Turning the NFL draft into grand theater, with Philadelphia as the stage

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Work crews continue to build the stages for the upcoming NFL Draft on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Center City, Philadelphia. Here, the main stage built at the base of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's famous steps, across the parkway from Eakins Oval.

NEW YORK - NFL officials stood atop the Art Museum steps on May 18, 2016, looked down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and envisioned an unprecedented NFL draft.

The NFL first held its annual draft 81 years ago in a Broad Street hotel ballroom a 11/2-mile walk from those steps. It continued in auditoriums and theaters, including 50 consecutive years in New York from 1965 to 2014.

The league added an outdoor fan festival to the auditorium atmosphere during the last two years in Chicago. But they were emboldened to make it bigger. So they bypassed more traditional venues like a theater or arena, encouraged by Philadelphia's history of holding major events along the Parkway.

"Standing on those steps and seeing that this is such a heroic moment, this is a culmination for these [draft picks], we set out on, 'Could we create a theater? Could we build a theater here?' " said Peter O'Reilly, the NFL's senior vice president of events.

"We know it's going to be complicated. We know it's going to be audacious. But this is what we have to do, and the Parkway itself was natural. It's a home to so many iconic events over the years."

They were guided by the principle of finding a way for more fans to experience the draft instead of its being restricted to only those who have tickets. From October 2015, when Philadelphia and the Eagles first expressed interest in the 2017 draft, to last spring and summer, when they determined how it would come to life, to recent months, when planning and construction commenced, the NFL transformed a selection day for college football players into an event expected to draw 200,000 fans over three days to Philadelphia.

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It requires erecting a 3,000-seat theater along the Art Museum steps, turning the Franklin Institute into the site at which officials from 32 teams submit their picks, and making the nearly one-mile Parkway in between a free fan festival.

"If we do this right," NFL director of event operations Eric Finkelstein said, "it will look absolutely amazing and will be something to not only make the NFL proud to be associated with it but also showcase and highlight the city of Philadelphia as well."

'The steps are the hero'

The plans for building the theater focused on the Rocky steps. The NFL considered different proposals, including building the theater off the steps at the bottom of the plaza or atop the steps looking down. But they were so drawn to those steps, both for visual and symbolic purposes, that they decided to incorporate them into the theater.

"The steps are the hero here," O'Reilly said. "That was critical."

So the steps will be a part of the stage area on which NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will announce the pick, with Goodell standing at a lectern along Rocky's path overlooking the city. And the prospects, who will be in a green room backstage during the draft, will walk down the steps to shake Goodell's hand when their names are called.

The league also needed to consider how to construct the seating. Finkelstein, who is overseeing the theater plans, said they could have easily built a tent to ensure an intimate, enclosed structure akin to past drafts. But they wanted it to be more accessible to fans, so they stuck to the plan of keeping the theater open-ended to allow fans gathered along the Parkway to crowd near the theater to watch.

"Our goal all along was what can we do to max out our space, both with the opportunity to be seated in the theater but also see in," Finkelstein said. "It's something we've never been able to do before."

The 3,000-seat theater will have three levels - a floor, mezzanine, and loge. There will be padded chairs for seating, and they are still trying to find a way to squeeze more seats into the venue. It's a multi-week project that won't be finalized until Goodell walks to the lectern to start the draft.

The theater will be constructed by Mountain Productions, which specializes in outdoor event spaces, along with local labor. Finkelstein acknowledged it's not a "typical build," and they must work around the steps at different heights and levels to make the seats fit and the vantage points acceptable.

"You're building all that out of thin air, which in some ways give you flexibility because you can build it to your spec. But you're building it out of nothing, and you need to make sure you have all those elements . . . and you need to make sure it's flawless," O'Reilly said. "That's made it fun and interesting, and that's why we're watching every inch of this build closely."

O'Reilly emphasized the importance of what is happening backstage. For as much as the draft is an annual TV show - and a major fan event this year - it's a business meeting at its core. The prospects and their families and the commissioner need space backstage. There's a communication system required for the picks to arrive, and there must be space for the NFL to immediately print the jersey for the pick to hold along with his new team's cap.

"All those pieces come together in a quick, real-time window, which is why we watch all of these other events - we watch the Academy Awards - and this is a unique one," O'Reilly said. "It's not something that's voted on weeks leading up. It's real time."

Museum officials said that it will be open during normal hours throughout the draft and that visitors can check its website (www.philamuseum.org) for alternative driving directions. With the east entrance closed because of the staging, visitors should use the west entrance.

