As NFL Draft host, Chicago seems lame duck, but is not dead one

By Julia Cardi

“Chi-Town is on the clock,” reads the cobalt-blue-and-white signs bearing the NFL’s shield. They are affixed to light poles throughout downtown Chicago advertising the return of the league’s draft Thursday, when 32 teams are normally the ones fighting time — and each other. For the second year in a row, the event will overtake Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre for two days and turn Grant Park into Draft Town for a three-day fan festival, a concept introduced last year.

But now, Chicago’s time on the clock might be running out.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told an Associated Press Sports Editors group last week that the draft will “very likely” move to a different city for 2017, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Competition for the draft has dramatically increased, and the league will likely announce next year’s site in July.

League spokesman Brian McCarthy emailed Medill Reports that “multiple cities, including Chicago, have expressed interest in hosting what has become one of the most-anticipated events of the year,” but said “no decisions will be made until later this year.” He declined further comment.

Kara Bachman, Chicago Sports Commission executive director, also told the Sun-Times that the city had notified the league it wants to host the draft again. “I don’t know for ’17, but it will certainly be back,” she said.

Draft banners line Chicago streets for another year; will it happen again? (Julia Cardi/ Medill)
Draft banners line Chicago streets for another year; will it happen again? (Julia Cardi/ Medill)

The timing of Goodell’s comments might seem odd, just before Chicago has another chance to prove itself. Sports marketing expert Adam Grossman said the league likely wanted to give cities interested in hosting the draft as much time as possible to prepare their bids.

“It’s certainly not malicious,” said Grossman, president and founder of Block Six Analytics and a Northwestern instructor in Sports Administration.

Dave Kissel, senior vice president and McDonald’s group director for the Chicago-based DDB advertising agency’s Chicago branch, framed the situation in terms of basic economics: The NFL possesses a scarce resource, the draft, and has an abundance of choices for locations.

“Goodell has something he believes is an asset,” said Kissel, also a strategic adviser for the facility advertising company, InStadium. And because Chicago proved in 2015 that the draft can travel successfully, Kissel said, the NFL can dangle it out for bids, similar to the Super Bowl.

“Roger Goodell is nothing if not brilliant at figuring out how to extract maximum revenue” from major events, Kissel said, adding that the NFL “knows how to party plan.”

The NFL moved its 2015 draft after 50 years in New York, because Radio City Music Hall wouldn’t shape its schedule around the league’s offseason function. Mayor Rahm Emanuel sold Goodell on Chicago with a dual-venue concept that included an outdoor fan festival. Emanuel vocalized his desire for the draft to stay permanently, telling the Sun-Times before last year’s draft that he wanted the NFL to “get comfortable doing something in Chicago.”

Goodell called the extravaganza a success, saying it “had a tremendous impact on this community,” according to the Chicago Tribune. An estimated 200,000 people attended Draft Town at no charge, and the economic impact on Chicago reached almost $44 million, according to a study commissioned by the city tourism bureau, Choose Chicago, the Tribune reported.

So Goodell announced the draft would return for 2016.

Because Chicago took an economic risk by hosting it last year, Kissel said, the NFL under- standably rewarded the city with a second year. But he said the league got what it needed from Chicago for the draft, and now the NFL can move the event.

Added Grossman, “Innovative companies test different products at different times.”

Los Angeles, Denver and Canton, Ohio, also reportedly have expressed interest in future drafts.

“To secure the bid is simple,” said Barry Wilner, longtime Associated Press NFL writer and co- author of “On the Clock: The Story of the NFL Draft.” “(Any city needs) to outbid whatever any- one else is offering.”

Peter O’Reilly, NFL senior vice president of events, told a press conference in Chicago last month that the city beat out other contenders for the 2016 draft, according to the Tribune. He said the process for 2017 would be “more formal” for interested cities and that Chicago would be “part of the process.”

Stormy weather looms over NFL Draft Town as fans pour into Chicago (Julia Cardi/Medill) .
Stormy weather looms over NFL Draft Town as fans pour into Chicago (Julia Cardi/Medill) .

With a franchise again and a new stadium opening in 2019, Los Angeles is gunning to be a hub of NFL activity. Already a finalist for the 2015 draft, L.A. lured the Rams back from St. Louis with a pitch that included hosting the draft and combine, according to the Los Angeles Times.

As home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Canton wants to hold the draft in 2019 (the NFL’s 100th season) or 2020 (the league’s 100th anniversary season), according to the Repository- Canton

Denver also wants the 2019 draft, the city’s NBC affiliate reported; it cannot pursue an earlier one because of scheduling conflicts.

Chicago won’t have the learning curve facing other cities. C3 Presents, the same event company that puts on Lollapalooza, stages Chicago’s event. And the city has touted some changes for this year, including moving Selection Square (site of the actual draft for Day 3) to just east of Buckingham Fountain for better access, adding a Ferris wheel, and introducing an app to help guide fans around Draft Town.

“As long as Chicago keeps offering more and paying more — every bidding city will need to foot most of the bill for bringing the draft in — the city will be in the mix,” said Wilner, who covered last year’s draft for the Associated Press and is scheduled to cover it again this year. “I believe barring something really negative this year, Chicago will always be in consideration.”

Photo at top: Draft town takes over Grant Park Thursday afternoon (Julia Cardi/ Medill).