The NFL could have had its draft in a room. In fact, it used to, holding the event in hotel ballrooms all but one year (the 1950 draft was held in the Racquet Club of Philadelphia) from 1936 to 1994, at which point it decided to start putting it in The Theater at Madison Square Garden and later in Radio City Music Hall. This year the league decided no walls could contain it, staging its annual selection meeting in an open-air venue in front of a half-mile of football-related activities. Once a businesslike atmosphere, the draft has become Lollapalooza, Football Transactions Edition.
I was skeptical when the league said hundreds of thousands of fans would attend. From sports teams to presidents, people like to inflate crowd sizes, and I assumed most would balk at the idea of standing outside to watch Roger Goodell read the names of players whose NFL worth will not be known for years. But then I stood in a parade of football fans that stretched from the front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to a patch of road that Google Maps told me was 330 yards away. The NFL’s official release claims "nearly 100,000 fans" showed up for Round 1, setting a draft record. That wasn’t even a title up for grabs in previous drafts, as each year’s potential attendance was inherently limited by the amount of seats in the host venue.
What’s most surprising is that the NFL didn’t ask any of the fans to pay for attending. The league spent an estimated $20 million on this event, reimbursing the city on any expenses over $500,000. (The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, a nonprofit affiliated with the city, spent $5 million, reportedly raised privately.) But going to the draft was free, with access to the 3,000-seat theater available on a first-come, first-serve basis via an app.
Surely the NFL got some of its money back. There was an on-site shop, enough pricey beer to make a lot of those 100,000 fans drunk — beer at the draft was sold in cans and therefore was not draft beer — and virtually every booth in the NFL Draft Experience Presented by Dannon® Oikos was sponsored. Yet this is a league whose teams have reportedly charged the U.S. Department of Defense $5.4 million for patriotic displays to honor troops and annually forces fans to pay to attend Super Bowl media day. Why would such a notoriously stingy organization put on a multimillion-dollar party for the fans it otherwise squeezes dry, especially considering it would draw similar TV ratings regardless of where the draft is held?
The NFL might have made the draft a little too big.
The area in front of the art museum has become Philadelphia’s default space for megasized events. The Pope has held mass there, and Jay Z’s Made in America festival is hosted there every Labor Day. Perhaps this spot is popular because Rocky ran up those steps; perhaps it’s popular for the same reason that the directors of Rocky chose it in the first place. It’s an incredible sight, both looking up toward the monumental Greek revival facade of the museum or looking down at Benjamin Franklin Parkway that leads straight to Philadelphia’s City Hall.
But the NFL built a stage so large that nobody could enjoy either view. According to the owner of the company that built the theater, a temporary venue with VIP balconies, the setup was "like eight stages in one" and considerably larger than anything that’s been used for past festivals. Construction started April 3; it could take up to May 12 for everything to be fully deconstructed. The famed steps were shielded from view and inaccessible to tourists for an entire month. The statue of Rocky was off-limits to most fans during the draft, ending up in a concessions area for those who gained access to the theater.
The museum suffered for its beauty. Art blog Hyperallergic reported that museum staff was unsure of how it would handle draft day. I couldn’t figure out how to get into the museum Thursday morning — the front entrance was completely blocked off and used as the setting for the prospects’ red carpet; the back entrance was supposedly open but no signs pointed where to go, and when I walked in people wearing draft credentials directed me out of the building. The NFL attempted to "replicate the front of the museum" by putting enormous foam columns on the stage. It was the equivalent of going to Philly for a cheesesteak and getting one from Subway.
The size of the draft also made it hard to follow for attendees. When the Bears traded with the 49ers to acquire the no. 2 overall pick, I was standing about 150 yards from the stage. Since the NFL hadn’t set up speakers that would allow people to hear what was happening at that distance, there was a general air of confusion around me. Any attempt at checking a phone was rendered useless by the data crunch of roughly 99,999 others doing the same. Chicago gave up four picks to draft Mitchell Trubisky, easily the most baffling moment of the offseason, and few at the draft could appreciate it.
It’s not unusual to get less information attending a sporting event than you would from watching at home; think about how much easier it is to follow football with the presence of the yellow first-down line. But the draft seems particularly ill-suited to scaling up in size. There’s no visual spectacle — just news — and things were set up in a way that made keeping up with that news virtually impossible. If you love the drama of the NFL draft, you should probably never attend it in person.
Perhaps I’ve given off the impression that I disliked attending the NFL draft. Quite the opposite is true. While the NFL draft might not be a great place to watch the NFL draft if you’re a huge fan of the intricacies of the NFL draft, it’s a spectacular place to casually enjoy being a football fan among tens of thousands of other football fans. I would have happily spent an afternoon pounding beer at the fanfest if my job hadn’t required me to sprint back to the Wi-Fi access of the media room and write about Trubisky. I had a great time hooting and hollering at average humans trying and failing to kick 20-yard field goals, and an even greater time watching folks run the 40-yard dash 1.7 seconds slower than they thought they could. There were ample games and giveaways and a few thousand photo ops for selfies. I really wanted to ride the zip line.
But the best part was the trash-talking. Imagine the back-and-forth that takes place between home and away fans at a regular-season NFL game. Now picture that happening simultaneously among every fan base in the NFL. The draft featured Eagles fans jawing at Giants fans, Jets fans jawing at Patriots fans, Eagles fans jawing at Cowboys fans, Steelers fans jawing at Ravens fans, Eagles fans jawing at Steelers fans — come to think of it, Eagles fans have more beefs per capita than anybody else. They taunted Vikings fans for giving them this year’s 14th pick in the Sam Bradford trade; I saw two with signs picturing Bradford throwing a plate with the number 14 on it. They taunted Browns fans for giving up last year’s no. 2 pick that allowed the Eagles to select Carson Wentz. When the Browns took Myles Garrett with the no. 1 pick, chants of "WE GOT WENTZ" echoed around me.
Philly fans get a bad rep — it’s 2017, we don’t need to bring up the throwing-batteries-at-Santa incident every time a team plays there, maybe just once or twice a year — but I think we should celebrate them. They are world-class booers, masters of the art form. This event felt like witnessing apex predators coordinate a hunt without language. The highlight of the weekend almost certainly came when former Cowboys receiver Drew Pearson played super-heel while announcing Dallas’s pick, sending the crowd into unrestrained apoplectic rage.
The fans spent all day screaming "E-A-G-L-E-S EAGLES!" and seemed in good spirits, cheering when Temple linebacker and Camden, New Jersey, native Haason Reddick went 13th to the Cardinals. But the instant the Eagles selected Tennessee pass rusher Derek Barnett with the 14th pick, the crowd erupted in boos. A guy to my right turned to his friends and yelled, "We fuck this up EVERY YEAR," apparently forgetting he was wearing a Wentz T-shirt.
This is what the NFL bought with its $20 million. It purchased the idea that it is rational for tens of thousands of people to gather to experience the NFL even when the NFL is not happening. After 50 years of holding the draft in New York, the league turned it into a traveling roadshow with this in mind. It will bring this event from city to city — right now there are 14 candidates to host the 2018 draft — and each will try to prove that it can show the most enthusiasm in hopes of having the NFL throw a free party downtown.
Philly will be hard to top. The league didn’t just pay for a bunch of Philadelphians to have a great time; it paid for you to see them and think "Hey, if the draft were in my city, I’d probably go." And if you’ve gotten to the point where you’re willing to structure an entire day around an event in which player names are read aloud every 10 to 15 minutes, you’re officially committed to football fandom. When people are spending a day with no actual football celebrating football, the NFL has won.