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iPhones, satellites and AWS: Inside the super ambitious virtual NFL draft

ESPN could have staged an enormous Zoom call. But it wanted to do more — and the result could change sports and TV forever.

Stage with Arizona Cardinals team logo

This was the view as the Arizona Cardinals make their No. 1 overall pick at the 2019 NFL draft in Nashville. Thanks to coronavirus, things will be very different this year.

Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Over the last couple of weeks, more than 100 football coaches, general managers, players and executives have received a similar package. Inside: two iPhones, two tripods, two microphones, a couple of lights, a couple of Bose headsets, and a whole mess of cables. It is — hopefully — everything they'll need to set up two broadcast-quality camera feeds from their homes. Because when the NFL draft kicks off Thursday night, that's exactly what ESPN, the league and millions of fans are counting on.

In a normal year, the draft takes place in a stadium or theater filled with jersey-wearing fans, anxious prospects and teams — this year's event was set to be in Las Vegas. (If you've never watched one, imagine a really large college graduation, complete with lectern and stage and really large men whose names are called.) Those who aren't there are either in conference rooms at teams' headquarters or at home, surrounded by friends and family. This year, thanks to coronavirus, everyone's just home. Alone.

The simplest way for ESPN to tweak the draft would have been, in effect, to stage an enormous Zoom call. Which probably would have worked fine. But for a sports-starved community unusually excited to tune in to the broadcast on ABC, ESPN and the NFL Network — a show that seems likely to top last year's record 6.1 million average viewers — the team wanted to do more. "We want to provide the best experience for the fans, the NFL and the Disney organization," said David Johnson, the VP of engineering and media distribution for Disney's Direct-To-Consumer & International (known as DTCI) Technology team. So they thought bigger. Much bigger.

After years of rethinking the way ESPN transmits and handles data, and a weeks-long scramble to adapt to the new world order, the network says it's ready to handle what might just be the most ambitious virtual event ever put together. It'll spend the draft's three days sending vast amounts of data all over the country, bringing hundreds of feeds, camera angles and important moments into a single broadcast. The result could be more than just the best-possible version of coronavirus TV. This kind of interactive, intimate, in-every-living-room-everywhere content stew could be part of the future of sports — and TV — long after the arenas open up again.

The process started only a few weeks ago. On March 30, Mike Feinberg, a coordinating director at ESPN, emailed Johnson with what seemed at the time like a simple thought. "Historically, your team has brought in numerous feeds to support the draft," Feinberg wrote," and I expect that number to go up this year." (Feinberg noted, reading the email back to me, that he may have understated things slightly.)

The draft is always slightly more complicated than your average sporting event, because the show cuts from the stage to the crowd to someone's home to an analyst to a team's conference room and back to the stage. In a normal year, said Maureen Barend, an associate director on DTCI Technology's transmission team, she'd be dealing with 13 fiber and satellite feeds from the main event, plus a number of TV feeds coming from camera crews in other places. Barend described that as "pretty small." The transmission team's job is to take all those feeds, make sure audio and video sound and look great, and then route them to the production team. ESPN is, of course, well-versed in handling lots of data from remote locations and juggling many feeds and events at once.

But this one's on a different level, Johnson said. They're bringing in about 150 sources, "whether it be coaches, team sites, individual prospects, commissioners," he said. "And they're coming in now over several different methods of transport: We've got fiber and we've got satellite, we're using the cloud. And then we've got several different call centers that are effectively stub-switching for us," routing feeds to different places so things aren't gumming up the same paths. It all requires three different vendors, including AWS, to keep running. On top of that, the team at ESPN managing the data has to do so from home, over the Citrix VPNs the company uses.

The biggest change for ESPN — and one of the reasons it's able to cope — has been the company's move to internet-based data transport. "Over the last several years," Johnson said, "it has become less and less costly, and more effective and reliable." Even a few years ago, capturing live feeds from two iPhones in hundreds of homes all across the country would have been both technically and financially impossible.

