The blueprint of how the city of Detroit, Lions secured bid for 2024 NFL draft

The lives of 257 young men soon will change forever when their names are called before the world in the heart of downtown Detroit.

The Motor City is the home of the 2024 NFL draft, a three-day event from April 25-27 where the 32 NFL teams will add the best football prospects available to their rosters before thousands of fans in attendance and millions more watching on television at home. The NFL draft experience, a party-like atmosphere that accompanies the annual selections, will overtake the downtown streets to highlight the growth and culture of the city.

But putting on the best possible show those three days isn’t the only goal for the folks who planned the draft. There is hope the draft will have an impact in the years to come in Detroit, from hosting other major events, uplifting local businesses and youth sports organizations, and marketing the city to NFL fans coming to Detroit, along with the tens of millions who will tune in on TV.

Work continues on the setup of stage area for the upcoming NFL draft near Campus Martius on Tuesday, April 16, 2024, in downtown Detroit.
Work continues on the setup of stage area for the upcoming NFL draft near Campus Martius on Tuesday, April 16, 2024, in downtown Detroit.

The effort to bring the NFL draft to Detroit was a yearslong process involving decision-makers across the city: from the Detroit Lions; all parts of city government, including the mayor’s office; the Detroit Sports Commission; Visit Detroit, the official tourist site for metro Detroit, including Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties; and Rocket in the private sector.

“Thankfully, we kept at it and ultimately won,” Lions president Rod Wood told the Free Press about the draft bid process. “And I'm pretty confident that we're going to put on, if not the best draft, one of the best drafts that's ever been held.”

Initial bidding

The NFL draft has been an annual event for the league dating to 1936. For most of the draft’s history, the event was held in hotels in major cities on the East Coast. The event grew in magnitude in the second half of the 20th century, eventually getting moved to multiple locations in New York from 1995-2014 — most notably the Radio City Music Hall — before opening it to other NFL cities, starting in Chicago, in 2015.

From there, cities could submit bids to the NFL to reel in and host a draft. The invested groups in Detroit immediately got to work forming a bid.

People walk past the countdown clock as work continues on the setup for the upcoming NFL Draft near Campus Martius in downtown Detroit on Tuesday, April 16, 2024.
People walk past the countdown clock as work continues on the setup for the upcoming NFL Draft near Campus Martius in downtown Detroit on Tuesday, April 16, 2024.

“As soon as they opened it up for cities to bid, we expressed our interest in bidding on the draft,” Wood said. “At the time, it was starting to grow in popularity and was becoming what it has since become, which is this big, three-day event in the city that's lucky to host it — both for the visitors that come in person, as well as those that watch on TV.”

The team then connected with the city, the Detroit Sports Commission and its advisory board, the Detroit Sports Organizing Corp (DSOC), Visit Detroit and private companies such as Rocket.

“The opportunity to host the draft, we felt that we were just as competitive as any other city and we can demonstrate that Detroiters will come out,” Hakim Berry, the former chief operating officer for the city of Detroit who now works for Michigan Medicine while serving as an adviser for DSOC, told the Free Press.

The groups collaborated to lay out plans and send a Letter of Interest to the NFL in late 2017 to host a draft between 2019 and 2023. Two months after the initial letter, they presented an official bid laying out the plans for a prospective draft in the city.

Part of the process was sending representatives to other NFL draft cities to see what worked and what didn’t, then to generate ideas on making it a unique experience in Detroit.

“The NFL has told us this all along: Make it your own. Make it Detroit. Make it your city,” Detroit Sports Commission executive director Dave Beachnau told the Free Press. “Don’t try to be Philadelphia (hosted in 2017) or Nashville (2019).”

Multiple location options were presented, including Campus Martius Park, Belle Isle, the renovated Michigan Central Station in Corktown and Ford Field. The plan also included information about financial partners, how to engage the citizens of Detroit and what it would mean to the city to host the draft.

