PHILADELPHIA – They came early. They came in waves. They came on cars and subways and mostly by foot, walking en masse right up Ben Franklin Parkway to the Philadelphia Museum of Art like Rocky Balboa once did.
There were fans and there were families and there were friends on a warm spring night. They were reportedly 70,000 strong. Maybe more.
They were the future of the NFL draft, or they should be.
Never again should the draft be held indoors. For 81 years it took place in hotel ballrooms, Radio City Music Hall and, for the previous two years, in a theater in Chicago.
The league’s 82nd such event was its first foray outdoors, in the center of a city, and it didn’t just prove to be a glorious backdrop for television. If you were standing there amidst the throngs as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell took to the microphone and was met with a chorus of boos, you knew this was just about perfect. The only question as what took so long.
It was the people’s event for America’s sport.
Fourteen cities are bidding to host next year’s draft and the favorite is reportedly Frisco, Texas, where Jerry Jones has built a palatial practice facility for the Cowboys.
The Star of Frisco may be a wonder but isn’t right for this event, not anymore. It seats 12,000. A year ago, that would have seemed massive. Now something has actually outgrown Jerry Jones’ grandiosity. It would be a quaint gathering of the chosen few after this big block party.
Choosing Frisco after Philly would be a terrible move for the NFL. Not after everyone saw the public enjoy this night and everything that came with it – free admission, fan experiences, photos with the Lombardi Trophy. This was a big show with no cost; it was the elite of the NFL, but without the expense. A sport that lives off personal seat licenses and luxury boxes went with little exclusivity and even less pretense. While there was some VIP seating and preferential tickets, this was mostly about people just wandering over from the neighborhoods to enjoy the show.
The NFL has sucked all of these cities dry for years and years, always demanding more, always demanding new. They’ll do the same to have them stage the draft. Yet, at least this time, regular people could come and get a little back.
Bring a football to throw around. Pack a dinner. Grab a seat by a fountain and watch a giant TV or crowd up as close to the stage as possible, or try to snag a rail out back and see the famous football personalities come and go. It was a happening. It was fun. They booed Goodell. They cheered T.J. Onwuanibe, a cancer survivor who, through the Make A Wish Foundation, got to announce the pick of his beloved Baltimore Ravens.
When Haason Reddick, a native of Camden, N.J., across the river who went from walk-on to star at Temple, was picked by Arizona, he was floored by the hometown reaction.
“The uproar from the crowd, I didn’t know it was going to be that loud,” Reddick said. “It’s unbelievable.”
And when Goodell, flanked by a local high school football team, announced the Eagles had selected Derek Barnett of Tennessee, the crowd stretching deep into the horizons erupted in cheers and groans and joy and debate. It was your typical draft party, just exponentially larger.
“Philadelphia is raising the bar,” Goodell said.
If Jerry Jones wants to host the draft, he’s going to need a bigger boat. AT&T Stadium is always a possibility – they can open the roof. How many can they cram in Reunion Park in downtown Dallas?
This event needs to travel around the country to the masses, preferably to cities that never will or likely never again will host a Super Bowl. It’ll play great in old and loyal NFL markets where events like this just don’t happen every day. If they can do 70K in Philly, they can do six figures in Buffalo or Cleveland or Cincinnati or Baltimore or Green Bay or places like that.
The possibilities are limited only by the scope of the local organizers, and Philadelphia just changed everything. It isn’t just Dallas. Detroit’s current bid, for instance, focuses on staging the draft inside the historic Fox Theatre downtown. That might have been nice two years ago.
Now it better be Hart Plaza on the riverfront, with fireworks blasting over Canada to celebrate each pick. It should be like that everywhere. Pointe State Park in Pittsburgh. Union Station in Kansas City. The National Mall in Washington, where the crowd might rival a presidential inauguration (although, maybe we shouldn’t get into that).
A decade ago Goodell oversaw his first draft as commissioner – it began at noon on a Saturday and the first round stretched for over six hours. It was a beautiful day outside. Inside Radio City it felt interminable. It was dull.
By the end, even the couple thousand fans that came out were mostly gone. Goodell promised change. He cut the time allowed to turn in picks (trimming the draft to 3½ hours in one year), brought in more entertainment value and eventually moved the first few rounds to primetime Thursday and Friday.
Since then the draft has become bigger and grander and more entertaining. Television ratings have skyrocketed. The move out of Manhattan didn’t dim the excitement. Philly will be remembered as a watershed, when what was once a weird curiosity and cult event proved amazingly popular.
When it comes to the NFL, Jerry Jones usually gets what Jerry Jones wants.
After this magical, game-changing night in Philly, though, that ought to change for 2018. Down in Texas, Jerry Jones needs to think bigger.
More NFL draft coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Grading every pick: Who did the best in Round 1?
• Falcons’ pick wins draft night with emotional, expletive-laden interview
• Watson’s heartwarming moment after being drafted
• Raiders take risk, pick CB at center of rape investigation
• 49ers take Bears’ pick, deliver cold Twitter shot