Chicago's Gamble on the NFL Draft Could Be an Expensive Disaster

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has Chicago on the hook to host this year's NFL Draft, and no one is sure how much it will end up costing the city.

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Apr 29 2015, 12:45pm

Image via NFL.com

The National Football League draft is in Chicago this year. They said so before. Something about scheduling. Like, they moved the draft back a couple weeks, then forward a week, and then there was a conflict at Radio City Music Hall and apparently there were no other theatres in New York.

Point is, the NFL decided to move the draft, and they decided to move it to Chicago.

In doing so, the NFL and the City of Chicago have left a laundry list of concerns unresolved. Among them are the all-but-certain logistical problems the event will cause locals and local businesses, whether or not any taxpayer money will be used to cover the NFL's extensive demands, and why the City agreed to such a lopsided deal in the first place. Further complicating matters is the NFL's broad refusal to speak on these issues and the City's inability to produce hard numbers on expected costs and revenue.

Read More: Why the NFL Doesn't Matter, By Not John Harbaugh

The first sign of trouble came less than a month ago, when Chicago officials let local news outlets know they'd be closing sections of Congress Parkway and Columbus Drive for weeks. Other major streets, including fabled Michigan Avenue, would be roadblocked during the days and nights of the draft. Further lane closures, sidewalk blockades, parking restrictions, and tow-away zones would carve a chunk out of the heart of downtown Chicago, and offer it up to the NFL.

If you aren't a Chicagoland commuter, you probably didn't hear about any of this—and if you did, you probably didn't care. But Chi-town gridlock frustrations are the warning tremors of a seismic change in what the NFL draft is and means. The 2015 edition will be a more spectacular and more expensive production than any before it, and the City of Chicago's going all-out to help pull it off.

The NFL isn't just taking over a fancy performance space—though it'll have complimentary use of the 126-year-old Auditorium Theatre, after an all-expenses-paid tech retrofit to meet the NFL's WiFi, telecom, and broadcasting requirements. No, the league is turning Chicago into an NFL Draft-themed fantasyland, and America's most notorious soon-to-be former non-profit organization won't have to pay much of the tab.

"Chi-town is Draft Town," declares the Choose Chicago tourism bureau, and they're going to extraordinary lengths to make that true. Grant Park, in the words of Choose Chicago, "will be transformed into Draft Town presented by Oikos Triple Zero, a free, three-day outdoor interactive fan football festival spanning the size of 15 football fields." Congress Plaza will be the site of "Selection Square," where the 32 teams will set up tables and phone in their picks.

Yes, that's right: The NFL has turned the entire concept of watching the draft inside-out. For the past 79 years, team representatives have gathered in a rented room and took turns picking players. Cameras and fans were let in, and the room got bigger and fancier, but the event stayed the same.

Now, the teams are in a park across the street—and you need a different ticket to see them.

If the NFL Draft was missing anything, it was a Tron-influenced aesthetic. Image via NFL.com

Goodell will be the star of the NFL's very own reality show. He'll serve as master of ceremonies for a primetime viewing event where fit young adults go through quasi-scripted machinations for graduated sums of cash and fame. There will be tears, joy, and hugs in the limelight before a live studio audience and millions watching at home.

And what if you are one of the lucky winners of the right to purchase an Auditorium Theatre draft ticket—of 71,000 applicants, per FOX Sports' Peter Schrager—but the glitz and glamour and double-decker stages with an "LED curtain" aren't your scene? Too bad. If your ticket is to Selection Square but you wanted to be in the theatre, too bad. Per NFL.com, your randomly assigned, non-exchangeable ticket is good for one night of watching either the actual draft or the posh simulacrum.

If you missed out on a ticket, there's still Draft Town presented by Oikos Triple Zero. There'll be food, drink, live music, and player autograph sessions. There'll be football-related activities like mock combine drills and a wind-tunnel skydive simulator somehow "honoring Walter Payton," per ESPN 97.5's Jayson Braddock. As long as you don't care about actually watching the draft, it's all on the house. Fans can fly into Chicago, blow their mind out on football for two days and two nights, and fly back home telling themselves it was all "free."

