- A stage on the 45-yard line of the field? Seats for 20,000 fans? A fan experience with the opportunity to run a 40-yard dash? It's all part of the NFL draft when it's held in Dallas.
In less than two weeks, the Browns will be on the clock for the first pick of the 2018 NFL draft, and it will look very different than any draft you have seen before. This year’s draft will take place at AT&T Stadium in Dallas—or Jerry World, as many like to call it. And of course, everything at Jerry World is larger than life, even the draft. The picks will be announced on a makeshift stage set up at midfield, and then outside, at the fan fest, you can run a 40-yard dash and test your vertical leap.
For about 50 years, the NFL held the draft in Radio City Music Hall, in a theatre in midtown New York City. Then, in 2015, the league decided to take the draft on the road, and after successful stops in Chicago and Philadelphia, the NFL seems to not be looking back. After Dallas this year, the NFL is eyeing Cleveland / Canton, Kansas City, Tennessee, Denver and Las Vegas as potential locations for 2019 and ’20.
In the lead-up to the 2018 draft in Dallas, The MMQB spoke this week with Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s Senior Vice President of Events. We spoke about all the bells and whistles the league has planned for Dallas, the impetus behind taking the draft on the road and whether the league will ever have a draft at Radio City ever again. (Hint: It’s not looking good.)
The MMQB: My boss, Peter King, talked with Gil Brandt for his Monday Morning Quarterback Column this week, and Gil seemed very excited about the draft being in Dallas. What will the setup look like this year?
Peter O’Reilly: Since moving out of New York and going to Chicago and then Philadelphia, [the mindset in each place has been], how do you create an iconic location that really draws people? And again, is unique every year. With the draft at [AT&T Stadium], we’re building a theatre on one 45-yard line and playing to one end zone. It’ll be about 20,000 seats, by far the largest theatre we’ll have for the draft. Radio City [Music Hall] was just around 6,000.
So you have that dynamic in terms of scale, and then it really flows outside into the free draft experience/fan festival. It will be about 26 football fields in size, which will be the largest fan festival event we’ve done.
… We’re taking a page from the political convention playbook, if you will, of creating team delegations, which we’re calling ‘The Inner Circle.’ So on the floor of the field of the draft, right in front of the stage, each team will have a delegation of 50 fans who will represent them. You’ll see them quite a bit during the draft coverage.
The MMQB: What’s the fan fest going to be like?
O’Reilly: What’s great about what the draft has become, there’s going to be a little something for everybody. If you’re a draftnik, there will be anchor sets out there. NFL Network, ESPN will have sets out there. … Everywhere you turn, you’ll be able to see the draft.
We’ll build out a big ‘Combine Corner’ there. Every fan can run the [40-yard dash] against an LED screen of their favorite players running the 40, test their vertical, do all those physical pieces. We’ll build out a huge football field out there where younger kids can go through flag football clinics. There will be a small music stage out there. We’ll have some regional bands throughout the weekend. We’re working with local Dallas restaurants, bringing in some great food.
The MMQB: Take me back a few years. What was the original decision to take the draft on the road? What went into that?
O’Reilly: In those years in Radio City, you clearly saw the passion of the fans, and you saw how many fans wanted to get into the draft and couldn’t. It was a mindset of: how can we create something bigger here that’s more accessible? And go to more communities. There are only so many big events [the NFL] has, so let’s look to bring a big event like the draft to new fans every year and allow them to experience it.
It is that environment in Radio City, on a Day 3, you’d have a great group of diehard fans in there, who might be charting every pick in the sixth round. But what you now see in Chicago, in Philadelphia, and what you’ll see in Dallas—you’ve got so much more people, young people, families, who are just experiencing the draft, even if they’re not necessarily waiting with baited breath to see who Mr. Irrelevant is.”
The MMQB: Are there any issues that you experienced with the draft in Chicago and Philadelphia that you’ve worked to correct now in Dallas?
O’Reilly: We’ve really wanted to make sure that each day had its own energy. I think the first year in Chicago, we didn’t know how many people would be coming. In Philadelphia, we learned more. I think this year, we’ve really focused on each day. We have fans flying in from all over the country, and in some cases the world, who want to be at the draft for three days.
…It’s really making Friday [Day 2] more special, in terms of the moments. Bringing in legends and men of the year and creating a vibe, Friday Night Lights, with a high school-type theme on Friday. Then on Saturday, as I said, that was sort of the sleepy day at Radio City, if you will. Saturday may have the most energy over all. On Saturday, we’re actually going to allow fans on the field, behind the stage. They’re going to be able to kick field goals, and be on the field, and create more of a family festival day on Saturday. We’ll actually select some fans to come up and make some announcements from the podium in round 7. It’s not being afraid to have some fun and make the draft accessible.
The MMQB: Is the draft ever going to return to Radio City? It seems like you have such a good thing going here. Do you imagine it being a traveling event forever?
O’Reilly: I don’t know! I think, I would expect that New York would be interested in having it back at some point. I don’t necessarily think going back to a theatre-only experience is—at least for the foreseeable future—where we are. Because it would be scaling back the ability to have the fans be apart of that free fan experience. But you can certainly think about places in New York where you can do similar things. Wouldn’t rule that out. But for the near term, those five cities that are bidding now, they all have unique visions that they’re putting forth on what they think the draft can be. I don’t think going back to a theatre-only model is at least where we are in the near term. And I’m not sure fans would want that.