Griffin, projected by most analysts to be the draft’s second pick, joined Twitter on April 3. In three weeks, @RGIII has amassed more than 132,000 followers. The 22-year-old quarterback said he wants to motivate fans through the social networking site.
“I’m not going tell people, ‘Hey, I just opened up a bag of Doritos and ate them,’” he said in an interview in New York after being introduced as a spokesman for Subway Restaurants. “I know that I can influence a lot of people, so whenever I say something, it’s not scripted, it’s something that I’m feeling in that moment.”
Let Them Talk
The NFL can rely on an ongoing tide of enthusiasm, especially in an offseason when Manning, a four-time NFL Most Valuable Player, switched teams, Berman said. Mostly, the goal is staying out of the way of the conversation.
“You can’t force social,” Berman said. “There’s so much unknown in the world of digital, but what we know is the fans are trying to talk about their players, their teams and their passions. We’re just leveraging platforms to give them room for what they want to do.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Aaron Kuriloff in New York at email@example.com.