Traditionally, the month of April kicks off what I like to call “draft season.” The WNBA and the NFL start the wave of making collegiate players’ dreams come true, and organizations like the NBA, the NHL, and the MLB follow suit.
But with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing guidelines in place, these organizations had to flex their creative muscles and find a way to encapsulate the event, albeit under trying circumstances. The virtual draft was born, and the results were better than expected.
On April 17, the WNBA made history as they became the first professional sports league to hold a virtual draft on live television. The festivities benefitted from the star power of Bay Area native Sabrina Ionescu, the projected No. 1 pick in the draft.
The league sent their 36 draft picks their own care packages, which included apparel for all 12 teams in the league, WNBA swag, and a QR code for a special Snapchat message from Commissioner Cathy Engelbert welcoming them to the WNBA. Cameras and equipment were also included so players could participate in the draft and conduct interviews.
Commissioner Engelbert made the draft a family affair. She hung WNBA jerseys around her room, marked the best spots for cameras on the floor with tape, and had her son and daughter act as stagehands as she read the draft picks in real-time from her iPad.
The draft had its solemn moments as the WNBA honored the lives of former NBA commissioner David Stern and legend Kobe Bryant. The league also honored the lives of Gianna Bryant, Alyssa Altobelli, and Payton Chester by naming them as honorary draft picks.
Six days later, the NFL followed up with their own virtual draft.
Prior to the pandemic, the NFL would have held its draft in Las Vegas. The original setup for the 2020 NFL draft included a red carpet stage constructed on top of the Bellagio Fountains and boats for the players and their families to board after getting picked. As expected, all of these plans went away, but the draft still carried a high degree of significance.
The NFL sent their prospective picks technology packages which included lights, microphones, tripods, and two iPhones for streaming their reactions as well as post-draft interviews.
Instead of coming off as a heavily-polished event, the 2020 NFL draft had an incredibly authentic feel. Most of these draft picks were sitting in the houses they grew up in and were surrounded by family. My heartstrings were pulled when a player got their name called and embraced with every loved one in the room. You don’t get these kinds of reactions when players have cameras in their face and are being rushed by stagehands to get to their next spot.
There were plenty of other feel-good moments. After being chosen as the No. 25 pick by the San Francisco 49ers, Arizona State University wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk shared a photo of his four-year-old self wearing a 49ers turtleneck, a moment he said was meant to be.
One of the more underrated gems of the NFL’s virtual draft was the number of pets that owners, coaches, and draftees alike have in their houses. It was a nice post-draft treat to see the internet rank the best pets of the day.
Given our current circumstances, the virtual draft was the best thing that could happen to us, the WNBA, and the NFL. We were treated to a week of seeing draftees with personality, as well as off-the-cuff moments that could not be fostered in heavily-produced environments. I hope elements of the virtual draft get implemented into future drafts, mostly because it was refreshing to see players take the next step in their careers while having fun. If nothing else, this process makes for great television.