“All of those things play into it,” Wood said. “I think part of the reason we were a little slow to win it was hotel issues downtown, where it would be held versus where we've ultimately decided to host it. And I think other cities, candidly, probably got ahead of us and had a little better bid.”

Successful bid

The group submitted a second Letter of Interest in July 2018, and later hosted NFL officials for a Lions game and to scout potential locations. In December of that year, the NFL awarded Las Vegas the 2020 NFL draft. In May 2019, Cleveland was awarded the 2021 draft and Kansas City was awarded the 2023 draft.

“We ... initially, going as far back as 2018, did not make it into the finals for the first couple of rounds,” Wood said. “(We) did make it into the finals going into 2021 against a couple of other cities and were ultimately selected in 2022 to host the draft here in 2024.”

The NFL visited Detroit in November 2019 to tour the locations, where the decision to host in Campus Martius was recommended. The idea of hosting in downtown Detroit remained a constant because it would differ from previous drafts and maximize engagement with citizens and local businesses.

“The one thing I kept pushing the mayor on is we can't move it out of the urban downtown core,” Mark Hollis, chief operating officer of Rock Entertainment Group, said. “That's the difference maker for us. That's the center of the vibrancy of what Detroit is all about.”

The group was invited to submit a bid again in December 2019 for the 2022 draft, but the process was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 draft was held virtually, and the NFL slid Las Vegas from 2020 to 2022. The bid process reopened at the end of 2020, and Detroit was invited to bid on the 2024 and 2025 drafts.

The approved bid for the 2024 draft was submitted on April 9, 2021, to the NFL. The league informed Detroit in December 2021 that it would host. In March 2022, the news became public, the same day it was announced the Lions would appear in that season’s "Hard Knocks" on HBO.

“It's very competitive,” Wood said. “I mean, there were other really dynamic cities that were bidding against us, including Green Bay, who has next year. And their draft is going to be at the foot of Lambeau Field, which is obviously an iconic location for the entire NFL and the history of the league. So, to win it ahead of Green Bay was a coup for the city.”

Selling points

The submission to the NFL became more detailed until it was approved. One of those details was determining the actual draft footprint in downtown Detroit, which was designed to start at a center point and then stretch into all directions, which was referred to as “spokes of a wheel” by the Sports Commission — which is the same way the city is laid out. Ford Field underwent renovations to potentially prepare and Belle Isle was considered, but the appeal of downtown was overwhelming.

“We are making this Detroit and dropping it in the middle of the Central Business District of our community, which brings with it benefits and challenges,” Sports Commission Deputy Director Marty Dobek told the Free Press. “But at the same time, it's the gathering place. That's kind of the phrase that comes along with Campus Martius Park, it's Detroit's gathering place.”

The bid stressed how the draft could connect with Detroit residents by being centrally located and having “activation” events through the "On the Clock" tour located at different city parks and neighborhoods in the lead-up to the draft.

Yolanda Russell, of Detroit, makes her way through downtown Detroit while stopping to take selfies at all of the things related to the upcoming NFL draft on Tuesday, April 16, 2024, in downtown Detroit. "I'm absolutely thrilled though I'm generally not a sports person," said Russell, about the upcoming NFL draft being held in her hometown. Russell said the first time she ever watched the NFL draft was during the pandemic and loves what it means for the players and their families and support staff. "Now it's here in my own backyard. I love it."

Hollis said a conversation between Dan Gilbert, the founder of Rocket Companies and the Bedrock real estate firm, along with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was another important moment in securing the bid.

“(Gilbert) met with him in '21, and from my opinion and what the commissioner told me — Commissioner Goodell — is that that one phone call that happened in May of ‘21 was a critical call because it really demonstrated the synergy and the commitment that both the private and the public sector had for bringing the draft to Detroit,” Hollis said.

Other selling points that interested the NFL were Detroit’s location relating to other NFL cities in the Midwest, the colleges within driving distance that regularly stockpile the league with players and the city’s proximity to Canada.

