This year's NFL Combine broke record numbers in viewership for the event. A total of 7.25 million viewers watched at some point during the 4 days of coverage with an average audience of 268,000 viewers, up 10% from last year. While other sports are seeing small ratings decreases or remaining flat, the combine is one of the events in the sports year trending upward in ratings, media coverage, and attention from fans.
There was a time the combine was nothing more than a footnote in the football season between the Super Bowl and the draft. After all, who would think people would actually want to sit down in front of their televisions and watch football players doing drills instead of football players playing football? Alas, with the NFL's explosion in popularity over the last decade and the exponential increase in information consumed by sports fans, the combine has resonated with more and more people. A tick on the stopwatch either way could mean one player rising up draft boards or falling to your team.
And there are reportedly plans for the combine to get even bigger. Reports of a "reality show" twist to the combine indicate a future where players may compete during drills. Also, the NFL could follow athletes from regional combines to the national combine in Indianapolis and even on to the NFL Draft for a reality series.
The growth and potential direction of the NFL combine intrigues me, but so does the challenge of making vertical jumps, shuttle runs, and football players in shorts and t-shirts sprinting for less than 5 seconds compelling television. NFL Network devoted several live hours of television to the combine and we were able to chat briefly with NFLN Executive Producer Eric Weinberger about the present and the future of televising the NFL Combine...
Q: What are the biggest challenges in producing so many live hours of the combine when athletes are merely running or jumping, often on their own? What's the key in keeping viewers (and talent) engaged in those moments live coverage might drag?
Eric Weinberger: The combine poses some challenges from a TV perspective but nothing that can’t be overcome with a good team and a solid gameplan. For this year, we had Rich Eisen & Mike Mayock up in a traditional broadcast booth, a “perspective” desk on the concourse at Lucas Oil Stadium which offered insight from, among others, former coaches such as Brian Billick and Steve Mariucci, former GM’s Scott Pioli and Mike Tannenbaum, and former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah. Finally, we had analysts, including Hall of Fame players such as Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders, Kurt Warner, and Marshall Faulk down on the field helping to give viewers insight and understanding on the drills and tests they were watching.
With that team in place, we were able to conquer the main challenge of broadcasting the combine, which is to give the performances, and the mountain of data which comes from them, context. What does running a 4.65 in the 40 mean for a wide receiver? What are coaches, scouts and GM’s looking for in QB passing drills? If you have the right team in place to help answer those questions and many more then you can help give the viewer context to what they are watching. At the same time, that insight and analysis helps keep the viewers engaged in the moments between drills when you might expect the broadcast to drag.
Q: What's been the most significant factor in turning the combine into an event football fans want to watch?
Eric Weinberger: The combine and draft are unique in that they really are the perfect convergence of the college and pro football fan. College fans get one last chance to root for the players from their school and cheer them onto the next level. The NFL fan gets a look at players who will be in the league shortly and potential stars for their favorite franchise. We think that, along with the “reality TV” aspect of the combine, has caused it to grow in popularity from a broadcast standpoint. Fans realize that a strong or weak performance in the combine can have a definite impact on where they are drafted which in turn can make, or lose, them a significant amount of money.
If reality TV has taught us anything it’s that a lot of viewers like watching individuals compete when the stakes are high and fortunes can quickly change hands. We think the combine brings some of that to the table.
Q: There have been several reports about possible changes coming to the way the combine is televised and presented on television, even a reality show format. How much potential does the combine still have to grow and what's one realistic way we may see the event become even more tailored for television next year and beyond?
Eric Weinberger: NFL Media’s Albert Breer wrote a piece recently in which he explored the future of the combine. For his piece he interviewed the NFL’s executive vice president of business ventures, Eric Grubman. Grubman had some interesting comments which get to my point about the reality TV aspect of the combine. It’s not hard to see an expansion of the combine using the number of regional combines which are now being run and adding a little of what Grubman called the "American Idol element.” When you start to consider the potential of using the regional combines to lead up to a national combine, you can see the promise of such an event.
The key for the NFL and NFL Network will be balancing the interests of the hardcore football fan and the casual fan that would be interested in the reality setup. Already there's been pushback for the inclusion of female kicking participant Lauren Siberman at a New York regional combine. With Siberman unable to even kick the ball 20 yards, it's been blasted as a publicity stunt with Mike Florio and NFL spokesman Greg Aiello trading barbs on Twitter over the debacle as well.
If the "American Idol element" does come to the NFL Combine, the core mission will have to remain the serious pursuit of making it to the NFL Draft and the NFL. Reality competitions are all the rage across network television, so why wouldn't the country's most popular sports league find a way to get a piece of the pie? Imagine following someone like Marques Colston from small school prominence all the way through the combine and getting drafted. Imagine following Danny Woodhead through the draft process, seeing the interest from teams, and then having him go undrafted only to move on to a successful career.
There's already a strong reality element to the combine as is, but if you added quality storytelling on top of that, it could be a goldmine for the NFL and NFL Network. Watch this space moving forward in the next few years because the growth of the NFL Combine as a television event may be only beginning.