Night one of the 2021 NFL Draft scared up more eyeballs than last week’s Oscars broadcast, as 12.5 million viewers tuned in Thursday night to watch the first 32 picks unfold on the Disney-owned TV outlets ESPN and ABC, as well as the league’s own NFL Network.
ESPN beat all comers with its coverage, averaging 6.48 million viewers, while ABC drew 4.19 million and NFL Net 1.85 million. These numbers do not include digital impressions. The first night of the draft now stands as the 25th most-watched TV program of 2021.
Thursday’s turnout topped ABC’s April 25 Academy Awards showcase by 2.1 million viewers. The draft opener now stands as the second most-watched night of the event since last year’s lockdown edition, which was televised from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s basement and averaged a record 15.4 million viewers—or 15.6 million, when streaming was added to the linear TV deliveries.
Last year’s draft opener was particularly compelling, as it marked the first time a major sports event was restructured in the face of the pandemic. In addition to giving the world an inside look at Goodell’s cellar setup, the 2020 quarantine installment also featured a cameo appearance by Bill Belichick’s Alaskan Klee Kai, Nike, as well as a shot of Cardinals’ head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s weirdo-plutocrat backyard. Both dog and yard went viral.
Prior to last year’s singular production, the previous high for a draft night was 12.4 million for first round in 2014, when the Browns selected Johnny Manziel with the 22nd pick. This year’s draft, held in Cleveland, featured Goodell’s wingback club chair, which played a supporting role during the 2020 basement broadcasts.
As the night unfolded, a fan of each team was selected to take a load off in Goodell’s chair while his or her rooting interest made their pick. That was about as far as the callbacks went; Nike the dog did not show up in Cleveland, and while Kingsbury’s yard presumably is still bizarre, it failed to make an encore appearance.
In terms of the more substantive elements of the draft, some of the most impactful moments of Thursday’s event included the 49ers’ stealth choice of North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance, the Patriots nabbing Alabama’s Mac Jones as the 15th overall selection, and the pregame intrigue whipped up by reports on a flare-up between Jeopardy!’s Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
This year’s inaugural round also functioned as another full-throated panegyric to the SEC, which finished the night with bragging rights to 12 of the 32 picks. Half of those were populated by Alabama, which gave rise to a trio of top 10 selections in Jaylen Waddle, Patrick Surtain II and DeVonta Smith.
Playing second fiddle to the SEC were the Big Ten (seven picks) and ACC (six). The Big 12, meanwhile, didn’t have a single player selected during Thursday’s round.