The NFL is bringing its Big D — the draft — to Jerry Jones’ AT&T Stadium in Arlington. And this draft, the first in a stadium, will pay homage in so many ways to the cliche that everything is bigger in Texas.
Ever since the league decided to put the draft up for bids and move it around the country, the focus has been to make it grow even larger than the cottage industry it has become.
From an historic theater setting in Chicago, with Grant Park as the backdrop, to the front yard of the iconic Philadelphia Art Museum with the Rocky statue atop its steps, the picks have become an accompaniment to the surroundings as much as a process in team building.
Now, the draft enters a building where Dallas Cowboys games and other events can accommodate 100,000 people, though capacity has been set at 20,000 for the April 26-28 proceedings.
Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president for events and the man who oversees planning for the draft, Super Bowl and opening weekend of the season, projects another 90,000 fans daily will be outside AT&T Stadium at the NFL Draft Experience. All tickets are free, with fans having signed up via a ticket lottery for the chance to get into the Cowboys’ home.
“In some ways, this is easier than building a massive structure,” O’Reilly said.
The league did exactly that last spring in Philly.
“The question is how to turn a stadium into a winning draft environment. In Philadelphia, there was such a great energy and that is something we want to recreate,” he said. “The draft is always special. It’s the time of year, the return to spring and hope. No one wins or loses that day, there’s positive vibes.”
To that end, this draft will include specific cheering (and, yes, some will become booing) sections for all 32 teams. Modeled somewhat on how political convention floors look, each “Inner Circle” will have 50 fans of that club, with team signage and colors. Cheeseheads and Terrible Towels aren’t likely to be optional for the Packers and Steelers fans, of course.
This special area features team rivalry zones, plus opportunities to celebrate the picks with NFL players current and past, including some Hall of Famers. O’Reilly notes that if a prospect chosen by that team is on hand, he will directly “connect with his new fan base.”
Teams are using various means for choosing fans who get to sit in their exclusive club section. Buffalo, for example, has an extensive “Bills Backers” presence in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. One of the co-presidents of the fan club in that area, Ezra Castro, is a frequent visitor to New Era Field for Bills home games, despite the distance. Castro, known as “Pancho Billa” for his game-day costume that includes a sombrero and facemask, is battling cancer.
“We thought giving him the opportunity to bring 50 fans … would show how much we appreciate him and empathize with his situation,” says Shaena Kershner, the Bills’ head of marketing.
Kershner adds the team will send a “hype person to get that group rowdy, which is not very hard for our fans” when Buffalo’s turns come, as well as providing merchandise and memorabilia.
The Packers also went that route, offering Inner Circle spots through a lottery to season ticket holders in the North Texas area, and then using the “Packers Everywhere” app to entice other Green Bay fans near the Cowboys’ stadium to attend. It wasn’t difficult rounding up 50.
“We were hitting people who were interested and could commit to (the first two days of the draft),” says Kandi Goltz, the Packers’ game and fan development manager. “We have really avid fans who will be there and there will be a lot of enthusiasm.”
Each Packers fan will have a cheesehead that the team is shipping to Dallas, although that might be superfluous because nearly every follower of the franchise owns one.
“It should look awesome on TV,” Goltz says.
The Falcons are sending members of their independent supporters group “The Cast.” Cast members are responsible for their own travel and expenses; the team blocked hotel rooms for them. At their Inner Circle will be Fatheads and drums.
Atlanta is sending cheerleaders, too.
The five finalists to host the 2019 or 2020 draft are Kansas City, Nashville, Las Vegas, Canton/Cleveland and Denver. Those two drafts will awarded at the league meetings in May.
“We see it as an opportunity,” O’Reilly says “This model is never cookie-cutter, it is unique to what each town and club offers. It’s not the same canvas in each place, but finding a way to bring it to life in that community.”