Once a fixture at Radio City Music Hall, the NFL Draft has been an even bigger hit since it took to the road.
When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell steps to the podium on the giant stage in front of Union Station in Kansas City and announces the No. 1 pick Thursday night, it’ll be the ninth draft since it left New York -- and it’s becoming a major boon for the league, teams and host cities.
“It’s the second-biggest thing that we do and it’s smack dab in the heart of our ‘offseason.’ There is no offseason,” said Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s executive vice president of club business, major events and international. “And that’s a testament to our fans and they’re the ones who made the draft so much bigger and more special.”
The NFL draft was in New York from 1965-2014. Radio City Music Hall, which hosted the draft nine times, saw the Rockettes’ spring spectacular push the NFL Draft into May in 2014. The league decided it wouldn’t be kicked around again in 2015, so it moved the draft to Chicago for two years and saw tremendous results.
Philadelphia hosted the draft at the Art Museum in 2017, and Jerry’s Palace in Dallas (aka AT&T Stadium) became the first stadium site in 2018. Nashville and its honky tonks on Broadway drew a record crowd of 600,000 people across three days in 2019.
After COVID-19 postponed the 2020 draft, Cleveland had its turn to shine in 2021 and the party was on in Las Vegas in 2022. Next year, it’ll be in Detroit, and the 2025 location will be decided at the league’s spring meetings in May.
“We’re most proud of the fact that we’ve been able to reach a lot more fans in different parts of the country, in many markets that aren’t necessarily going to host a Super Bowl,” O’Reilly said. “That opportunity to reach more fans and create this, without overstating it, this pilgrimage of fans, you see it every year.”
O’Reilly also said the drafts aren’t “formulaic. You kind of start fresh every year because you get a new canvas and a new city.”
The league uses iconic local settings and fan festivals in each city to enhance the draft’s profile and boost the size of the crowds. There will be plenty of Kansas City’s signature barbecue available -- from food trucks -- for people who come to the NFL Draft and fan events being held at Union Station and the National WWI Museum and Memorial.
The Chiefs just celebrated another Super Bowl victory with a championship parade two months ago and now red-and-clad fans will be joined by thousands of people from all over for a three-day extravaganza.
“I’m excited for the city,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “Obviously, all these people that are coming in for this are excited to be in Kansas City. You better get the barbecue fired up and ready to go because we’ll have a lot of folks here.”
The first draft was held in a hotel in Philadelphia during two days in February 1936 after Eagles owner Bert Bell convinced the league’s other eight owners teams should select players from college in reverse order of finish rather than sign them as free agents.
Eighty-one players were selected in the first one. Compare that to a record of 487 players chosen in 1976, when the draft was 17 rounds. Four years later, ESPN started broadcasting the draft.
It’s down to seven rounds now and has been spread across three days since moving into prime-time in 2010.