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Grading Chicago's NFL Draft Road Show

The NFL Draft took its act to Chicago—and the results were mixed.
May 8, 2015, 5:30pm
Photo by Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

It's official: For all of its well-documented faults, the National Football League throws one hell of a party. Chicago's well-moneyed powers-that-be rallied behind mayor Rahm Emanuel's ambitious vision, and turned the league's Annual Player Selection Meeting—a.k.a. the NFL Draft—into an outdoor festival of Lollapaloozian scale.

As VICE Sports wrote during the buildup, it seemed like the draft would be a slow-motion disaster: Major streets were blocked off, tow-away zones enforced, street vendors and marketers swept clear of the area, outside food and drink forbidden. In return for the privilege a league takeover, Chicago had provided the NFL with millions of dollars' worth of free venues, parking, infrastructure and advertising. The publicly-funded Choose Chicago tourism bureau claimed it would cover much of this cost with private donations, but skeptics had to wonder if taxpayers would end up footing the final bill, and if local businesses actually would enjoy a economic boost.

Read More: The NFL's Drug Policy and the Sad Case of Randy Gregory

Surprise: the NFL Draft road show appears to have been a qualified success. Certainly for the league, which traditionally has held the event in New York. Probably for ESPN and NFL Network, which saw a ratings dip but still drew plenty of viewers with relatively cheap programming. And perhaps for Chicago, too, though the spoils seem to have been unevenly distributed.

Let's take a closer look:

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Winner: The NFL

League spokesman Brian McCarthy told VICE Sports an estimated 50,000 people visited Draft Town on Thursday and Friday evenings, and a whopping 100,000 mobbed the place on Saturday. Food was noshed, Bud Light was quaffed and 40-yard-dashes were run. VICE Sports was unable to find a report of a single fight, arrest or even ejection.

"It did exceed our expectations," McCarthy said. "In many ways, it was Super Bowl-like." The anticipation, activities and experiences closely matched those of the NFL's biggest annual event; Emanuel has made no secret of his ongoing hunt for the Big Game.

"It's a reflection of the passion fans have," McCarthy added, "but also of how Chicago came together to host what is, in essence, a business meeting." The buzzing crowds and picturesque weather were a sight to behold, both live and on TV.

"It changed the way the Draft is perceived," McCarthy said.

Roger Goodell, aka the Mayor of Draft Town. Photo by Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports.

Semi-Winner: The Networks

On the above point, McCarthy's wrong: The new configuration changed what the Draft is. With the production moving halfway across the country and NFL teams not even in the building, the draft isn't a "business meeting" anymore.

It's a reality show.

Measured as such, the 2015 iteration was a bit of a snoozer. Per Deadline Hollywood's Dominic Patton, first-day ratings were down 29 percent from 2014's all-time high. Of course, McCarthy said the league expected this drop, due to the lack of a "Manziel factor"—charismatic and controversial former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the star of the 2014 draft, would not be walking through the NFL's door.

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Certainly, the two biggest names in the 2015 class (quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota) going No. 1 and No. 2 cut down on reality-show-fueling drama—but this bespoke event was such a snore that thousands of the most rabid football fans on Earth packed it in by 11:00:

Here's the draft auditorium with 40 minutes left. Empty and Dead. pic.twitter.com/LtQO91pekL
— Mike Loyko (@NEPD_Loyko) May 1, 2015

The NFL's collective fandom has a crushing, overwhelming interest in the Draft—interest driven by finding out which teams select which players. Without the searing wannasee of millions, the NFL Draft as a TV show has zero heat. That's why the league finally asked its broadcast partners not to tip picks online: If you know who's getting voted off the island, Survivor is comically pointless.

Even spoiler-free, there was an obvious and frustrating lag between picks being made and announced. Asked about this decoupling of draft reality and presentation, presumably to accommodate commercial breaks, McCarthy revealed an interesting dynamic: ESPN and NFL Network aren't talking to fill dead time between picks, the picks are being spaced out to squeeze in the talking.