Gail Harrity, president and chief operating officer of the museum, said it "provides a premier setting for such highly visible events on the Parkway. We understand the importance of these events for the city."

In Chicago, the NFL built "Selection Square" in an outdoor space for the 32 team officials who took the call from their team headquarters and handed in the card with the selection's name on it. There was a heavy rainstorm during draft weekend last year, and the league wanted a more controlled environment for the team officials this year.

The question was where. They considered housing the executives in the Art Museum, but that space was used for prospects and other events. That's when the idea came to use the Franklin Institute, down the Parkway on the other end of the NFL Draft Experience.

Each team will have a representative set up under Benjamin Franklin's statue for the "nerve center" of the draft. They will bring their card to a front desk for verification, and it will then be phoned into Goodell at the Art Museum.

Larry Dubinski, the CEO of the Franklin Institute, called the inclusion of his building in the event "another opportunity to shine on a global scale, and that's fantastic for both Philadelphia and the Franklin Institute."

He said that the institute will be open as usual during the draft and that a free viewing gallery for the public will allow visitors to watch team executives as they select the draft picks in real time.

"Now, not only are we able to utilize another iconic location," Matt Shapiro, the NFL's director of event strategy, said of the institute, "but we're using a different fan experience, which helps to bookend the Parkway."

Striking a balance

Atop the Art Museum steps in May 2016, Nicki Ewell envisioned where a child could attempt a field goal or throw a football. Ewell, the NFL's manager of events, looked down the Parkway and saw a space for different exhibits for the NFL Draft Experience, which is the fan festival throughout the three days.

Most of the fans who attend the draft won't step foot in the theater, but they'll have 25 football fields of space for the NFL Draft Experience stretching from the Art Museum to the Franklin Institute. The league's major emphasis is that it's a free event, accessible to fans who cannot spend Sundays in stadiums.

"You've got a little bit of everything in there, but the draft is never far away," O'Reilly said. "But there's enough that if you're a family coming down that Saturday and you just want some great food and a great, free event and a cool experience with your kids, and you don't care who the fifth-round pick is of the Jaguars, there's plenty to do and a great time. So it strikes a balance."

The NFL hosts similar events elsewhere, including the Super Bowl, games in London and Mexico City, and the scouting combine. So it has a sense of what exhibits are most popular and require the most real estate along the Parkway.

Fans want pictures with the Vince Lombardi Trophy, which will be showcased in the center of the Parkway because of popular demand. The interactive games, autograph stations, NFL museum, and league shop also draw foot traffic. The league, working closely with the event production company C3, needed to consider those attractions when determining the layout. They also focused on the topography because grass is needed in some places and concrete in others.

"Even though the space is so large - 25 football fields - we're out of space," Ewell said.

They're going to take advantage of some of the fields that already exist near the Parkway. The Von Colln Athletic Field along 23rd Street will be used for the vertical jump, 40-yard dash, Hail Mary throwing competition, and field-goal kick. Roman Field, adjacent to 26th Street, will be used for the football clinics.

There will also be a zip line that will stretch 250 to 300 feet along the Oval called "Zip to the Future." As of last week, organizers had not finalized where the zip line will go because of traffic considerations. There will be four queues, and it could handle up to 185 people per hour.

The league had a zip line at the Super Bowl in Indianapolis in 2012, and there was a Ferris wheel in Chicago last year. Officials thought the zip line would work in Philadelphia given the Eagles' "Fly, Eagles, Fly!" fight song.

"We always want that 'wow' factor, and it just seemed to go naturally with the Eagles theme," Ewell said.

There will also be 30 concession points with local food options, including Chickie's and Pete's, Tony Luke's, Nick's Roast Beef, Di Bruno Bros., and Village Whiskey, among others. The goal, O'Reilly said, was to make it "as Philly as possible."

The NFL Draft Experience will take place no matter the weather, but favorable conditions would help considering it's an outdoor event.

For league executives, it's been months of planning and frequent trips to Philadelphia. They took a historic one-mile stretch in Philadelphia and envisioned turning it into an NFL draft town. This week, they will finally see how that vision from a year ago came to fruition.

"When we first stood there, the [Franklin] Institute wasn't in our mind. . . . We didn't know we would be doing a zip line on the Parkway," O'Reilly said. "We didn't know any of those things that would come to life. But at its core . . . could we make it that much more accessible and that much more grand by building it on the [Art Museum] steps and allow Eagles fans and fans at large the access we haven't provided in the past?"

zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm www.philly.com/eaglesblog

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