The gridlocked, towed-away residents of Chicago will have to comfort themselves with the same idea.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, per the Chicago Tribune, insists the draft will cost Chicago taxpayers nothing—but even a cursory read through the league's long list of demands evokes old-timey cash-register chimes. Free use of buildings. Free use of the park and plaza spaces. Free police, fire, and medical services. Free parking for all NFL staff and production crews. Free local advertising—a minimum of $4 million worth of banners, billboards, and bus wraps.

The NFL also demanded control. Control over all ticketing and admissions. Control over all concessions, vendors, and merchandise. Availability for NFL sponsor products (e.g., Pepsi) to be served in all related venues and facilities. An enforced "clean zone" that sweeps Draft Town clear of unapproved advertising, vending or marketing.

It seems very little of Chi-Town will be allowed into Draft Town.

Draft Town, where all your late capitalism dreams can come true! Image via NFL.com

Choose Chicago CEO Don Welsh told the Chicago Tribune's Jared Hopkins the NFL is making a "big" contribution to the overall costs, and Choose Chicago and its component Chicago Sports Commission is ponying up the rest: Reimbursing the City of Chicago for public safety services, local advertising and promotion, the cost of facilities, and so on. Welsh said they would need to raise "$3 or $4 million" to cover the costs without the publicly-funded bureau spending any public money.

It's a sweet deal for the league. So sweet, in fact, Goodell chose Chicago's grandiose indoor-outdoor concept against the recommendation of the NFL's competition committee.

The NFL declined to comment on the Draft Town effort, deferring to Choose Chicago. VICE Sports spoke with Kara Bachman, executive director of the bureau's Chicago Sports Commission, to ask how they were able to scrape together a sum at least as big as their entire annual advertising budget.

"Everyone steps up in their own way," Bachman said. So-called value-in-kind donations and promotional sponsorships offer companies an opportunity not only to help the draft take place, but be a part of it in a visible way. "Big cities do big things," she said, citing a collective understanding among Chicago's corporate community that big events require community effort. To that end, they've pulled together over 750 volunteers.

Bachman could not produce an event-specific sponsor list, but pointed to the Chicago Sports Commission's corporate partners and board members as a major source of financial support for the group's initiatives—and "many members of the community" have stepped up to meet the NFL's needs. Will the inflow of out-of-towners offset the substantial costs?

VICE Sports talked to dozens of business owners and managers in the Loop, South Loop, and Printer's Row neighborhoods. Expectations ranged from wild-eyed zeal—one tea-room manager asked if it's true the Draft will draw one million tourists—to disaffected resignation.

"You never can tell with these big events," a Pierogi Heaven manager named Clemente sighed. "We had the Shamrock Shuffle go right past our door, and it was super slow that day." Indeed, the overwhelming emotion amongst business owners was uncertainty. Unlike the 124th annual Polish Constitution Parade, whose May 2 route the Draft will disrupt, how many outside bodies and dollars will actually flow into local establishments and pockets is an unknown.

Charlotte, director of operations for Buddy Guy's Legends on Wabash—practically within sight of the Auditorium Theatre—was supremely confident.

"We'll be overrun," she said. She admitted she could "already see the barricades" being set up on her block, but thought little of their ability to keep football fans from flocking to her front door. One manager at Pizano's Pizza & Pasta admitted street and sidewalk closures will take a bite out of his deliveries, but was optimistic the increased dine-in crowd will make for a net bump in business. Many restaurants were staffing up in anticipation for a big weekend.

Bachman echoed local businesses' uncertainty when asked to estimate the total number of Draft fans who'd come to town, noting it's a first-time-ever event. Bachman said she "wouldn't be surprised" if the event ends up boasting 100,000 total attendees across its three-day run—though the number of unique people will be lower, and many will be locals.

Choose Chicago's nominal average of $1,300 spent per typical domestic traveler and that means only a few thousand out-of-towners would have to actually travel to Chicago in order to put back into the economy what's been taken out. These travelers, though, and this event are anything but typical.

What if the crowds don't come? What if they come, but they never wander off the NFL's no-outside-food-or-drink campus? What if the money in doesn't recoup the money out? What if angry commuters storm City Hall? What if Draft Town isn't worth Chi-town's massive sacrifice? Too bad.

As part of Emanuel's deal for the 2015 draft, Chicago already has committed to make the same sacrifice in 2016 if Goodell chooses to let them.