Just weeks after the Super Bowl, it’s time for data to come out to play, opening the books on the season to come. NFL Network launches coverage of the NFL Combine starting Wednesday in its annual celebration of the athlete measurables and statistics used to dissect the potential of those players and, subsequently, the teams that draft them. Hyundai now serves as the presenting sponsor of the Combine, both on NFL Network and on digital, while digital video program Combine LIVE will be presented by Old Spice with Visa on board as an associate sponsor.
Meanwhile, NFL Network host Rich Eisen will again don his cleats, with the 12th Annual “Run Rich Run” which will look to benefit the NFL PLAY 60 relationship with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Fans can show their support by submitting videos of themselves running the 40-yard dash and are encouraged to donate money to the cause. Meanwhile, NFL Network and DIRECTV have each pledged $25,000 to help support play therapy at the charity. Cynopsis Sports spoke with NFL Network Senior Coordinating Producer Mike Muriano about the growth of the combine, the role of technology and what to expect this week and in the years ahead.
Muriano on the Combine schedule: Our coverage itself actually begins on Wednesday, which will see most of the 32 coaches and GMs have press availability ranging from 9-4p while on Total Access, they will go on to full Combine preview mode. As for the Combine itself, last year was the first time that the on-field drills began on a Friday, which continues this year by running Friday through Monday. However, traditionally the first day would see offensive linemen and tight ends working out. Now, it will be the offensive linemen and running backs working out while the tight ends will work out on Saturday with the quarterbacks and wide receivers, which is obviously a positive for that group. Sunday is defensive linemen and linebackers and Monday will see the defensive backs.
On the evolution of coverage: Having been here with the network since launch and to see how this event has grown, I can say that while the event itself hasn’t changed much, when we started covering it, our first batch of coverage was a producer and a relatively new-to-America Mike Mayock standing outside the building. Then we got in the building with a small footprint, and once the trust continued to grow, they continued to let us expand our footprint and provide more coverage. Soon NFL Digital and NFL Media were integrated so there’s lot going on now and people are tuning in. We are always trying to be cognizant of the hardcore football fan who knows these players. But we also want to be cognizant of our storytelling, here is something you may not know about this player and why it is important that you know it, for more casual fans so we can broaden the audience as well. Because of that, we need to provide context to the data, for example if a kid runs a 4.3, what does it all mean? What teams might be able to use him?
On leveraging data: There are a couple of things that are changing how we can tell the story. One thing is insight data, which really allows us to dive in to the measurables from these kids. We try to present that so we can showcase who a player measures up against either currently or historically. We are looking at height, weight, speed, size, etc. When you punch that straight into the computer, what does the computer give you back? We also try to counter that with what our football brains Mike Mayock, Charles Davis, etc. think about who that player reminds them of. Sometimes it matches up with the computer, sometimes it doesn’t. Both of those differences are interesting to us.
We will also be experimenting with, but not for broadcast this year, our next-generation of stats and what stories we can tell with that. This is an informational year with that and I expect that we will do more with it in coming years, perhaps as early as 2017. That said, I would say that while we won’t say any of it on the live broadcast, we might see some of it this year in the primetime show in the post-produced content. We are going into it with no expectations.
On creating a tentpole event: As recently as ten years ago, the combine may have gotten ten credential requests from the media and now it gets hundreds. Because of this growth, the event is expanding as early as next year and there will be larger footprints in place to accommodate, not just the media, but also NFL fan curiosity. They won’t necessarily be able to go inside the stadium as events are happening, but the NFL sees an appetite there for the event itself and try to perhaps build it out. What we’ve seen is not only ratings growth but also the continued interest and the whetting of the appetite for NFL fans has been great.
On Rich Eisen’s run: That began when we were still figuring out who we were and what the combine would be for us, and there was an off-the-cuff mention from the broadcast booth of him saying “I think I want to run the 40.” It was an adventurous time for us, so we thought, “Why not?” Then the life it took on, not only becoming Rich’s avatar and the covers of books. But what I love most is that it’s now become a charitable cause and generates money for St. Jude’s. Its bought us a lot of social currency and a way for us to acknowledge that while this was a serious business, there was also room for some fun here.