How the NFL draft turned into a spectacle

PHILADELPHIA — The NFL draft is now a capital “t” Thing.

Just how it got that way is a confluence of the NFL’s massive popularity and reach, the rise of fantasy football, and ESPN’s stewardship of the event and everything that leads up to it, keeping the league in the sports news cycle year-round.

Strip it down to its core, though, and the draft is not the least bit exciting. It’s literally a predetermined ordered selection process of college players, one every 10 minutes, who won’t suit up to play in a real NFL game until September. So it’s kind of incredible that it’s transformed into the spectacle that descended on Philadelphia Thursday, where an estimated 70,000 people turned out just to watch the first round unfold.

Players were ushered from the "Draft Hall" over to the main stage for the selection process. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
Players were ushered from the “Draft Hall” over to the main stage for the selection process. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
Fans pose in front of oversized helmets of each team that line the entrance to the Fan Experience. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
A pair of spectators wear the college jerseys of Marcus Mariota and Christian McCaffrey. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
The back side of generic player mannequins fans can pose against for photos. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
Ravens fan and Make-A-Wish recipient TJ Onwuanible, who announced his favorite team’s first-round selection. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
A look at the reconstructed “Rocky Steps” at the back of the NFL Draft stage. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
Sunset over the Washington Monument Fountain with the NFL Draft stage in the background. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
The view from the crowd with Washington on the clock. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
The lighted exit of the Fan Experience, which will be open again Friday and Saturday for the remaining rounds of the NFL draft. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
Players were ushered from the "Draft Hall" over to the main stage for the selection process. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

The streets around the Ben Franklin Parkway were all shut down and blockaded by police well before the hoards began arriving, which was early. The sun was out and the temperatures warm before 11 a.m., as throngs of black, white and forest green Eagles jerseys started lining up at the gates to the NFL Fan Experience more than an hour before gates opened at noon, still a full eight hours before the Cleveland Browns would go on the clock for the first pick.

Philly has actually hosted the NFL draft the second-most times in history (behind New York), but it returned to the City of Brotherly Love this year for the first time since 1961, 15 years before the term Mr. Irrelevant was even coined. Consider that the draft didn’t even move to its current three-day format (it continues Friday and Saturday) until 2010 and it’s easy to understand that this was really the first event of its kind in this city. Held outdoors, backed up against the famous Rocky Steps on the front of the Philadelphia Art Museum, it took on the feeling of a major cultural event.

Between the large, open grassy spaces, the sponsored vendor booths, the food kiosks, the beer and wine bars and the VIP areas all feeding into the main stage, the draft is essentially a music festival without the music.

In the lead up to the selections themselves, fans of all backgrounds eat, drink and fraternize, huddling in excited masses around former players as they appear for various media appearances. There’s the Lombardi Trophy, which you can take a picture alongside in front of a backdrop of confetti. There are headless mannequin cutouts in full uniform that you can awkwardly mount to make yourself appear to be in uniform. And, yes, there’s a zip line.

Everywhere you look there is branded content, some more tasteful than others.

“The Xfinity Fan Zone is where it’s at!” says the male voice on the speakers inside the Xfinity Fan Zone. Behind him, 2012’s hottest hit “Gangnam Style” pops through the PA.

A local company decided the NFL draft was a perfect opportunity to leverage themselves to a larger audience. Philly Pretzel Factory offered a year’s supply of free pretzels to whoever the Eagles selected in the first round.

“Anything going on in Philly, we’re going to be a part of,” said Tom Monaghan, chief development officer of Philly Pretzel Factory. “Of course something of this magnitude, the NFL draft, is a no-brainer for us.”

The company had been planning something to get involved for almost two years, ever since they found out the draft was coming to their hometown. But the draft can be tricky. What if the Eagles traded out of the first round, or acquired a second pick? What if they drafted someone, then traded him? How serious was the company about upholding its end of the bargain?

As it turns out, more serious than expected, even if they hadn’t planned for it ahead of time.

“I had not thought through every one of these contingencies,” said Monaghan. “If he is drafted an Eagle, he will get it. And as a matter of fact, I’m here to say for the first time on the record, even the guy we trade for — he’ll get it. We’re not stingy here with what we’re trying to do.”

Then, seemingly on the spot, he turned into Pretzel Oprah, expanding his offer to not simply the Eagles’ top pick, but the first-round pick of every NFC East team, plus that of the Baltimore Ravens. For those scoring at home, that’s a grand total of five players.

It was a shameless self-promotion, sure, but at least it was more innovative than a simple ad slapped on the bottom of a novelty helmet, or along the walls of the food vendors, as some of the national sponsors elected. Anyway, everyone wants in on an event this big, including the news choppers hovering overhead and the aerial ads dragged around the sky, including one that didn’t mince words, reading: CITY HALL ❤ SPORTS BUT HATES OUR TEACHERS.

Cramming into the fray in front of the gates that guard the massive stage setup — over which the aerial camera zooms back and forth — it is easy to understand why the event draws so much attention. The population is exceedingly male, almost entirely aged 20-40, many advertisers’ dream target demo. There is the occasional father and son or young couple, but this is mostly the population the NFL craves — young men, almost all adorned in authentic jerseys, living and breathing the game.

Among those jerseys, there was a surprising amount of representation from some of the younger franchises and those without championship histories. There were plenty of Jacksonville Jaguars jerseys and Cleveland Browns jerseys. There were kids in Tennessee Titans T-shirts. There were even people rocking college gear, from a University of Florida Percy Harvin get-up to a tandem in a Christian McCaffery Stanford jersey and a Marcus Mariotta Oregon jersey.

But Eagles gear was at least a healthy plurality, if not an outright majority in the crowd. There were Washington fans dotted about, but perhaps not as many as one would expect, given Philadelphia’s proximity. And none of the ones who spoke with WTOP had actually made the trip from Washington. They were from Philly, or the suburbs, or other parts of Pennsylvania. Many traveled over an hour, but none from the D.C. area. Mike, a ‘Skins fan from New Jersey sporting a London Fletcher jersey, drove an hour and a half with his friend, a Giants fan, after winning seats in the arena constructed for the draft itself.

One fan made a once-in-a-lifetime commute from the Baltimore area, though. An eighth-grader at McDonough School in Owings Mills, Md., 14-year-old TJ Onwuanible is just a little over two years removed from his diagnosis with a rare form of brain cancer. A huge Ravens fan, he hoped maybe the draft would come to Baltimore one day so he could attend. Now in remission, Philly would have to be close enough. The Make-A-Wish Foundation worked with the Ravens, whose head coach Jon Harbaugh informed Onwuanible last week that he’d be announcing their first-round selection live on stage and TV Thursday night.

Fantasy football wasn’t what drew Onwuanible to his wish, though. He only played one year of it in 2015 and was frustrated by the injuries and constantly having to account for bye weeks. And he is still fairly new to the process.

“I really started caring about the NFL draft in 2012,” said Onwuanible of the year Andrew Luck and RG3 topped the prospect pool. “That was the first year I saw anything about it on TV.”

But his interest in and perspective on the draft was perhaps the most circumspect of anyone, which isn’t that much of a surprise, considering what he’s been through. So, why the draft?

“The fact that the people that are drafted are the future of each team,” he said.

That’s the enduring draw for every fan who packed inside the gates Thursday, whether they were local who took the day off, or out-of-town fans that made the commute. Because no matter the history or current state of your favorite team, the draft provides hope for the future.

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