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The NFL draft is a business all its own

The AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX is the site of this year's NFL draft.  Andy Uhler/Marketplace

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The National Football League Draft kicked off Thursday night in Arlington, Texas, where college players are selected by pro teams and paid lots of money to play on Sundays. The event is a theatrical enterprise, with wall-to-wall television cameras and loud, thematic music. 

Outside, after the first round ended, about 50 people stood at a major intersection trying to hail a cab. One guy described to his driver how to recognize him on the street:

“I’m with a guy wearing a Jets, No. 28 jersey.” 

He was certainly not the only one at this intersection in a jersey. Thousands of football fans from around the country came to North Texas just to be part of the experience.  

Rose Garcia is part of a Los Angeles Rams booster club, which gave her a ticket. She lives in L.A. and flew in for the draft.

“I’m still in shock that I’m here,” said Garcia, dressed in a Rams shirt and exclusively royal blue and yellow. “I just made it happen. I asked for vacation, it was approved, and now I’m here.”

Tickets to the event were free, but you had to enter a lottery. The NFL said 420,000 people applied. Scalpers were selling the free tickets for $200. On eBay, they were fetching $300.

Cleveland Browns fan, John Campbell, got a genuinely free ticket and flew here with a few buddies. Although his ticket was free, the trip certainly wasn’t.

“I’m trying not to think about that,” Campbell said as he waited in line for a beer. “It’s probably in the upper hundreds, if not a little bit closer to $1,000.”

The running joke  about the NFL draft is that in 1979, when the new all-sports cable network ESPN asked the league’s commissioner Pete Rozelle if the NFL would allow them to broadcast the event, Rozelle responded that the league was basically just reading names off a list. Rozelle thought it would sound like someone reading names from the phone book. He asked ESPN executives: who did they think was going to watch? Forty years later, the NFL draft has turned into a spectacle.

For many years, it was held in New York, but the NFL took the show on the road three years ago. Last year in Philadelphia, 250,000 people showed up.

Daniel Kaplan, NFL reporter at the SportsBusiness Journal, said the NFL is breaking even on the event right now, but that could change.

“Fairly soon I would expect a few things to happen,” Kaplan said. “One: the tickets will no longer be free. Two: it will become more pricey to host the event.” 

He said the NFL will likely ask cities to pay for the right to host.

Jeff Williams, Mayor of Arlington, said the NFL didn’t ask for any money. He’s also seen estimates that the draft could bring his city more than $100 million in economic activity.

“People are going to be looking for places to eat, they want to shop. And of course, all the hotels are full right now,” he said.

Williams said the city had to pay for additional security, but the benefits of hosting the NFL Draft greatly outweigh the costs. And, he’s just happy the city of Arlington got to host the event before the NFL figured out how much of a cash cow the rookie draft has become.


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