‘It’s Completely Unrecognizable’: Longtime NFL Network Host Rich Eisen on the Decadeslong Evolution of the Draft
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Rich Eisen has been synonymous with the NFL draft since the mid-2000s.
Eisen first hosted the NFL Network’s on-site draft coverage in 2006, making the Staten Island, N.Y., native the longest-tenured NFL draft host in sports media.
Starting on Thursday, the 53-year-old Eisen, who called the draft “completely unrecognizable” from those days in the mid-2000s, will anchor the three-day event from downtown Kansas City, Mo., along with analysts Daniel Jeremiah, Charles Davis and Joel Klatt, among other NFL Network talent.
“The NFL draft is now a complete show and entertainment product,” said Eisen, who previously worked at ESPN, in a phone interview.
Eisen spoke with Morning Consult about how he prepares to cover the draft, his longevity as an NFL Network host, why he stays off of Twitter during the first round and his favorite draft day moments. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
What do you remember from the first year you were on-site for the draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York?
I look at it personally because I am from New York City. I was at ESPN for seven years from 1996 to 2003. When I strolled into Radio City Music Hall, the art deco jewel of midtown Manhattan, where I watched the Rockettes growing up and I sat on a set to work on TV covering an NFL draft and looked to my left and saw Chris Berman settling into his chair, I was blown away. When I got married, people were telling me, “Take a minute, stand in the corner of the room and take it all in” because it goes so fast. I did that for this event where I took a minute, looked around and took a mental picture before I went to work.
It was big for us. It was monstrously big for us. We had just announced that we were getting “Thursday Night Football” in the fall, and we had just finished our third Super Bowl, believe it or not. We had done Super Bowls. We had been to the opening night games for the season. We had never done a draft before on-site — and it was awesome.
Where have you seen the biggest changes with the draft since then?
First of all, just the number of days. It was a two-day event, with the first day on a Saturday. Then the league got tired of broadcasts showing somebody falling asleep in the fifth to last row of a half full Radio City Music Hall. They were done with that. They then came up with the idea of the two night, three-day event. Thursday is the big night for weeknight primetime TV. Carve out the first round and put it on the air on Thursday night.
Then you have Friday and Saturday and everyone goes home Sunday. It was a brilliant idea to do that. It refreshed everything. It made it bigger. For teams, it’s really no skin off their nose because this is the only event on the NFL calendar where the main decision makers are not physically there. They’re sitting in their spots at their home facilities.
It reinvigorated so much about the draft. You can thank James Dolan, the owner of the [NBA’s] Knicks and the [NHL’s] Rangers, and Radio City Music Hall, for helping birth the idea of sending the draft around the country.
One year, the NFL couldn’t hold the draft at Radio City Music Hall on the last weekend of April because they were told Radio City was having an Easter performance. The NFL had to move off its date at Radio City for the first time in forever. They moved it to the middle of May because that’s the only time it was available. It turned out to be Mother's Day weekend. Everybody hated that.
And then came the idea I assume from the commissioner: “If we’re not married to that date at Radio City Music Hall, why are we married to Radio City Music Hall?”
They put the draft in Chicago where the first two nights were at a beautiful, old-school auditorium and then they moved to Grant Park on the final day. It was unbelievable. And then it was held in Chicago for another year before moving it to Philadelphia and turning the Ben Franklin Parkway into a draft-viewing area leading up to the “Rocky” steps.
The draft has become an event that cities bid on like it is the Super Bowl. It’s completely unrecognizable from the first draft that we covered. The only thing that’s the same is teams draft players.
What is it like going to a different city each year?
When the draft was in Chicago, it was the first time I had ever covered a draft where the Green Bay Packers were getting booed when they were on the clock. When the draft moved to Philadelphia, it mirrored what we heard in New York City. We’re going to Kansas City this year, and I assume we’ll hear the Broncos getting booed when they’re on the clock.
