Multiple cities, same year: Is this the future of the draft?

Tuesday June 11th, 2013

The NFL is focused on making the draft a better event from the fans' perspective.
Craig Ruttle/AP

The recent two-week shift of the 2014 NFL Draft that was necessitated by a scheduling conflict at New York's Radio City Music Hall could wind up being just the beginning of the changes coming to one of the league's glamor events in ensuing years.

There's a chance you ain't seen nothing yet, as the saying goes. Imagine this potential scenario playing out as soon as 2015: The first round and first night of the NFL draft unfolds in Chicago; the second night and rounds two and three take place in Detroit; and the draft concludes with day three and rounds four through seven in Minneapolis. If you're getting a distinct NFC North theme to the proceedings, you're on the right track. And just such a geographically varied draft format could be coming to a division near you in future years.

Though the planning and consideration is only in the preliminary stages, league sources say the NFL has tasked three internal study groups to consider options that include holding the three-day draft in three different NFL cities in the same year, or moving it around to a different NFL city each year, in an attempt to make it an even more accessible and fan-friendly event than it has become at Radio City, its home for the past eight years. The third study group within the league was formed to consider other sites in New York if the league opts to not move its draft out of the nation's largest market, but can't continue to schedule the event for late April at Radio City due to the venue's plans to re-institute a potentially lucrative "Spring Spectacular'' show to be annually held in the weeks around the Easter holiday.

The NFL late last month moved next year's draft back two weeks, to May 8-10, because of the scheduling conflict at Radio City, but said at the time that no further decision had been made about future draft dates or sites. In a news conference at the close of a one-day owners meeting in Boston on May 21, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in order for the draft to revert to its traditional fourth week of April schedule, it likely would have to leave New York for another site due to bthe expectation of future scheduling conflicts with the Radio City Easter-based show -- even though Easter is a holiday that can fall anywhere from March 22 to April 25, making the holiday's season a moving target.

Instead, the NFL might be the one on the move. It's now clear the league is using the impetus provided by the Radio City scheduling issue to study making some major and innovative changes to where and how its draft unfolds. After all, the draft has become a prime-time televised extravaganza of its own, with the league taking over the venerable Radio City Music Hall for three days, and delivering massive TV ratings for Thursday night's first round and Friday's second and third rounds.

While the consideration of all options has only just begun, the league is clearly intrigued with the idea of taking the draft on the road, if feasible, and could make further changes to how it conducts its wildly popular player lottery to broaden its appeal to fans. For instance, if the three-day, three-different-cities format is adopted, the league would, in all likelihood, stop the decades-long practice of having officials from each of the NFL's 32 teams on site at the draft, sitting at tables equipped with helmet phones to relay the club's pick from its war room to the commissioner's podium on stage.

In this age of smart phones and advanced technology, the league is wondering if it's only mindless tradition that keeps it using rows and rows of valuable center stage seats to put team officials at what amounts to archaic draft-phone relay stations? There's no way the NFL would ask its clubs to move their two on-site draft officials to three draft venues in a three-day span if the multi-city plan goes forward, so all clubs could stay home and send in their picks electronically while the league transforms the actual draft site into a more fan-focused event, with all the pomp and ceremony of recent drafts but little of the infrastructure currently required for the mechanics of the 240-plus selection process.

The league would get its red-carpet treatment and spotlight moment, its bevy of attending top draft prospects, and all the hoopla and media attention it could generate, and some lucky football fans would get the choice seats near the stage, with an eye on growing interest in the event even beyond the New York-area draft fanatics that start lining up every year outside of Radio City in the quest for seats. Once the league takes the draft on the road, arenas and venues considerably larger than the 6,000-seat Radio City Music Hall might be where it is headed, if the league deems sufficient interest warrants and can be accurately gauged.

Logistical and cost issues related to taking the draft on the road will likely determine much of league's decision-making in terms of site or format changes. But in essence the NFL is starting its evaluation with a blank sheet of paper in designing what the draft will look like and be in future years. And the process starts with something of an assumption that re-examining the event stems from the strong possibility it won't be returning to Radio City in 2015 and beyond. While that evaluation is in the preliminary stages, a league source described the work as "serious,'' with a lot of manpower and time being devoted to the three study groups that will report back to Goodell and other NFL officials on how to move the draft forward.

That research may quickly eliminate many NFL cities as possible draft venues. If a market has both an NBA and NHL team, it may not have a venue that can be cleared to schedule the draft, given that the basketball and hockey playoffs will take precedence in the spring. But the NFL can also envision cities competing for the right to play host to the draft, almost as a small-scale Super Bowl-like event, as Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel did last week, pitching Goodell on the idea of his city being the new home to the draft and a future Super Bowl site.

Of the three study groups, the option that appears the most unlikely at this early juncture is for the draft to remain in New York. Barring Radio City reversing course and assuring the NFL its choice of dates for the draft -- and no one seems to be holding their breath for that eventuality given the potential money to be made by the venue's springtime show -- other New York-area sites are seen as having potential issues or drawbacks.

The league is willing to take a fresh look at New York, but the thinking is that Madison Square Garden and the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn will have the inherent playoff-time scheduling problems with its NBA and NHL tenants (the New York Islanders will share Barclays Center with the Nets starting in the fall of 2015). As for the Javits Center on the west side of Manhattan, the league held its draft there in 2005, the last year before it moved to Radio City, and is said to have come away distinctly unimpressed by the experience.

Any old large and open concert or arena space won't do any more, what with the draft requiring a significantly sized footprint for a pair of televising networks in ESPN and the NFL Network, the red-carpet spectacle before the selection process begins, and the ever-growing media and fan contingent on hand. Clearly it's inaccurate to say the league has shut the door on its draft era in New York, but it seems in the process of closing.

What comes next for the draft is the multiple-choice topic the league is in the process of studying. There are no hard and fast timetables for a decision about the 2015 draft to be reached in 2013, but the matter could be ripe for discussion by the time the league's early October owners meeting in Washington D.C. rolls around, after first being vetted by the three study groups, the commissioner and the league's relevant committees. Moving the draft forward is said to be the goal, and moving the event itself is likely to be the biggest component of that plan.

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