"It's not commercials," he said, "It's for the editorial content." McCarthy likened any given Draft's inherent eyeball-pulling power to NFL games: some are riveting, some mind-numbing. The Draft, though, would better hold the attention of live and TV audiences if action more often trumped presentation. (And yes, the same principle could be applied to games).

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Loser: Local businesses not in "Draft Town"

Winner: Anyone selling anything within "Draft Town"

C3 Productions, which per the Chicago Sports Commission put together the nuts and bolts of Draft Town, brought in a mix of NFL sponsors and local businesses to cater food, drink and services to the legions of attendees—keeping them and their wallets in the NFL's pop-up theme park.

Everyone else was left out of the party.

"The NFL Draft was a bust for us," Mary Jannin told VICE Sports. Jannin, a manager at the Hackney's Printers Row restaurant, sighed as she flipped through her logs. "Saturday we were actually down five percent. The neighborhood was like a ghost town by 11:30." Apparently none of the 200,000 people felt like walking, by Jannin's reckoning, "two blocks south and three blocks west" to grab a burger and a non-sponsor beer.

"We seemed to get all of our neighborhood people Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday," she said. "I think they planned to hibernate over the weekend."

Other business owners said the same thing. Locals and regulars either took that Friday off or stayed in to avoid the crowds. Perhaps, instead, they were in Draft Town.

"It was slow," Mark Nunn from Buddy Guy's Legends said. Though the restaurant's director of operations had previously assured VICE Sports it would be "overrun," Nunn said they felt little impact.

"It was surprising," he said, "because we thought we were going to be packed."

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Some nearby pizza places, like Lou Malnati's and Pizano's, did better-than-usual business, but weren't swamped. Other bars and restaurants did brisk lunch business before Draft Town opened in the afternoon, then saw tumbleweeds at dinner. Breakfast and lunch places struck out completely.

"We didn't get anything, man," said Steven from Wildberry Pancakes. "We were sitting there waiting. Trust me, dude, ninety-nine percent of the time, we get everybody from all these big events."

Good time pals Rahm Emanuel and Dick Butkus. Photo by Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports.

Loser: The NFL (according to the NFL)

If not Chicago businesses, who did profit? Was it the NFL, raking in sponsorship and concession money inside venues whose use was provided at little or no cost? McCarthy chuckled at the notion.

"Let me calculate the ticket sales… One, two, three days, let's see—zero dollars. It was free. The only event in America you can go to for free." McCarthy said. He declined to provide merchandise, food, or beverage revenues, but insisted no profit was made.

"We lost money," he said, "I can safely say. The Draft is not a moneymaker for us."

Winner: Civic boosters

Kara Bachman, executive director of the Chicago Sports Commission, was very pleased with the way the Draft came off. Not only was the conservative estimate of 100,000 attendees doubled, but the ideal weather and fantasyland setup fostered a buzzing, joyous atmosphere.

But did any of that goodwill actually enrich Chicago businesses?

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"Hotels felt it," she told VICE Sports, noting unseasonably high occupancy rates. She also pointed to the NFL's long, premium list of corporate sponsors; their associated events and parties filled many private facilities and venues. Much like the private, corporate money that largely underwrote the event, it was private, corporate money that flowed back into the Chicago economy.

Until Choose Chicago's detailed impact study is released, assessing local vs. tourist spending, tax revenue, etc., it won't be known if tourist money taken in topped local money spent. Bachman didn't need to wait for those numbers to assess the project's success.

Was it worth it? "100 percent."

Would Chicago do it again? "100 percent."

This, too, was the answer for almost all of the businesses VICE Sports talked to. Even after bemoaning small or nonexistent crowds, they thrilled at the sight of Buddy Guy signing footballs for draftees, NFL Network filming their employees making pizza or seeing NFL jerseys of all stripes filling their tables. By and large, they'd be thrilled if Chicago were again tabbed to pick up the tab.

This is the unprecedented magic of the NFL: Just rubbing elbows with the league is worth any price Goodell can name. No matter how deep the NFL digs, nor greedily it mines, it cannot find a limit to the passion of its fans.

Until they do, they're going to keep thinking bigger.