Big. Bigger. Biggest.
The NFL draft is headed to Arlington, Texas in April, where it will be staged inside AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. If the stage is put down at midfield, the way the venue has for boxing matches, attendance could hit about 100,000. With the stadium’s mammoth televisions hanging over the field, everyone could have a nice view of the proceedings.
That wasn’t the original plan. The Cowboys were always the favorite to land the 2018 draft, but they wanted to hold it at their corporate home and training complex, the Star of Frisco, about 25 miles north of downtown Dallas. It’s a nice place, home to a 12,500-seat indoor stadium.
Then Philadelphia came along last spring, held the event outdoors on the Art Museum steps (which Rocky Balboa once ran up) and drew some 70,000 fans on Thursday night, and 250,000 over three days. The environment was electric. Suddenly when it came to the draft, big wasn’t big enough.
If everything is bigger in Texas, then everything in Texas is bigger with Jerry Jones involved. The Star of Frisco was no longer going to cut it. So the Cowboys owner shifted gears and brought AT&T into play.
Prior to Philadelphia, the draft had always been held inside theaters and ballrooms (most often Radio City Music Hall in New York). Now it will go to an actual NFL stadium for the first time.
“Philadelphia raised the bar by taking the Draft to another level,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “This new opportunity in Dallas will enable us to continue the event’s evolution and grow it even further.”
There is a risk here for the NFL. What made Philly unique wasn’t just how many people turned up for the first round Thursday night, or even came the following two days. It’s who those people were.
For the first time, the draft was completely available to all fans. Cost was free. The location was accessible. While there was a VIP area with catered meals, the majority of people who attended just showed up. They dragged coolers and picnic lunches with them. They took their kids and their neighbors’ kids. They threw footballs and Frisbees around the grassy areas. They drank beer. They talked football.
They could engage in interactive NFL events, pose with team jerseys and see the Vince Lombardi Trophy up close. The Museum of Art is located a walking distance from downtown offices, yet snug between a couple of middle and working-class neighborhoods, where people who would struggle to afford the price of an Eagles game could just walk on over. Others rolled in via public transportation from across the city and region.
It was accessible. It was authentic.
You didn’t need to secure, let alone pay for tickets. You didn’t need to plan ahead. There were no concerns about sitting together or even getting a bad seat. If you showed up early enough, the front row was all yours.
The NFL draft suddenly felt like the People’s Event. There was always a measure of that in the rowdy crowds that would pack Radio City and boo or cheer various picks, especially the New York Giants and Jets. Capacity was limited though. The draft for years was held during a Saturday afternoon. By allowing anyone to walk up and watch, in prime time, everything changed.
The NFL demands a great deal from the cities where its franchises reside. Tax breaks and government largesse are common. Personal seat licenses and outrageous parking price many people out. While the league will get deals from any city hosting the draft going forward (it’ll rotate annually for the foreseeable future) this was one event that felt like payback for the regular fan, no strings attached.
Will it be that way in Arlington? Details are still to come but it stands to reason this will be far more organized, with season-ticket holders or corporate partners getting first dibs, or maybe all the dibs. There could be a cost. There will almost certainly be assigned seating (although like for Cowboy games, a large standing room area above the end zones).
Can they get fans who don’t normally attend games in there? Who knows. Nothing will quite be like an open-air public park. There may be tailgating and other events, but it’s different. AT&T is out in the suburbs, surrounded by strip malls, an amusement park and a baseball stadium. Very few people live within walking distance.
The Cowboys seem aware of the challenges and are promising to try to include the full North Texas community.
“While all three days of the NFL Draft will take place in Arlington, the event will be spread out over the entire DFW community, especially in Dallas, where city officials have worked countless hours to bring the event to the Metroplex,” the team said in a statement.
That’s good. Not as good as hosting this in Reunion Arena Park in downtown Dallas, or somewhere on the Texas State Fairgrounds, but it’s at least a confirmation that they are trying.
The NFL should try to put the draft in cities that have long supported the league and are unlikely to host a Super Bowl. That’s where it’ll be treasured and a night like the one in Philly is most likely to be duplicated. Outdoors would be preferred. The idea of the draft hitting Pointe State Park in Pittsburgh, Union Station in Kansas City or the National Mall in Washington would be great. Same with Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland or wherever.
Bring it to the fans. Make it about the fans.
Bigger can be great and Arlington is going to be the biggest yet. If it can beat Philly for the best, though, remains to be seen who, not how many, show up.
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