It's still not easy, of course. ESPN and the NFL have even been encouraging participants to upgrade their home broadband speeds, to avoid the dreaded blurry-blocky camera feed coming out of a newly minted pro's home. And there's a real risk in sending camera gear to someone's house and hoping they'll know how to use it; the team included a tip sheet in the kit, instructing users how to set up one camera to grab a wide shot of a room and another to be closer, more interview-style, plus how to light and capture and send it all seamlessly.

Coronavirus made a lot of things harder for ESPN and the NFL, but it did provide one benefit: very little competition for resources, because there aren't any other sports to document. "Normally with something like the draft," said Vinny Thibeau, another associate director on the transmission team, "you still have the NBA going on and MLB and everything else that would keep us really busy and tying up those resources. What allows us to float as much content as we're going to do is the fact that we'll almost be the only show in town."

If all goes to plan, here's how the draft will go when it starts at 5 p.m. PDT. Commissioner Roger Goodell will run the show from his home, with a satellite truck outside beaming everything to Bristol, Connecticut. He's the only one who gets that treatment: Nearly everything else will come from the remote-kit-created feeds. Some of those will get sent via the three network vendors to a site in Tulsa, Oklahoma, then sent via fiber to Disney's main capture building on the ESPN campus in Bristol. Others will be sent directly over the internet to Bristol.

Once the transmission team ensures the quality of the feed, it'll be routed to ESPN's production team, which is spread among four control rooms on the network's campus so as to have as many people in-studio as possible but in a socially distant way. The production team will work with almost two dozen anchors and reporters from ESPN and the NFL, some piping out commentary from studios and some from home.

To coordinate everything, the team is using tools like Unity Intercom, an app that replicates the push-to-talk tools production teams are used to. Just in case, everyone's set up to fire up Skype and FaceTime, too. Because you never know.

In some ways, Disney has been building the infrastructure for this for years. In particular, as ESPN+ has become a bigger part of the company's plans, it's gotten better at ingesting and streaming data over the internet. Crews have spent the last month helping reporters, producers and everyone else figure out how to work from home. And fundamentally, they still see it as a TV show — just with a few more camera feeds.

The teams working on the draft spent this week testing every part of the process, making sure things move and operate as seamlessly as possible. Still, they won't really know what's going to happen until the draft starts, because there's no playbook or history for how something like this might come off. The NFL held a mock draft this week, set up much more like a normal Zoom webinar, and it was riddled with connectivity and communication issues. (One general manager texted a reporter that "there are early communication issues because 32 of us GMs are on conference call and we didn't hit mute. Sounds awful.") With so many moving parts, many of which ESPN can't quickly fix, everything feels a bit tenuous.


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Feinberg said he's excited nonetheless: "If you strip the draft down to its simplest form," he said, "it's capturing not only the business-meeting aspect of it, but the emotion of it." This draft might feel less like a capital-e Event and more like an intimate gathering.

There are only a few things this year's draft can't even attempt to do. There won't be throngs of live fans booing or cheering their teams' decisions. (Though one enterprising coder built a way to boo online.) And what about the requisite onstage hug between drafted players and the commissioner? No, ESPN can't replace it virtually. But that's probably a good thing.

Image: Yuanxin

Yuanxin Technology doesn't hide its ambition. In the first line of its prospectus, the company says its mission is to be the "first choice for patients' healthcare and medication needs in China." But the road to winning the crowded China health tech race is a long one for this Tencent- and Sequoia-backed startup, even with a recent valuation of $4 billion, according to Chinese publication Lieyunwang. Here's everything you need to know about Yuanxin Technology's forthcoming IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

What does Yuanxin do?

There are many ways startups can crack open the health care market in China, and Yuanxin has focused on one: prescription drugs. According to its prospectus, sales of prescription drugs outside hospitals account for only 23% of the total healthcare market in China, whereas that number is 70.2% in the United States.

