- Event has moved from its former Radio City Music Hall location
- Non-ticket holders allowed to gather at festival spread across equivalent of 26 football fields
- Last year’s draft estimated to have generated $95m for host Philadelphia
For an organisation as proactive and future-focused as the NFL, it perhaps seems odd that the league clung on to the tradition of hosting its annual pre-season player draft at the historic but relatively small Radio City Music Hall for so long
The NFL finally cut the umbilical cord after recognising that by moving the event to a new destination each year, like it does with its showpiece Super Bowl, it could create opportunities for more creative marketing activations and broader fan engagements than merely keeping the spectacle shackled at the junction of 50th and 6th in Manhattan.
Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre in Grant Park staged the 2015 edition of the annual meeting of NFL franchises to select newly-eligible players – bringing an end to 50 consecutive editions in New York. After returning to Chicago in 2016, the draft took place last year in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
However, the 83rd edition of the draft this year, from April 26-28, truly marked a step into an uncharted territory.
It is not that AT&T Stadium in Arlington is a stranger to the NFL or indeed major NFL events. After all, the venue is home to the Dallas Cowboys and hosted Super Bowl XLV in 2011.
The scale of this year’s draft, though, was unprecedented.
The picks were announced on a makeshift stage set up at midfield, with a modular theatre with 20,000 seats built on one 45-yard line and open to one end zone. The ‘Inner Circle’ gave 50 lucky fans for each team the chance to get a close-up view of each pick, while a ‘Combine Corner’ gave each member of the public the chance to test themselves against their favourite players, including running a 40-yard dash against an LED screen of stars.
Outside, and available to non-ticket-holders, was a festival spread across a size equivalent to 26 football fields – the NFL’s largest such fan gathering to date.
“In recent years the aim has to make the draft much more of an interactive festival, so you can pretend to walk the red carpet like the players or just enjoy great food and music,” Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice-president of events, tells SportBusiness International.
The 2017 NFL Draft in Philadelphia is estimated to have generated $95m for the local economy.
In taking the draft on the road, the NFL has been keen to give hosts the opportunity to incorporate their own ideas within the three-day event, rather than just transplanting an identical model year after year – aside from the structure of the player-selection process itself.
In Dallas, where bigger is always seen as better, the NFL’s original plan to stage the draft at the team’s training facility, the Ford Center at The Star, was scrapped after Charlotte Jones-Anderson, the Cowboys’ executive vice-president and chief brand officer, suggested that the stadium itself would be a better location.
“So many unique events have taken place in that building – not just Cowboys games,” O’Reilly adds.
Over the past two years alone, top music acts including Beyoncé, Guns N’ Roses, Coldplay, U2 and Metallica have performed at the venue, which also attracted more than 100,000 spectators for a WWE WrestleMania event in April 2016.
Figures for this year’s draft are still being ratified, but O’Reilly hopes to surpass the total of 250,000 who attended last year’s gathering in Philadelphia and not only attract more fans, but keep them there for longer, opening the free NFL draft experience at midday on Thursday.
Round one was never going to be a problem, with eyeballs across the country glued to the top picks for each franchise – and especially the No.1 selection by the Cleveland Browns – while local interest was stoked by the Cowboys’ selection at No.19.
On Friday, the idea was to bring the NFL legends into the selection presentation, with numerous Hall of Famers, including Browns great Jim Brown, complemented by a ‘Friday Night Lights’ high-school theme.
However, the third day of the draft has always been a bit of a struggle when it has come to sparking the interest of the fans, even though some gems have been found in the lower rounds – Tom Brady, the 199th pick in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, being a prime example.
“The queues would be snaking around the corner at Radio City, apart from on day three, when you’d have a group of diehard fans in there who might be charting every pick,” O’Reilly adds.
“But what we have seen since 2015 is so many more young people and families who just want to come along to experience the draft, even if they’re not necessarily waiting with baited breath to see who is picked.”
On Saturday, the space behind the stage was opened up to give fans the chance to be on the field and kick field goals, with some of them even selected to announce draft picks in round seven. Additionally, previous winners of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award – recognising a player for his excellence on and off the field – featured in the programme.
From a media perspective, the schedule for the draft was more enticing than previous years, with this year’s event having been the first to receive full live exposure of all three days on broadcast television. Fox and NFL Network teamed up to provide live simulcast coverage of rounds one to three, while ESPN/ABC offered coverage of rounds four to seven.
There was also increased coverage worldwide. For example, in the UK, all three days of the draft were exclusively live on pay-television broadcaster Sky’s channels.
The NFL’s 32 teams will also host their own events across the US and beyond.
“Although the centre of gravity was Dallas, each team created moments in their markets for announcements four, five and six,” O’Reilly says. “For example, the Jaguars made announcements from London, while the Rams did so from Hollywood. It added a new dynamic.”
On the ground, all tickets were free, aside from about 200 set aside for on-location partner hospitality, and available through a lottery system.
“Our partners have absolutely embraced the feel of the draft,” O’Reilly says. “Every single one of our partners is activating around the draft and we’ve focused on allowing existing partners to make the most of this opportunity.”
Many fans were also able to get a glimpse of the draft proceedings inside the stadium – as well as on the multiple big screens situated outside the stadium – by accepting left-over tickets from those leaving for the day.
The festival theme encourages comparisons with the Super Bowl, which has expanded in recent years to incorporate a full week of concerts, entertainment and cultural activities in the host city.
“We have borrowed a few things from the Super Bowl template,” O’Reilly adds. “Super Bowl has many more complexities to it, but in terms of the structure of the bid process and how we work with the host cities, we do borrow some aspects from the big game. In a similar way, we have tried to make Super Bowl much more accessible.”
When it comes to the contract between the city and the NFL, there is no direct hosting fee. However, according to O’Reilly, the city will “help the NFL to offset some of the costs of the event”.
He adds: “In Philadelphia last year the host city carried out an economic impact report and found that $95m (€78m) was generated by people coming from out of town.”
Cities are lining up to stage the draft in 2019 and 2020, with Cleveland/Canton, Denver, Kansas City, Las Vegas and Tennessee the candidates.
“They are all keen to put their unique stamp on the event,” O’Reilly says. “Each city has a plan to represent the vibe of their destination, although of course we will ultimately decide on the best location. “Each of those markets has a different size and has different cultural elements.
“The process is moving quickly and visits have taken place in all of those markets. We are set to announce the 2019 and 2020 hosts at the spring meetings on May 21-23.”
In terms of fan experience initiatives that, for whatever reason, have not made the cut this year, but could be considered in the future, O’Reilly admits that virtual reality is an area that is of interest, while “deeper social coverage” is also under consideration. “There’s more that we can do, including capturing the unique behind-the-scenes process,” he says.
One thing is clear – whatever the future direction of the draft, it is unlikely to return to a venue like Radio City, with a focus on fan experience likely to be increasingly dominant.
“There has been a steady evolution,” O’Reilly says.
“The draft was originally held in a small hotel room and then its move into prime time was big. With a great reception in the television and media environment, so many people wanted to touch and feel the draft and feel close to it. That’s why we’d see so many people trying to get into Radio City.
“But by doing what we’ve done since then, creating a much more accessible draft, the draft has created an asset that any of our markets could host.”
This article features in SportBusiness International’s 2018 Fan XP report. Browse the sections of the report or download the full PDF document here.