NFL tries to put toothpaste back in tube with a Draft Day Twitter ban

NFL Draft Media

Twitter goes hand-in-hand with many things: awards shows, presidential elections, TV ratings. But one thing it hasn’t quite figured out yet is sports – and that’s exactly why ESPN and the NFL Network will not be tweeting their first round picks during this year’s NFL draft.

The NFL has been quick and willing to embrace social media. Its players and teams are so entrenched in Facebook and Twitter that there’s actually going to be some monitoring going on. The organization held an invite-only show that coincided with the beginning of SXSW. And the social media circle jerk that is the Super Bowl is second to none.

But the problem with real time sporting events is that the powers of predictive social media aren’t as fun or interesting as they are otherwise. It can be fun to see who Twitter thinks will take home Best Actress at the Oscars. It can be interesting to find out what politician is “winning” Facebook. It can make you want to choke a kitten to hear anything sports-related before witnessing the real deal.

If none of this is resonating with you, just indulge me: You’re watching the draft. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell takes the stage and is about to announce the first round pick – the hats are ready, the athletes sitting anxiously in their suits, the pomp and circumstance of the moment about to get each and every NFL fan ready for the coming season (some more than others) … and a tweet slides across your screen or phone, reading in plain text “Kansas City Chiefs pick Luke Joeckel.” A handful of insiders get the info out there before Goodell has a chance to revel with Joeckel in the moment, and it’s all just a little less thrilling.

Case in point, the 2012 NFL draft. Last year, NFL insiders, many of whom basically have their thumbs permanently on the Twitter app, were tweeting out their pick predictions as well as scooped reports on picks ahead of the broadcasts. TV, as is increasingly the case, couldn’t keep up. In order to prevent this, the NFL and ESPN are keeping their early round reports off Twitter. The other obvious solution, of course, is “don’t log on to Twitter” – but that means sacrificing player and analyst reactions. And given the fact that NFL followers are some of the most social media-friendly fans out there, you should understand the ridiculousness of suggesting they “don’t log on to Twitter.”

The 2012 NFL draft wasn’t the first time Twitter managed to shout out sports results without the requisite “spoiler alert” ahead of time: This past summer Olympics saw more than their fair share of surprise endings foiled thanks to NBC’s time-delay broadcast and Twitter’s real time network. Each day was full of new outrage for stateside audiences who always knew, thanks to social media, what was going to happen before it “happened” for them.

“It’s not so much predictions. It’s more about NFL insiders for both networks not ‘tipping the picks’ before NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell officially announces the player selections on the podium at Radio City Music Hall,” ESPN senior director of communications Bill Hofheimer says. “Often, our experts learn of the picks before they are formally announced to the crowd, and to the television audience. For fans following the draft on multiple screens, we found last year that Twitter was often a couple of picks ahead of the Commissioner’s official announcement when our folks and others tweeted who teams were about to select. Finding out a few minutes ahead of time was frustrating to many fans so ESPN, the NFL Network, and the NFL league office discussed working together to try to try to preserve the integrity, if you will, of the Commissioner’s announcement. The consensus thinking is that this will make for a better television presentation.” 

What do you want? Do you want information or do you not want information? It’s a difficult process.

While the league itself and ESPN are all aboard the Twitter moratorium for first round draft-related information, that doesn’t mean others won’t keep from revealing their predictions and play-by-play tweets. CBS’ Jason LaCanfora says he has no plans to keep from breaking draft news starting tomorrow (“I will be trying to get the information out as quickly and accurately as possible. What event is made more for Twitter than the NFL draft?” he says). And according to a conversation between ESPN reporter Adam Schefter and the Sherman Report, the rules around draft tweets are not what you would call hard and fast.

“During the second round, only one or two picks are headline worthy. If it is the headline of that day, and I’m fortunate enough to get that pick, I’m going to report it,” he explains. “I am almost certain – not to put words in someone’s mouth – that the NFL has spoken to ESPN and ESPN has told me to be more selective about what I’m tweeting in advance. I am trying to be as considerate as possible and [not] tweet everything we’re getting, but I am going to tweet the headline-making items.”

Apparently, everyone at ESPN is not quite on the same page here: It sounds like if Schefter believes he has a hot ticket item, it shall be tweeted, whether those words can come out of Goodell’s mouth first or not. Also, there’s the fact that ESPN and NFL commentators and reporters will be allowed to “speculate.” 

When questioned about whether he understood the audience’s frustration last year, Schefter replied, “What do you want? Do you want information or do you not want information? It’s a difficult process.” However, he says he’ll be curtailing tweets … which he appropriately announced in a tweet.

Sports news outlets aren’t the only ones that could be ruining the element of surprise, as others have made their socially-sourced draft predictions already. iProspect took data from online conversations (major social networks, message boards, forums, comment threads) between March 25 and April 7 to create “The 2013 NFL Draft According to Social Media.” The social predictions company used this same technology to look at the “social chatter” happening last year ahead of the 2012 draft, and found that six of the 10 first round picks lined up with our Tweets, posts, and the like. Sports Illustrated held its own mock fan draft on Twitter as well.

nfl draft last year

It comes down to what we value more: To be first or to be part of the moment. ESPN NFL senior coordinating product Seth Markman tells Sports Illustrated it’s the latter.

“Our fans have told us they would rather hear from the Commissioner and I think it is a better TV show when we speculate and let the Commissioner do it … I have said in the past that [ESPN reporters] Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen can basically announce all the picks before they are made if they really wanted to. It goes against a lot of our instincts as journalists and it’s totally different than anything I deal with, but we feel like it is a win for the fans and our viewers.”

It’s mostly a win for the network, of course. If coverage is marred by tweets, then it’s been beaten. The live broadcast becomes less important; it’s become a moments-old recap – and one you can catch highlights of on the nightly news or any sports channel, for that matter. Add to the madness all the attempts to contain reporters with scoops, telling them they can’t tweet; that’s like a parent trying to keep a teenager from using the car while he’s out of town. It’s a fruitless endeavor.

But it might be one in the interest of the common good. Just because you’ve got a verified badge and thousands of followers doesn’t mean you won’t tweet erroneous information (right, AP?), and if you’re sitting on your couch, watching the draft, there’s a good chance that’s how you want to experience it – but you can’t turn to Twitter for real-time reactions unless you unfollow every insider and analyst, save for those at ESPN and the NFL Network (although, the gentleman’s agreement existing there might be broken come draft day at all … it’s all part of the drama).

The effort to keep an element of surprise is partially a noble response to fans’ reaction last year, and partially motivated by the desire to keep the network happy. Whatever  it is, ESPN and the NFL’s efforts are a drop in the bucket – so if you do indeed want a scoop-free draft day, you best be prepared to unplug from Twitter, and wait for the cameras to roll. You won’t be first, but you might be happier.  

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