What Higher Education Can Learn From the NFL Draft

Embrace the camera and entertain your students (in your sweatpants)

November 12, 2020  

Fifty million people tuned in to the NFL draft last month. And an audience of 15.6 million watched the opening round — an increase of 37 percent from last year. Not bad, considering the public beating the NFL’s reputation has taken for the last two years. Between labor disputes and controversy over players kneeling during the National Anthem, fans have been quick to express their negative opinions about the league.

Then came Draft Day during a quarantine. Instead of what was once a star-studded red-carpet event held in some of America’s biggest cities with scores of young men dressed in custom-made suits, the NFL turned this year’s at-home version draft into must-see TV. The league created an all-access and inclusive event for viewers who suddenly felt like they were part of something not just different, but better. For three days, the NFL was more personal than it’s ever been.

We know that there’s always been a natural formality to higher education — that’s just college and academia. But now that’s been stripped away and likely won’t ever be the same. Students will be scattered between campuses and their homes, doing both in-person and online studies. For colleges, think about how you want to show up for your students. Consider events and experiences where students can really feel like they are part of a community.

For some students, college presidents can be intimidating. This is the moment to naturally be more relatable. Why can’t professors hold classes from their home in sweatpants with their kids popping in and out of the screen, leading a discussion about the psychological effects of a global pandemic while eating handfuls of M&M’s? Creating an authentic environment levels the playing field for everyone involved. Sitting with people in their living rooms puts things on a personal level.

So, how can colleges and universities tap in to this thinking when trying to connect more authentically to their students?

Show your rough edges. When you’re planning a virtual event, imperfections and mistakes are bound to happen. There are multiple things happening at different locations. It’s OK to show your imperfections. Roger Goodell, commissioner of the NFL, is widely known for being a little stiff and formal, always dressed impeccably in every public appearance. He’s typically booed at the in-person draft, so he invited and welcomed a gallery of fans booing him to his living room. Find a way to include your school’s leadership to show the human side of themselves.

Don’t be afraid to create a new blueprint. Experience tells us that tactics that work are usually repeated over and over. For colleges and universities, virtual events have taken the place of physical ones. It is impossible to take a human experience and make it virtual. You have to reimagine it. When there are new problems to solve — like having an online orientation for hundreds of new freshmen — you need new solutions.

Embrace being on camera. Higher ed is in the entertainment business now more than ever. Anyone see Coach Bill Belichick’s dog in his chair on the night of the draft? Or Coach Mike Vrabel’s cast of characters posting up in his living room every time the camera pointed in their direction during the Titans’ picks? Nothing increases a brand’s likability factor better than being able to have fun and laugh at yourself. Students want to be entertained. Make your events feel like a Netflix party.

Be yourself. This isn’t the time to be overly scripted. College campuses are full of smart and charismatic leaders, professors and current students. Conversations are better than presentations. Sharing stories wins the day. Speaking from the heart won’t be perfect, but it’s better to mess up and roll your way through it. Students are looking for humanity right now and will not only be forgiving, they will welcome it.

There are a lot of unknowns about the future of higher ed right now. But one thing is certain: it’s a must for colleges and universities to connect deeply and personally with their students. Put yourselves in your students’ shoes. Tradition will likely take a back seat now. Jay-Z couldn’t even save the NFL from itself. But a gritty at-home version of a live draft with nowhere for anyone to hide ended up being a great brand builder. Higher ed, create your own Draft Day.