You’re making the draft accessible to so many fans that wouldn’t have made it to Radio City Music Hall. I imagine with the draft in Missouri, there’s a whole bunch of people coming from Arkansas. You’ll likely have people coming from the deep south if they really want to drive. You have fans in the upper midwest. People coming from the plains states. There’s football fans everywhere.
I love what the draft has become. Nothing is perfect, and you don’t have to have everything frozen in time. That’s been Roger Goodell’s mantra ever since he took over as commissioner — just because it’s been done a certain way doesn't mean it has to be done this way forever. The draft in my mind is vastly improved from the one that I first started covering in person in 2006.
How has your draft-day preparation changed from the mid-2000s to now?
I’m fortunate that all I have to do is live my life, and I’m prepared. I host the NFL Combine coverage for four days. On average, the 200 to 300 prospects at the Combine comprise 98% of the draft. We just don’t know the order until draft day.
The only thing that’s changed is my daily show that I do three hours a day. I talk about the draft nonstop and I hear from fans, so I know what they’re interested in.
My job for the draft is not to tell you what this kid does from an All-22 film aspect or if it fits the coaching style of the team or what the kid did in his junior year in week five and what he can do maybe in week five of his rookie season — that’s for my analysts. My job as the host of a draft is to know the narratives of all 32 teams and their needs, and what just happened in the playing season and how that can play into the draft.
I'm not losing any sleep about hosting this draft. I could do it now. I could hang up the phone right now, put the Panthers on the clock and hope that between now and then we have no idea who the Panthers are going to choose. There’s no better draft to host and anchor than a team picking a quarterback at the top of the draft and going into the draft, you do not know who that quarterback is going to be. That’s the chef’s kiss table set for a draft.
How has Twitter impacted your coverage, given some reporters now get tipped off about selections and tweet about them before they’re made on TV?
It hasn’t impacted anything because I stay off of Twitter during the first round. The producers know that for this draft to work I need to be like everybody at home learning from the commissioner’s mouth who has been drafted. A draft surprise should surprise me just like it does you.
The producers got in my ears one of those drafts in Chicago to say, “You’ve got to get on Twitter to see this video.” I’m like, “Are you serious? We’ve been over this. I don’t want to do it.” They’re like, “You have to.” It was Laremy Tunsil’s video in a gas mask bong. They couldn’t describe it. They’re like, “Trust us. You gotta see it.” I looked at it and got back in their ear in the truck and said, “Yep, you were right. I needed to see that. Thank you.” That’s the only time I’ve been on Twitter.
Many people might think I know what’s coming, and I’m acting in a certain way or dropping hints to look smart. I don’t care if I’m on the air and say, “This team should draft a wide receiver next” and it ends up being an offensive lineman. Like what, am I embarrassed? Like I can’t face my kids in the morning? Come on.
What are some of your favorite draft moments?
There’s so many of them because we get slap-happy on the final day. One year, the Indianapolis Colts decided to have an orangutan make the picks from the zoo. [Then-NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock] was so livid that we were turning the draft into a promotion for the Indianapolis Zoo. Some kid’s lifetime dream is being realized as he becomes a NFL player, and he learns from an orangutan. Watching Mayock steam, hearing him calling the animal an ape and correcting him that he’s really an orangutan, that was hilarious. We talk about it still to this day.
There was another moment where we lost our minds because a guy named Willie Beavers just got drafted. Mayock goes, “I'm a Beavers guy.” We started laughing. We threw it to the podium, and then a guy named [Deon] Bush got drafted. There was no bringing us back from that. The producers got in my ear saying, “Pull it together.” I'm like, “We gotta go to break.” I even took a picture during the commercial break because one of the guys was dabbing their eyes with a tissue because we couldn’t handle it. It’s sophomoric, it’s stupid and we should be more professional. I think fans dig that — it’s just us doing our job and having fun.
Mark J. Burns is a senior data reporter at Morning Consult covering the business of sports. @markjburns88