When Dave Knickerbocker began as the Colts’ Vice President of Content and Production in 2018, one of his first orders of business involved sitting down with Chris Ballard.
He had an idea that would need a green light from the general manager.
“’We want to be in the draft room. We’ll record your conversations and follow the process for how you guys develop your strategy for drafting, how you develop your big board, which players are on it, tell the story of that entire process.’ The main caveat was that Chris would be able to see it before it went out, so we weren’t revealing trade secrets. Chris understands the fan side of it better than any executive that I’ve ever worked with before. He said, ‘Absolutely, let’s do it.’”
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And that’s how a popular video series, “With the Next Pick,” was born. Others inside the Colts building were shocked that the idea got the go-ahead.
“Traditionally in sports, there’s a separation between church and state, the business side and the football operations side,” Knickerbocker said. “Back in some previous regimes, it was more prevalent, the separation. The one thing (Chris) tells everybody is we all affect winning. That’s why I felt comfortable pitching it to him, because I believe him.”
The first episode began with the scene inside the Colts locker room following a season-ending loss to Kansas City in the divisional round of the playoffs after the 2018 season. Knickerbocker has spent time with the Chicago Cubs, Chicago Blackhawks and now Colts. He’d never seen a team produce footage inside the locker room detailing that type of moment.
“It was a hit from day one,” he said. “What you got was real raw emotion of guys who just lost and their season ended. For that to start the episode, you just knew you had something magical at that point. I knew we had something special from the first scene.”
That level of access has been key to the series’ success. Matt Wilkening, the team’s senior content creation specialist, spends hours inside the team’s draft room with Ballard and scouts in the months leading up to the draft as they analyze players. He acts as a “fly on the wall,” but has gotten more confident the longer he has captured footage.
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“The first year, I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” he said. “I went into the draft room thinking, ‘I don’t belong in here. I don’t feel comfortable in here. Do they feel comfortable with me in here?’ Throughout the years and the building of trust, they know ‘He’s just going to try to do his job.’”
Ballard, among several other sets of eyes, watches each episode before it goes live. Ballard has the ability to nix something, but it rarely happens. Sometimes, in the draft room, he or a scout will say something and then look at the camera to tell Wilkening, ‘Don’t use it.’” Sometimes the ‘Don’t use it’ quote makes the final cut.
“It gives the fans the (sense) that they’re being serious about this,” Wilkening said.
Planning for the series begins as the season is still ongoing. The first episode of the latest season includes footage of owner Jim Irsay in a suite watching the Colts collapse against Jacksonville.
“We have to win this game or else I turn green,” Irsay tells a young girl in the suite. “And you wouldn’t like me when I turn green.”
After the Colts lost their final home game of the season to Las Vegas, Wilkening, Knickerbocker and the rest of the creative team began planning for footage to shoot from the regular season finale.
“When we ended up losing against Las Vegas, we prepared,” Wilkening said. “’What could happen if this does fall apart?’ you never know. We did some prep on that, and it worked out for us.”
Wilkening shoots much more footage than he’ll ever use, hoping for moments that pay off – like scout Morocco Brown analyzing Jonathan Taylor ahead of the 2020 draft.
“He said, ‘This guy’s Captain America. Why wouldn’t we want this guy?’ And then to actually trade up to get him, and for us to share our pre-evaluation of Jonathan with the fans after the draft, that just gets everybody excited,” Knickerbocker said.
He catches moments of levity – an episode from last season has Ballard saying “You’ve ruined the room” after someone passes gas.
The series also highlights concerns scouts have about potential picks. The first episode of this season’s series shows Midwest area scout Chad Henry saying about a player: “My report’s in the system. And it is not favorable.” Matt Terpening, the team’s assistant director of college scouting, says one player is “not a leader, he lacks time management.” Ballard’s response? “Put him at the bottom.”
Wilkening doesn’t always know how the series is going to take shape. When the Colts traded for Carson Wentz last season, the second episode focused on the deal. The first episode of this year’s season included footage of Matt Ryan flying to Indianapolis, then meeting with Frank Reich and Ballard.
The goal? To provide as much access and insight as possible.
“Fans enjoy the banter in the draft room. But every year we do it, we’ve got to find something more unique to do with it. I get tired of seeing the draft room. I want a unique perspective that we haven’t seen before,” Wilkening said. “I’m always trying to push for something new and unique whether it’s at the combine or some aspect within free agency.”
Wilkening pays attention to feedback from fans. The overarching comment he sees?
“What we’ve seen lately is, ‘We want it to be longer,’” he said.