Grading any draft can be challenging, and snap judgments after the last pick usually are far too optimistic.
Yes, Music City couldn’t keep the rain away from opening night. Still, closing off both the honky-tonk district and throwing out the welcome mat at the Tennessee Titans’ stadium a short walk across a river allowed Nashville to turn the NFL draft into a football and music festival that drew rave reviews.
“To this point, hard not to give Nashville an A-plus for this draft,” said Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president of events.
Philadelphia drew a record 250,000 fans over the three days of the 2017 draft, and the NFL also has taken this event to Chicago and Dallas since deciding to leave Radio Music City Hall in New York City. Nashville, which first offered up a 55,000-square foot ballroom back in 2011 for the annual draft, simply smashed that attendance mark with more than 500,000 over three days.
“It’s a testament to Titans fans, to NFL fans globally who’ve just embraced this draft concept …, and it’s a testament to Nashville,” O’Reilly said.
Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp, sent that first email to the NFL back in 2011 and worked with Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk to land this event last May.
“Far outkicked our coverage, our dreams, our thoughts,” Spyridon said. “Way bigger than anything we could’ve imagined.”
Nashville rewrote how to host the draft itself, starting with a six-story tall stage, with several city blocks shut off to traffic. That freed fans to walk in and out of honky tonks while waiting for the next pick. A house band also played beside the stage between selections — a touch O’Reilly says likely will be a staple of future drafts.
At the stadium, fans could run a 40-yard dash, kick a football, get autographs from former and current NFL players, or simply listen to music. All free except for souvenirs, food and drink; even parking at the stadium and nearby state government lots had no charge.
Country star Tim McGraw performed for more than an hour to cap Friday night’s festivities, while Dierks Bentley was on tap for another free concert on the main draft stage to finish off festivities.
Las Vegas, next year’s host, had representatives on hand studying what Nashville did, and 12 other markets had people here for tips to improve their own bids to host: Carolina, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Green Bay, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Seattle.
Nashville had some complaints, and Spyridon says this has been a learning experience dealing with each issue as quickly as possible. Nashville police made five arrests Thursday and another five Friday for public intoxication, including Houston Texans tight end Ryan Griffin for punching out a window at a hotel late Friday night.
Music City even hosted a marathon Saturday morning.
Paul McMeekin of Omaha, Nebraska, ran the half-marathon and didn’t notice that Nashville also was hosting the draft until about two weeks ago. He said that explained the higher Airbnb rates. He and his wife, Kelly, stopped by the draft both Thursday and Friday, and he had one word to sum up the atmosphere.
“Electric,” McMeekin said.
Keith Coes wore his Vikings helmet and jersey and attended all three days. A Minnesota native who moved to Nashville in 1975 said he booed Goodell on Thursday night, then got a picture with the commissioner Friday. Coes said Music City showed the country what it does best.
“Nashville’s a party town,” Coes said.
Titans general manager Jon Robinson said the turnout was unbelievable, and seeing all the fans on Broadway is why he wore a hat that had “RSPCT NSHVL” when he summed up Tennessee’s draft.
“I think there’s a respect factor that comes with this city and this state now because we lived up to the hype,” Robinson said.
Goodell already has been asked dozens of times when Nashville will host the draft again. The lack of a domed stadium makes hosting a Super Bowl a moot point for at least the next decade.
“I heard a couple cities even discuss maybe pulling their bids, that they don’t think they can top this,” Spyridon said. “I think there’s a new expectation and a new bar, and I’m happy for Nashville to have set that, and let somebody else worry about following up.”