PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Nearly 100,000 people attended the festivities surrounding the first night of the NFL draft Thursday. That's more than at any Super Bowl except one.
The traveling spring show might be the league's second-most popular event outside of the championship extravaganza. And, like the Super Bowl, hosting it is about to become the objective of nearly every city that has an NFL franchise.
And even one that doesn't.
Sixteen locales — half of the NFL cities — are in Philadelphia observing how the City of Brotherly Love handles the draft. Philly has turned it into a mega-event with all kinds of hands-on entertainment while staging the NFL Draft Experience at the iconic Museum of Art, right by the Rocky Steps.
Also on hand are representatives of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. In all, 22 clubs and the hall have expressed interest in hosting.
"The process is evolving because we have been in New York for 51 years," says Peter O'Reilly, the league's senior vice president of events. "We looked to reimagine the draft in Chicago for the last two years, then made the decision to go to another major market in Philadelphia.
"Obviously, the Super Bowl process bid is very formal, and the mode we're in now shows clearly a lot of interest in the draft from markets around the country. We are evaluating and making sure we grow this in right way."
So unlike the Super Bowl, for now bidding to stage the draft is being done yearly; each Super Bowl through 2021 has been awarded. Potential bidders have been told to consider hosting a draft sometime in the next five years.
O'Reilly notes it takes about 10 months to plan and put together the event the draft has become.
Would the cities observing this week be interested in the draft beyond 2018?
"Absolutely," says Mike Waterman, president of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau who is in Philadelphia this week. "We had a truly amazing experience with the NFL this past February as host city to Super Bowl 51."
The league is seeking locations that create a showcase event that is iconic and pretty much takes over a city. The NFL believes that happened in Chicago and is happening in Philly.
So Boston, for example, could offer the Common. Nashville has the Grand Ole Opry. Miami has South Beach. And on and on.
"Every city is unique," O'Reilly says. "It does get the creative juices flowing. We're not looking for cookie cutter experiences, but for a natural place people gather for free events."
Jacksonville, another of the potential bidders observing Philadelphia's draft this week, believes it has such a place.
"What Chicago and Philadelphia have done is blend iconic buildings with the event, bringing together unique and different things," Jaguars President Mark Lamping says. "They have utilized largely temporary structures to accommodate the local activations, the fans and the festival atmosphere, the players and, of course, the draft process itself. In our case, the focus is on football. Like having an already-built draft village, we have an iconic structure that is a fixed building situated between ... our football stadium and a covered practice field, with a huge park on the river across the street for fan festivals and activations.
"We can blend an iconic facility, which reflects our iconic bridges and river, built within a football setting. In addition, Radio City Musical Hall was a great draft venue for many years, and the seating bowl in our amphitheater was inspired by Radio City."
The NFL abandoned Radio City in part because of scheduling issues, but also because the league wondered how well the draft would travel. Crowds measured in six figures — not to mention the profitability for merchandisers, vendors and the cities themselves — indicate the road show will remain just that.
"I believe highlighting important locations iconic to your city is good business," Houston's Waterman says. "I feel it is as important to showcase your entire city as the host city for the NFL draft."
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