Make Philly the permanent home of NFL Draft

NFL Draft Football
Fans gather on the Parkway for the 2017 NFL Draft on Saturday.

If this had been a heavyweight prizefight, the referee would have declared a technical knockout. If it had been a video game, the screen would have flashed “Game Over.”  The pro football powers-that-be might want to take a similar stance after three whirlwind days in Philadelphia last week for the annual primetime televised flesh market known as the NFL Draft.

The league should re-think its plan to rotate the location of the draft to different NFL cities and just face up to reality:

Philly didn’t just raise the bar for future would-be host cities; it hoisted the bar well out of reach.

Teams making their selections at the Franklin Institute Saturday.

The NFL, whose first draft happened in Philly — where the league offices used to be located, where NFL Films was born, and where the first commissioner, Bert Bell resided — should not mess with a winning formula. Current Commissioner Roger Goodell — who was booed by most of the 100,000-plus fans jamming the Art Museum area every time he took the stage — and the lodge brothers known as the NFL owners should put the wannabe cities out of their misery. Declare Philly as permanent home of the Draft.

If the notion seems outrageous, it shouldn’t. Philly just has too much going for it. Defensive end Myles Garrett of Texas A&M may have been selected as the first overall pick by the Cleveland Browns, but make no mistake, the City of Philadelphia was the main star of this event.

The NFL reportedly invested $20 million in building a huge theater and stage on the steps of the Art Museum, made famous in the Rocky movie franchise, and other preparations. The so-called “Selection Square,” where representatives of each NFL team made the actual draft picks, was set up in the rotunda of the Franklin Institute next to the huge marble statue of Ben Franklin. A 100,000-square foot NFL Shop was installed and had a line to get in Thursday and Friday.

There was a red carpet area where the first-round picks strutted in expensive designer suits, a concession row featuring a wide range of food and drink options, as well as a photo station where fans could pose with the Lombardi Trophy and view a full collection of Super Bowl championship rings — none of which featured the Eagles logo, but that’s another story. NFL marketing executive Jessica Christ was quoted as stating the merchandise sales exceeded expectations in the first two days.

Fans walk through the NFL Experience on Friday.

Then were were the fans. In addition to booing Goodell, they also gave loud Philly jeers to every pick associated with divisional foes Washington and the New York Giants.  But as expected, they saved the most venom for their most bitter rival, the Dallas Cowboys. On Saturday, former Dallas wide receiver Drew Pearson tried to taunt the fans: “I want to thank the Philly fans for allowing me to have a career,” he said, with the boos raining down to the point of nearly drowning out the words.

Of course they roared with cheers on Thursday night when Temple linebacker Haasan Reddick was taken as the 13th overall selection (Arizona Cardinals) and only got louder when Eagles went “on the clock” in advance of their selection of Derek Barnett, a defensive end from Tennessee.

By the time Barnett went on stage and donned his Eagles baseball cap, the throng was in a frenzy the rest of the league’s fans could only aspire to.  But why should they be given the chance?  The fans became a character in the show and it all added up to what the industry calls “good TV.”

The NFL, more than any other pro league, makes every effort to keep its product top-of-mind with its customers and sponsors year ’round.  As sports entertainment, this draft did the job. It reached a level of drama normally associated with professional wrestling or a Bernard Hopkins weigh-in.  This presentation of its draft represented a complete reversal of the NFL’s staid reputation as the No Fun League.

Visually, the event was stunning. Views of the massive crowd at sunset Thursday and Friday, juxtaposed with the Eakins Oval sculptures and the statue of Rocky Balboa himself made for vivid pictures.  None of the violence predicted by some pundits materialized, despite the presence of numerous opposing fans.  The geographic proximity of the site to New York, Washington, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland fans, among others, proved to be another plus for the league and another feather in the Eagles’ winged helmet.

TV ratings — and the accompanying potential for ad revenue — reached record highs.  ESPN’s coverage produced more than double the viewers of the NBA playoffs, and combined with the NFL Network’s numbers, the draft in Philly dominated cable ratings Thursday night.

As if that weren’t enough, the city accommodated the league and the networks — albeit to the inconvenience of some neighborhood residents and tens of thousands of drivers. However, this was nothing new for a venue with a proven track record of hosting the Welcome America mega-concerts and fireworks displays, as well as a pair of Papal Masses. As a performance space, the Art Museum and the Parkway are like none other on the planet.

The nation certainly took notice. On social media, ESPN anchor Trey Wingo said “Philly: You absolutely KILLED it.  Best draft experience ever. The standard has been sent for every future draft to try and match.”

Why bother, NFL? You just experienced the gold standard. No need to go elsewhere.

Tim Kelly is a former Courier-Post and Burlington County Times sportswriter and the author of “The Legend of Red Klotz.” timkellytkpress@gmail.com