When the first NFL Draft took place in 1936 in a suite in Philadelphia's Ritz-Carlton with zero media coverage, no one could have imagined the event would evolve into a three-day festival.
More than 70 years later, the draft returned home as an engaging event complete with player autograph booths, memorabilia from previous championship teams and interactive 40-yard dashes in which kids raced against NFL stars via digital video screens.
Held on the famous “Rocky steps” of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from April 27-29, this year's draft attracted an estimated 250,000 fans, 1,700 credentialed journalists and millions more watching on television around the world.
The event placed the national sports spotlight squarely on the City of Brotherly Love. In addition to the museum’s main theater, other key sites used were Selection Square at the Franklin Institute, where team executives officially selected their draftees, and the free interactive NFL Experience, which covered the length of 25 football fields along Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
“I think it was a huge win for the city,” says Larry Needle, executive director of Philadelphia Sports. “The beauty shots along the parkway were spectacular. The fans were tremendous. From a visitors bureau perspective, it was great to see all those jerseys up and down the parkway.”
The overall vibe during the event was lively and celebratory, even with occasional friendly ribbing between members of rival fan bases. The unseasonably warm weather was perfect for the outdoor NFL Experience, which opened by noon each day to give fans a chance to get an early start on the action.
The NFL Museum tent included displays of all 51 Super Bowl rings, the Vince Lombardi trophy, and the Hall of Fame busts of legends like Reggie White, Brett Favre and Terry Bradshaw. Fans could try their hand at play-by-play in the “Be a Broadcaster” booth or head to the autograph stage to meet superstars like Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell and Eagles receiver Torrey Smith.
The NFL Combine Corner proved to be the most popular activity on the parkway. Fans waited in line to kick field goals, throw Hail Mary passes into nets and test their vertical jump skills. The most dramatic interactive activity was the 40-yard dash with Demaryius Thomas, whose digital likeness raced alongside the participants on a video screen next to the field.
The 2017 NFL Draft was expected to bring in around $80 million in revenue to the city. That’s roughly the same amount generated each of the past two years in Chicago, where the draft moved in 2015 after five decades in New York City.
Though he's not sure yet if Philadelphia will make a push for the 2018 NFL Draft, Needle says he hopes to see the event return at some point. He says, “It was an unparalleled success for Philadelphia, and something we would love to be able to bring back to our city in the not-too-distant future.”