The NFL loves the spectacle, the crowds, the TV ratings and the money that are all associated with the NFL Draft. It loves the image of a wide-eyed, happy, young football player strutting across the stage and greeting NFL commissioner Roger Goodell with a big hug.
But what if Goodell has nobody to hug? What if the crowds won't come to cheer?
That's the sad possibility confronting league officials right now, as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the United States less than six weeks before the draft is scheduled to begin in Las Vegas, from April 23-25. This was supposed to be the biggest offseason spectacle of all, with a red carpet stretched across the famous fountains in front of the Bellagio hotel, with players being ferried there to interviewed by boat.
There were plans to shut down the Las Vegas strip, with estimates suggesting the NFL expected 750,000 people to attend.
A crowd like that, of course, will be impossible in the current climate, with local governments placing restrictions on crowd size in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus. And several NFL agents have told SNY they are already wary of sending their players to the draft in Vegas, and will likely consider having those players host draft-day parties at home with family and friends instead.
So with no crowds, limited players, and Goodell hugs not advised, what is the NFL going to do?
Officially, the plans for the draft are still on, but multiple NFL sources have told SNY that all options are being considered. The NFL has already cancelled its annual league owners meeting in West Palm Beach, Fla., later this month. And while it doesn't appear that cancelling the draft is on the table, altering it likely is.
It's not known what the league is actually considering, but the feeling among NFL agents and other sources is that the draft is unlikely to be cancelled. Also, despite one report suggesting the league could do the draft by a conference call, multiple sources said that's "unlikely." It's also unlikely to return to its pre-TV roots, when it was simply a bunch of executives sitting around a room picking names off a board.
Too much has changed since that first TV draft, on ESPN in 1980, including the intensity of media coverage, the massive fan interest, and the crazy money involved.
So if the draft were altered, it likely would remain a made-for-TV event for both ESPN and the NFL Network, but with limited in-person attendance. One agent suggested it could take place in a theater in New York, so league officials wouldn't have to travel.
Another suggested a TV studio would work, too. Perhaps players and their families would be invited. But if not, the networks, with their personnel and local affiliates, could fan out to the homes of some of the top prospects to get their reaction on camera and conduct interviews as soon as the picks are made.
"With today's technology, we could do it and it would look almost the same," the agent said. "The crowds would be missing, but the rest of the experience would be the same - especially for the people watching at home."
The actual draft isn't really conducted in one central location anyway. The 32 teams have "war rooms" set up at their facilities with their GMs, coaches, scouts and other staff, and simply phone in their pick to a team representative sitting at the draft site. That person then relays the pick to a league official, who hands the name to Goodell.
So teams wouldn't have to adjust. They could relay their pick by phone or electronically, or the league could still bring team reps to one site. The commissioner could read the name, then congratulate the player through a video call or satellite hookup. Then the league's broadcast partners could do their interviews and analysis.
Local media could even work from home, if teams are still limiting access to their facilities. GMs and coaches could easily conduct conference calls instead of press conferences after they make their picks.
So everything would feel quieter, and perhaps a little stranger, but otherwise it would function mostly the same.
It's also possible that more players would be willing to attend in person if the gathering were more intimate anyway. Several high-profile players have spurned the draft in recent years, choosing instead to celebrate their selection at home with family and friends. Getting players to Las Vegas figured to be even harder right now.
Yes, the draft is still six weeks away, but plans will soon have to be made.
"Even if my guys wanted to attend, I'm not sure I'd advise it," said one prominent NFL agent who could have at least one player selected in the first round. "Nobody knows anything right now, and who knows where we'll be in six weeks? But right now I can't imagine many people want to travel and be anywhere with a big crowd."
No one seemed sure what the NFL's timeline is for making a decision on the status of the draft, and so far no league officials have commented. The league has cancelled the NFL owners meetings scheduled for later this month, and many teams have shut down their facilities and pulled their coaches and scouts off the road from Pro Days. There remains a possibility that the start of free agency, scheduled for Monday, will be postponed. But so far the NFL says their offseason plans and schedule otherwise remain the same.
That includes the draft. But whether it stays in Vegas or even happens in its familiar form remains to be seen.