The NFL Draft is the league’s first major event of the season. It’s to football what opening day is to baseball, in that every fan believes — or at least wants to believe — they can look forward to the best-case season for their team.
Fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders can wear their colors with pride after an arduous losing season, which is why they go above and beyond come draft time. Since 1968, this event has been in New York, the same city as the league’s headquarters. But for the first time since 1964, the NFL Draft was in Chicago and a far cry from the last time it was here, when then-commissioner Pete Rozelle wrote the picks on a chalkboard, closer resembling a fantasy league draft than the real thing.
Even years later, the NFL Draft remained rather low-key. Former Chicago Bears head coach and tight end Mike Ditka said at a panel discussion hosted by Gatorade that his draft experience in 1961 was limited to a phone call and $12,000 contract with a $6,000 signing bonus. (Today, those terms would be north of $141,000.) But those days have changed radically for draftees. During that same panel, first-round players Leonard Williams, Dante Fowler and Kevin White were asked by host Sage Steele about their fashion plans for the event.
Along with the grand ceremony and player salaries, the fan service surrounding the NFL Draft has evolved with the popularity of the league, resulting in activities that rival the occasion itself. As a Bears fan whose team had their first top 10 pick since 2005, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announcing the team’s selection a mere 30 minutes away from my Wrigleyville apartment didn’t pull me towards the Auditorium Theatre.
I wanted to feel the excitement I have seen in fans my entire life while sitting in front of my TV. I wanted to see people who wear their teams’ apparel in the spring, when most attention is on the Stanley Cup and NBA playoffs, along with the first month of baseball season.
To stoke excitement and draw attention to the league, the NFL named Grant Park — located in the heart of downtown Chicago — “Draft Town,” where fans could see the Lombardi Trophy, meet players and hunt down swag in the booths hosted by countless league sponsors. I was reminded of the two MLB All-Star FanFests I’ve attended, surrounding the All-Star Game.
Along with being the opening “event” of the 2015 NFL season, the draft is also the first showcase following one of the worst years any sports league has had, in terms of public relations. The echoes of those scandals are still present, as seen in Goodell’s interview with ESPN’s Chris Berman before the first round began. When asked about what he learned during the past year, the commissioner directed his attention to high standards the NFL sets for itself, never once addressing any mistakes he made or steps taken to improve player culture.
However, there were no signs of lingering memories or harsh feelings during the events at Draft Town. That, along with high television ratings and swarms of fans attending the draft, proved the NFL might really be too big to fail.
As far as logistics go, the events for fans were well-run. But unless you were willing to stand in line — one of the longest provided the opportunity to spend money on NFL Draft apparel — there wasn’t much to offer. Viewing booths for every team lined the back of the area, where attendees could pound shots of Pepsi products or opt to spend seven dollars for 16 oz. of beer. (That’s still cheaper than what’s offered at a Bears game.)
Thankfully, a few booths weren’t dedicated to building email lists for cheap swag. Former Bears tight end Greg Olson and defensive back Charles “Peanut” Tillman recounted their time with the team, including the 2006 Monday Night Football comeback against the Cardinals. Current Chicago safety Ryan Mundy even stopped by the Bears booth for pictures with the fans. A Microsoft booth gave fans the chance to play Madden NFL 15 and Forza Horizon 2. But if people wanted to participate in the 40-yard dash, kick a field goal or get a player’s autograph, they had to wait in line for a long while.
Based on the events mentioned above, the main target for Draft Town was, surprisingly, families. But that makes sense. Why would the NFL try to get me, a 27-year-old male, interested in the league with festivities? The NFL knows if they didn’t have me when I was eight, 12 or 18, it isn’t making me a fan now.
Also, while I saw plenty of fans from teams outside of the midwest coming together for a common love of the game, that didn’t hold the novelty I was expecting or wanted. This is likely because there are bars for every NFL team in Chicago. Fans gather every Sunday in establishments just down the street from me.
So was the NFL Draft worth attending? For a free-to-attend event, it was entertaining. While the corporate sponsor presence for non-football brands and the lines to spend money were a stark reminder of the shield’s lack of soul, convening with other NFL fans who anticipated the early-round picks had unrivaled enthusiasm. For the sake of all the football fans in the country, I hope the NFL continues to hold the draft in other cities, especially in those areas typically too cold to host the Super Bowl.