Yuanxin started with physical stores. Since 2015, it has opened 217 pharmacies immediately outside Chinese hospitals. "A pharmacy has to be on the main road where a patient exits the hospital. It needs to be highly accessible," Yuanxin founder He Tao told Chinese media in August. Then, patients are encouraged to refill their prescriptions on Yuanxin's online platforms and to follow up with telehealth services instead of returning to a hospital.

From there, Yuanxin has built a large product portfolio that offers online doctor visits, pharmacies and private insurance plans. It also works with enterprise clients, designing office automation and prescription management systems for hospitals and selling digital ads for big pharma.

Yuanxin's Financials

Yuanxin's annual revenues have been steadily growing from $127 million in 2018 to $365 million in 2019 and $561 million in 2020. In each of those three years, over 97% of revenue came from "out-of-hospital comprehensive patient services," which include the company's physical pharmacies and telehealth services. More specifically, approximately 83% of its retail sales derived from prescription drugs.

But the company hasn't made a profit. Yuanxin's annual losses grew from $17 million in 2018 to $26 million in 2019 and $48 million in 2020. The losses are moderate considering the ever-growing revenues, but cast doubt on whether the company can become profitable any time soon. Apart from the cost of drug supplies, the biggest spend is marketing and sales.

What's next for Yuanxin

There are still abundant opportunities in the prescription drug market. In 2020, China's National Medical Products Administration started to explore lifting the ban on selling prescription drugs online. Although it's unclear when the change will take place, it looks like more purely-online platforms will be able to write prescriptions in the future. With its established market presence, Yuanxin is likely one of the players that can benefit greatly from such a policy change.

The enterprise and health insurance businesses of Yuanxin are still fairly small (accounting for less than 3% of annual revenue), but this is where the company sees an opportunity for future growth. Yuanxin is particularly hoping to power its growth with data and artificial intelligence. It boasts a database of 14 million prescriptions accumulated over years, and the company says the data can be used in many ways: designing private insurance plans, training doctors and offering chronic disease management services. The company says it currently employs 509 people on its R&D team, including 437 software engineers and 22 data engineers and scientists.

What Could Go Wrong?

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped sell the story of digital health care, but Yuanxin isn't the only company benefiting from this opportunity. 2020 has seen a slew of Chinese health tech companies rise. They either completed their IPO process before Yuanxin (like JD, Alibaba and Ping An's healthcare subsidiaries) or are close to it (WeDoctor and DXY). In this crowded sector, Yuanxin faces competition from both companies with Big Tech parent companies behind them and startups that have their own specialized advantages.

Like each of its competitors, Yuanxin needs to be careful with how it processes patient data — some of the most sensitive personal data online. Recent Chinese legislation around personal data has made it clear that it will be increasingly difficult to monetize user data. In the prospectus, Yuanxin elaborately explained how it anonymizes data and prevents data from being leaked or hacked, but it also admitted that it cannot foresee what future policies will be introduced.

Who Gets Rich

  • Yuanxin's founder and CEO He Tao and SVP He Weizhuang own 29.82% of the company's shares through a jointly controlled company. (It's unclear whether He Tao and He Weizhuang are related.)
  • Tencent owns 19.55% of the shares.
  • Sequoia owns 16.21% of the shares.
  • Other major investors include Qiming, Starquest Capital and Kunling, which respectively own 7.12%, 6.51% and 5.32% of the shares.

What People Are Saying

  • "The demands of patients, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies are all different. How to meet each individual demand and find a core profit model is the key to Yuanxin Technology's future growth." — Xu Yuchen, insurance industry analyst and member of China Association of Actuaries, in Chinese publication Lanjinger.
  • "The window of opportunity caused by the pandemic, as well as the high valuations of those companies that have gone public, brings hope to other medical services companies…[But] the window of opportunity is closing and the potential of Internet healthcare is yet to be explored with new ideas. Therefore, traditional, asset-heavy healthcare companies need to take this opportunity and go public as soon as possible." —Wang Hang, founder and CEO of online healthcare platform Haodf, in state media China.com.

Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.

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