The NFL draft returns to Chicago this year, but the Windy City may not be its permanent home. More than half of the league’s cities have told the NFL they want to host the event—which will only keep getting bigger

By Emily Kaplan
April 26, 2016

Pete Rozelle transformed the NFL into a cultural titan. A forward-thinking executive, the former commissioner expanded the game and molded America’s football viewing habits into an addiction. So consider this anecdote an anomaly. In 1980, ESPN president Chet Simmons approached the commissioner with a proposal: Could his nascent sports network televise the draft? Rozelle was incredulous, according to James Andrew Miller and Tom Shale’s book on ESPN, Those Guys Have All The Fun. “Why in the world would people watch the damn thing?” the commissioner asked.

“Let that be my problem,” Simmons said. 

Nearly four decades later, the NFL draft has become must-see TV. Last year’s first round drew 8.8 million viewers—1.2 million more sets of eyeballs than the most recent NBA all-star game. Reality TV in its purest form, the draft is imbued with the hallmarks of enthralling television. It’s centered on the idea of hope—teams are a pick away from reversing their fortunes—a ticking clock heightens the drama, and there are myriad rags-to-riches or plummeting-stock stories to be explored. Two years ago, the draft coverage of ESPN and NFL Network coverage averaged a record 12.4 million viewers, the second most-watched show that Thursday night, trailing only The Big Bang Theory.

Though Rozelle could not have envisioned in his wildest dreams what the event has become, it has inspired us to ask: What is the future of the NFL draft?

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Though team personnel have always conducted the draft in a network of far-flung war rooms, the league had long wanted to create a bigger, more accessible experience for fans. After a 51-year run in New York City, where space always came at a premium, the NFL moved the draft to Chicago last year and gave fans much more to do than fill a theater with team colors and react to picks.

The NFL colonized Grant Park with a tent city of corporate logos. Nearly 200,000 fans showed up for deep-dish pizza, autographs, performances by Colts cheerleaders and free youth clinics conducted by USA Football. “We found that the draft was about so much more than just the average fan who was tracking every single selection,” says Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president of events. “It brought out kids and families who just wanted to get closer to the NFL. It really was an experiment in year one, and now we learned: this can be the new normal.” 

As part of an overall tourism campaign, Chicago enticed the NFL by cutting its costs. (Public records show that the Chicago Park District waived a security deposit and a $937,500 rental fee to use Grant Park and nearby areas.) A study by Temple University’s Sport Industry Research Center found that last year’s draft had a direct economic impact of $44 million for the city, including hotel revenue, dining, sales tax revenue and temporary jobs.

The NFL exercised its option to hold the draft in the Windy City this year, but Chicago might not be the draft’s new permanent home. More than half of the league’s cities, plus Canton, Ohio, have told the NFL they want to host the draft. Falcons owner Arthur Blank told ESPN that Atlanta was among those teams, but is concerned his city may be overlooked because it’s also trying to host a Super Bowl. League spokesman Brian McCarthy confirmed Blank’s sentiment—the NFL would like to appease as many markets as possible.

“Given what we've learned in the move from New York City to Chicago, clearly a number of cities raised their hands to say they’re interested,” O’Reilly says. “We’d love to share the vision for what the new normal is … it’s possible the draft could be in a different city every year—or even multiple cities in the same year.”

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“The draft today is the NFL in its brilliance,” says agent Leigh Steinberg, who has been involved with the league since 1975. “It’s a created spectacular offseason event to keep football front and center when its not being played.”

The NFL is always trying to be more grandiose. This year, while the hub of the action is in Chicago, the Raiders will announce a pick from Mexico City and the Jaguars will do the same from London. The Broncos, meanwhile, will have someone ski down the slopes of Winter Park with a selection somewhere in the fourth, fifth or sixth round. In Chicago, the league will try capitalize on the overlap between NFL and college football fans. The NFL partnered with the College Football Hall of Fame and will have college football memorabilia and interactive boards tracking alltime college selections in Draft Town. For the first time, the league has also extended formal draft invites to the college coaches of prospects, hoping their celebrity presence will help create more buzz. 

All of it begs a question: Will other NFL events receiver similar makeovers? The combine could be the next step, because here’s another thing Rozelle couldn’t have dreamed up: Fans have an insatiable interest in watching 19-year-olds run between cones. (Trailing only the Super Bowl, the annual talent convention is the second-most credentialed league event.)

Indianapolis has hosted the combine since 1987, and the league recently signed an extension to stay through 2020, though it has several outs to leave early. Several cities, including Los Angeles, have expressed interest in hosting the combine. “From an operational standpoint, the compactness of [the Indianapolis] market, the proximity to hospitals and hotels and the way it is run is very important,” O’Reilly says. “In the near term, in the very near term, continuing to build the combine in Indianapolis makes the most sense. However, we are beginning to wonder how we can build that out: Can we create more fan experiences surrounding it?” 

Last year, the NFL invited 3,000 fans to watch drills at Lucas Oil Stadium on a Saturday. O’Reilly envisions a future scenario where fans could have access to watch prospects, NFL coaches and general managers being interviewed by media. “We know fans would be really fired up to have that experience,” O’Reilly says. “We just have to figure out a way to give fans that access without disrupting anything from the media side or football side.”

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Todd Rosenberg/Sports Illustrated

Last year, the top two picks—Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston—did not attend the draft. This year, several agents told The MMQB that there has been a more concerted effort to lure the top prospects to Chicago. “The theater is still the premium experience,” O’Reilly says. “It’s important that we maintain that excitement: the prospects, the commissioner, the energy.”

This year, 25 top prospects are expected to be at the draft, including the presumed top two picks—quarterbacks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz—as well as a dozen college football coaches, including Nick Saban and Urban Meyer.

The most notable prospects not attending: Oregon defensive end DeForest Buckner and Memphis’s Paxton Lynch, whom many peg as the third quarterback taken off the board. Steinberg, Lynch’s agent, says the draft’s being held in Chicago rather than New York wasn’t a factor in his decision not to attend. (Draft prospects were often lured by bucket-list opportunities in the Big Apple. For example, Steinberg remembers Troy Aikman, also a client, savoring a trip to Phantom of the Opera in 1989.) “They’ll offer some of that in Chicago,” the agent says. “But it’s not New York.” Lynch instead plans to rent a bowling alley in his hometown, so he can share his draft experience with as many people as possible who helped him reach the NFL.

Steinberg will likely have a good idea of where his client will land before draft day, but there are no guarantees for those who sit and wait in the green room.

“Draft coverage loves the drama,” Steinberg says. “But the problem with the plummeting draft pick is that it makes Aaron Rodgers look like a victim. He’s the 26th player selected, which means he’s the 26th player selected out of thousands of NFL hopefuls, and yet somehow we’re supposed to feel sorry for him.”

Lynch will be in Deltona, Fla., eating pizza and knocking down pins. But we’ll know exactly what it looks like: ESPN and NFL Network camera crews will be there, too.

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