David Gilbert, president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, jokes the NFL Draft used to be the Cleveland Browns’ Super Bowl. In a twist, the event is now a Super Bowl of sorts for the city, but the team has emerged from its black hole as one more focused on the playoffs than picking prospects.
As host of the three-day NFL extravaganza, which begins on Thursday, Cleveland is expecting to host 50,000 per day at the draft and surrounding events. While not the numbers predicted when Cleveland won the bid in 2019, Gilbert will take them given the country remains in a pandemic.
In fact, the timing could work out well in Cleveland’s benefit. Restrictions on gatherings have been lifted in the city, millions of Americans are being vaccinated each day and there is a sense the great recovery is underway. What better time to have your destination in the national spotlight for a large-scale event?
“We’re at this interesting inflection point,” says Gilbert. “So many people are not only ready, but itching to get out and re-engage, and this is the opportunity. Even two months ago, it would have been very different.”
It was very different for Las Vegas this time last year. Months away from debuting a new stadium to host the relocated Raiders, Las Vegas took a gut punch when the NFL Draft was forced to go virtual. Now, it will host the event next year and Cleveland has the ball this year. That’s just the way Gilbert likes it.
Out-of-town fans will probably not reach the 50% attendance level Nashville recorded for the draft in 2019, but “it is still incredibly large and relevant,” Gilbert says of the draft. More importantly, though, this is a chance for the city to shine, he adds.
In his role of president and CEO of Destination Cleveland, Gilbert led the surprisingly successful bid to host the 2016 Republican National Convention. Among the cities Cleveland beat out was Dallas, one of the country’s largest metropolises. An RNC site selection member later informed Gilbert Cleveland won because it wanted it more. “That gave me such pride,” recalls Gilbert, who looks to each event as a way to prove the Cleveland region is at the top of its game when large groups come to town.
“It’s in our DNA how we approach things,” Gilbert says. “We try to make events more successful than they were anywhere else.”
In part, that comes from a chip on the city’s shoulder after being the butt of many jokes, Gilbert admits. But no one is laughing at Cleveland these days.
Here are five reasons, beyond the numbers, the NFL Draft is such a big deal for the city.
- Open Sign. “It’s a signal we are back in business—that yes, we can get out there and the community can do this,” says Gilbert, acknowledging overcoming the pandemic is certainly a motivating factor hosting an event that has quickly evolved into one of the most attended noncompetitions in the sports tourism world.
- Marketing. While it was unclear how much effort the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission could put into attracting out-of-town attendees, there was never a doubt the organization was going to pass on a chance to sell the city. Activations throughout the city will showcase its lakeside beauty and popular destinations like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, look for TV and digital ads hitting certain key markets. Jacksonville, with the top draft pick and coached by former Ohio State legend Urban Meyer, will be a prime target.
- Beyond Sports. Gilbert always sees events as a chance to leave a legacy. This is no different. A prime example this week is The Power of Sport Summit, April 29 to May 1 at Progressive Field and online, which will celebrate diversity, equity and inclusion that demonstrate the opportunity for sport to be a catalyst of positive change.
- Civic Pride. “Our goal has always been the NFL walks away from this saying, ‘Cleveland is the best city we’ve ever worked with,’” says Gilbert. “We’re doing everything in our power to make that be the case.”
- Springboard for More. Cleveland is primed for a slew of high-impact events in coming years. Among the highlights are the 2022 NBA All-Star Game and 2024 Women’s Final Four. Also recently announced is the winning bid for the 2024 Pan-American Masters Games, which is expected to be the largest international gathering in northeast Ohio’s history. More than 7,500 athletes from more than 50 countries along with thousands of spectators, family and friends are estimated to be in Cleveland in July 2024.
Photo Credit: Destination Cleveland