“I think the location in the heart of downtown was very appealing to them,” Wood said. “The proximity to Canada is an interesting twist, which we've never really had a draft that close to another country, and, obviously, international expansion is on the NFL's mind.” The league already plays regular season games in Europe and Mexico, and is adding a game in South America in the upcoming 2024 season.

Part of the bid was a map showing all of the NFL and college football teams within a five-hour drive and two-hour flight of Detroit, which included dozens of teams, exceeding Kansas City in 2023.

“When you look last year to Kansas City, there really isn’t a market geographically, I guess Chicago could drive there, but you don’t have that driveable market with NFL cities like we do,” Beachnau said. “So, when we talk about attendance, we think it is going to be strong.”

Detroit's long-term commitment after the draft was another selling point to the NFL. Visit Detroit and the Detroit Sports Commission raised $10 million for the event from various partners, while Visit Detroit is spending $2 million, with the NFL contributing as much as seven times that amount to produce the draft.

Local donors from the community, including companies such as General Motors, Rocket Mortgage, the Pistons, Illitch Companies and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in a group of over 20 contributors, committed $1 million toward an initiative focused on youth literacy and youth sports — particularly girls in sports — while the city is using Detroit-based businesses throughout the draft experience to elevate them and make it possible for them to bid on other sporting events in the future.

“That was the No. 1 priority,” Berry said. “This could not be a venue that Detroiters were not included in. And that's why it was very important for us to have the On the Clock tours to activate some of our rec centers and have things and make sure that the community feels they are involved and that it's open to them.”

Planning and expected impact

The parties worked in committees to bring the plan to life, with each group represented. Wood said the Lions helped facilitate the relationship with the NFL and gave input on the seven planning committees formed to produce the big event.

The city ensured the plans could be met on the logistical side, which includes most city departments, from police to the parks department, chipping in. The Sports Commission worked with the city on those efforts as well as helping shape the bid itself. And Bedrock made sure its downtown real estate could be used for different components of the draft.

“Working with our partners, we ensure that we can live up to the commitment to demonstrate to the entities that we're trying to attract, that Detroit is willing and able to host a large-scale event,” Berry said.

The goal of hosting the NFL draft is the same for all: showcase Detroit’s economic growth in the last decade, highlight the city's culture for a national audience and include Detroit residents as much as possible.

The hope is the draft will not only produce a local economic bump in the tens of millions during the three days, but stick with people all over the country to come and visit again in the future.

A sign posted on the side of a building hangs as work continues on the setup for the upcoming NFL draft near Campus Martius on Tuesday, April 16, 2024, in downtown Detroit.
A sign posted on the side of a building hangs as work continues on the setup for the upcoming NFL draft near Campus Martius on Tuesday, April 16, 2024, in downtown Detroit.

“As we continue to shape the image and perception of Detroit; to have 50 or 60 million eyeballs on our city for three days, I mean, we can't afford that kind of advertising that the broadcast brings,” Beachnau said.

Officials are optimistic about the draft going well and hope it serves as yet another opportunity, like previously hosting the NCAA tournament did, for Detroit to show it can host big events without a hitch and elevate them. Wood mentioned it possibly helping bring events like the NFL Combine to Detroit in the future if it moves, while saying a Super Bowl is unlikely because the NFL wants it in warm weather cities, along with other major sporting events.

“I think where it will pay off is it bringing other big events,” Wood said. “We've got the Final Four coming in 2027. Hopefully, we can secure maybe the Big Ten football championship in Detroit now that the Big Ten's expanded — we've expressed interest in doing that. I know Little Caesars would desperately love to have an NBA or an NHL All-Star game. But I think once we successfully put on a really big event — and there's not much that's bigger than the NFL draft — it should lead to other big events coming back to the city.”

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How city of Detroit secured bid to host 2024 NFL draft