With more than 200,000 fans expected to blitz Philly for the NFL Draft this April, the city is gearing up for three action packed days. Here's where to kick field goals, hang with the Eagles—including our cover stars Brent Celek and Rodney McLeod—and meet your football heroes.
Philadelphia Eagles Brent Celek and Rodney McLeod suit up and get serious about life on and off the field.
Philadelphia is known for many things: for being the birthplace of independence, its world-class hospitals and universities, an obsession with cheesesteaks, and a fascination with Rocky. But lately the city has also become known as a hot location for staging major events, many of them with global significance. In September 2015, Philadelphia hosted Pope Francis during his historic visit to the US for the World Meeting of Families. Last July, the Democratic National Convention brought a sea of blue and a swarm of celebrities to Philly to make history (again) when Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination for president.
In another nod to history, the 82nd annual NFL Draft hits the City of Brotherly Love for three pigskin-packed days, April 27–29, marking a full-circle moment for football in Philly: Last held here in 1961, the very first Draft took place in the city in 1936 at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. But if you think the town will be turned upside down the way it was for Popeadelphia and the DNC, think again, says Mayor Jim Kenney.
It’s a brisk Friday in January inside the mayor’s office at City Hall, where his team, Julie Coker Graham, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Larry Needle, executive director of PHL Sports, have assembled for a roundtable interview about the Draft. “The pope’s visit was different because it was so restricted,” says Kenney. “The DNC was similar because it was also site-specific and the delegates were bussed in and out [of the Wells Fargo Center]... and then we had people expressing their First Amendment rights, which was terrific, too. This event will be better because it’s so open and positive; it’s not specific to a religious figure or a political party. This is an American thing.”
And the mayor expects American football fans from all over to be out in full force in Philadelphia, topping the more than 200,000 who attended last year’s NFL Draft in Chicago. For the past two years, this free public event has been held in Chicago’s Grant Park, the first venue besides New York’s Radio City Music Hall to host the Draft in more than 50 years. Philly’s prime location along the East Coast corridor made it an attractive dot on the map for the NFL, beating out cities like Dallas, Los Angeles, and Chicago in a heated contest. “Philadelphia is midway between New York and Washington, DC, and Pittsburgh is a few hours away,” says Kenney. “There are a bunch of big NFL cities surrounding us.”
Home field advantage: The Philadelphia Eagles, who are this year’s host franchise for the NFL Draft, first brought the event prospect to the City of Philadelphia.
Adds Needle, “We fully expect Redskins, Steelers, Jets, and Giants fans to make the trip here.” The mission of PHL Sports is to bring top sporting events—like the annual Army-Navy game, NCAA tournament games, and the 2012 NHL Winter Classic—to Philly. “Geography and accessibility were great selling points for the city,” says Needle. “The NFL was really excited about those two aspects.”
So what sealed the deal between the NFL and PHL? It may have been Philly’s vibrant arts and culture scene, says ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski, a former Eagles quarterback and part owner of the Philadelphia Soul, the 2016 Arena Football League World Champions. Jaworski, dialing in from a business trip in Florida for today’s roundtable, is the 2017 NFL Draft Host Committee Chair, along with co-chair Ira Lubert. “When I met with Commissioner Roger Goodell to talk about Philadelphia as a host,” Jaworski says, “this combination of football and the arts was very impactful because the NFL is looking to expand their fan base.”
Taking place along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, this year’s event will include the first outdoor NFL Draft theater, located on the steps of the Art Museum. Just beyond will be the fan festival known as the NFL Draft Experience, where football lovers come face to face with NFL legends for free autographs, have their photo taken with the Vince Lombardi Trophy, and take part in gridiron clinics featuring agility runs and field-goal kicks. When the draft itself begins, jumbo screens along the parkway will let fans watch all the action on ESPN. This year’s host franchise, the Philadelphia Eagles, which sparked the drive to bring the NFL Draft to the city, will be involved in many of the events, while draft prospects will participate in a variety of community initiatives, says Needle. And, of course, there will be tons of private parties.
During downtime, the city is banking on visitors exploring neighborhoods beyond the Parkway and patronizing local businesses. Coker Graham provides the estimated figures, which are impressive: $86 million in economic impact, roughly 40,000 room nights booked, and some 26,000 jobs supported. And the millions of people tuning in to watch—according to the NFL, an estimated 8.3 million viewers will catch Round 1 of the Draft—will see plenty of Philly’s iconic streets and structures. The value of that? Incalculable, says Kenney.
Adds Coker Graham, “These marquee events amplify our message that Philadelphia is a great place to visit, reside, and do business.”
Congressman Robert A. Brady, calling into the meeting from Harrisburg, goes even further: “I think that the Draft will be different than the DNC in terms of economic impact because convention visitors were tied to hotels and schedules. People will be wandering around and more engaged with local businesses.”
But while economic impact and major media coverage are important, everyone agrees that the key message is that the NFL Draft is a free, family-friendly experience for sports fans of all kinds. Imagine an Eagles tailgate at the Linc only on a much grander scale, says Kenney: “There are more women than ever going to games, and racial and ethnic diversity. You see all different Philly neighborhoods represented—you can always tell by the music and food when you walk around the parking lot.” Adds Brady, “Everyone is green on game day.”
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