The NFL draft — now a major sporting event — is returning to its humble roots in Philadelphia, where the first draft was held in 1936 at the Ritz-Carlton.
From that small room, to the first televised draft in 1980, to the spectacle at Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall in New York City, the NFL draft has become a tourism bonanza that generates millions of dollars in revenue for the host city and attracts hundreds of thousands of fans.
The NFL is expecting to see more people crammed outside the Art Museum and along Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the three-day 2017 draft in Philadelphia than at any previous draft in its 81-year history, by virtue of a one-of-a-kind outdoor amphitheater built specifically for the event.
The draft is expected to have a ripple effect on this region’s hospitality industry — filling hotel rooms, restaurants, sports bars, retail shops, and taxis.
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To understand the economic impact, take a look at Chicago, where the NFL draft was held the last two years.
In 2015, the draft delivered more than $81 million in total impact to the Windy City, and the numbers were similar for last year’s draft. About half of the 200,000 people who went to the draft came from out of town, pumping money into Chicago's economy. It also helped generate $6.5 million in local and state taxes and created 2,095 temporary construction and labor jobs.
“We are fully expecting tremendous crowds, and frankly I will be disappointed if we don’t surpass the Chicago numbers,” said Larry Needle, executive director of PHL Sports (formerly the Philadelphia Sports Congress), part of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, which seeks to attract major national and international sporting events and conventions.
“Given the geographic size and population density of Chicago and Philly — and Philly’s proximity to other large metro areas with a strong NFL base — it would be anticipated the event in Philly will be able to attract a significant number of people from out of town, which is the primary driver of economic impact,” said Jeremy Jordan, director of the Sport Industry Research Center at Temple University. He analyzes large-scale sporting events nationally and helped prepare the economic study of the 2015 NFL draft in Chicago.
“All indicators suggest that there is the potential for similar economic impact in Philly,” Jordan said.
A big indicator was the number of fans who preregistered to enter the lottery here for 3,000 indoor theater seats.
City officials say 156,000 fans signed up by March 23, triple the 48,000 fans who did the same for Chicago last year.
“That’s the best indication to date of the kind of excitement building around the event,” Needle said.
The drafts in Chicago were in the Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University across from Grant Park — but those outside didn't have a view.
In Philadelphia, every fan will be able to watch the event. A Jumbotron is being erected outside the 3,000-seat structure at the base of the Art Museum steps so those all along the Parkway can view the draft live.
On Thursday night, fans should expect to hear NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announce, “With the first pick in the 2017 NFL draft, the Cleveland Browns select …” in the first round. On Friday night, former players from each of the 32 NFL teams will announce the picks in the second round, and past Walter Payton Man of the Year Award winners will announce the third-round picks. On Saturday, the draft will conclude with rounds four through seven.
“This year, every day of the draft will be part and parcel of the NFL Draft Experience on the Parkway,” Needle said, referring to the sprawling campus the size of 25 football fields that will hold all draft festivities and stretch from 21st Street to the Philadelphia Museum of Art parking lots.
“Free of charge, [NFL and city officials] are able to bring this incredible event to the fans in an open-air theater," Needle said. "It’s unprecedented for the league that we are able to create this special dynamic for fans. Whether they are inside or outside the theater, they will be at the draft.”
The draft arrives after Philadelphia hosted two large-scale events two years in a row: the visit by Pope Francis and the Democratic National Convention.
"Last year, we hit one million leisure hotel room nights in Center City — a first, capping off six record-breaking years in a row for our hospitality industry," said Meryl Levitz, president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia. “The mega-events contribute to this success and are effective image-builders. They come on the heels of Philadelphia itself becoming the draw, with people visiting every day for the food, the history, the culture, the fun, the outdoors, and more."
The $80 million in projected local economic impact from the draft includes direct and indirect spending, such as on food and beverage, lodging, retail shopping, local transportation, other entertainment, and miscellaneous expenses while in town.
There also are additional expenditures resulting from the injection of new money into the local economy, such as restaurants' orders of additional food supplies.
Janine DiTonno, director of events and sales at City Tap House at 2 Logan Square, which sits less than six blocks from the Art Museum and one block from the Parkway, is adding extra servers and has ordered additional food and beer — about 20 percent to 30 percent more than for an average Thursday through Saturday.
The first day of the draft, Thursday, is already fully booked from 1 to 10 p.m., with corporate groups filtering in all day long. DiTonno said the restaurant kitchen's hours have been extended from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.
"We're excited," she said. "We've been planning for this for months."
Greg Stafford, president of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association and general manager of the Logan Hotel, said many of the city’s hotels are able to charge higher room rates during draft week due to higher demand, with visitors for the 123rd annual Penn Relays, being held on the same three days, also vying for rooms — plus the tail end of a major insurance convention that took up many rooms.
At the 391-room Logan Hotel, Stafford said, rooms were selling about 10 percent to 15 percent higher than normal for a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. He said he still had a few rooms available in the low $300s-per-night range.
The 2015 draft in Chicago generated 36,576 hotel room nights — slightly below the 39,000 room nights expected for Philly.
One attraction at the Logan Hotel is the rooftop bar. “Quite a few people are going to watch what’s going on with the NFL draft from there,” Stafford said.
Needle’s office said the overall three-day NFL Draft Experience will cost $25 million to produce. The NFL will cover $20 million of that, with the Convention and Visitors Bureau (PHLCVB) and the 2017 Draft Host Committee raising the remaining $5 million.
The economic impact projected by the PHLCVB and the NFL for Philadelphia is based on what occurred in Chicago the last two years.
Still, projecting economic impact of a major event isn't an exact science.
It was reported this month that the 2016 Democratic National Convention fell tens of millions of dollars short of its projections. In July, it generated $230.9 million in total economic impact — way below the $350 million the Democratic National Convention Committee projected, and $20 million to $70 million short of a revised projection by the DNC Host Committee.
But Needle is confident Philadelphia will be poised to match or surpass Chicago’s figures because of the number of NFL fans up and down the East Coast.
There are nine NFL teams within an eight-hour drive: the Jets, the Giants, the Ravens, the Redskins, the Patriots, the Bills, the Browns, the Steelers, and the hometown Eagles.
“We expect lots of different jerseys along the Parkway, enjoying all the festivities,” Needle said.
Jason Fulfer, 38, will be sporting only his Eagles green. The die-hard fan, who grew up in Carlisle, Pa., will be flying in Thursday morning from Atlanta to stay three nights at an Airbnb room he booked for $60 a night three blocks from the Art Museum.
Fulfer said he booked his flight on Southwest back in January, right after the announcement that Philadelphia had landed the draft. He's coming in with his best friend, Sid Howell, 27. The duo took in the NFL draft in Chicago last year and watched the Eagles select quarterback Carson Wentz in the first round.
They plan to do a lot of partying, eating, and drinking while in town.
"Chicago was one heck of an experience," Fulfer said. "I can still remember how ecstatic I was when we got Wentz.
"But," he said, "I know Philly is going to do it 1,000 times better, and I want to be there."