The NFL Draft set foot in the Windy City for the second consecutive year. Chicago-resident and Cleveland fan Daniel Rowell took the trip to Draft Town for all three days. You’ve seen his images on WFNY’s Facebook page. Here’s the story of what went on when his camera wasn’t snapping.
For the second year in a row, the NFL Draft was hosted in Chicago. “Chi-Town is Draft Town!”, “Chicago is on the Clock!”, “Welcome to the NFL!” the banners proclaimed. I had avoided the festivities last year, but when given a second chance I couldn’t resist.
I came to Draft Town in the hopes of covering the NFL Draft for WFNY. As a Chicago-based sports writer with Cleveland roots, I jumped at the opportunity to do any kind of Browns-related reporting, and considering the Browns were selecting (an alleged) twelve times in the seven rounds, it seemed like a perfect opportunity. There was just one problem: I didn’t have a media credential.1 Still, with an entire town—or “Town”—dedicated to the draft and free admission, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for uncredentialed sports journalism. No media pass? No problem. I’d just get the only opinion that matters: The fans’.
Three days later, as I exited Draft Town—presented by Dannon Oikos Triple Zero Yogurt!—I was ready to swear off the NFL-sponsored municipality for good and whatever Dannon does to produce a yogurt with zero fat, zero added sugar, and zero artificial sweeteners. And it wasn’t because of Draft grades, or the fans, or the fourteen picks the Browns wound up making in the 2016 NFL Draft. It’s because the NFL created an experience so addicting and disturbing I simultaneously wanted to leave and never wanted it to end.
My first glimpse of Draft Town came from behind Selection Square on Lake Shore Drive, a boulevard that runs along the Chicago’s lakefront, just east of Grant Park. As with most events hosted in Grant Park—Lollapalooza, Blues Fest, the Taste of Chicago—the entire eastern border was lined with two rows of fencing, but with the Selection Square stage moved to the eastern side of Buckingham Fountain, just yards away from the highway, the city prepared additional precautions. Like a scene from a dystopian future or maybe just the dream of a Tonka-obsessed toddler, a fleet of snowplows were parked bumper to bumper in the curbside lane for the length of four city blocks, each filled to the top with salt. It was both whimsical and chilling.
The walk-up entrance to the Draft Town at Congress Circle the other side was only slightly more welcoming. The semi-circle street was blocked off from traffic, lined with yellow and white concrete barriers arranged like a plinko board to disrupts the crowd as they zig-zagged through barriers and funneled into gated lines for the metal detectors. Security protocols for these high-profile events likely now just require this level of precautions, but it is still a bit disturbing to walk through. It’s even worse on the way out, when the exhausted and desperate intention to exit is about ten minutes away from being realized.
For an unofficial municipality titled “Draft Town”, I was a bit disappointed to learn that the NFL Draft wasn’t even hosted on site, but instead was held in a private venue across the street. Commissioner Goodell and the green room filled with the next generation of NFL players celebrated the first three rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Roosevelt Theater. The tickets for the event were almost impossible to acquire, as most were distributed to media members and fan representatives for each team, but a few sections were designated for a sweepstake contest. The red carpet for the event was held at the entrance to Draft Town, with stands filled with VIP members and a select group of fans. Inside Draft Town are mostly sponsors and food/drink venues, as well as recording studios for the NFL Network and ESPN. Large screens play the draft coverage throughout the town, and an ominous PA system announces the team on the clock and the selections.
As I waited in line for the security check, I browsed a rather detailed list of permitted and prohibited items, split onto four signs, and quickly realized I was carrying more than a few banned goods. Inside a “Bag(s) of any kind—except those purchased at Draft Town or other NFL Shop locations” I had “audio recording equipment” (an iPhone and Macbook), a “professional camera and attachments including detachable zoom lenses” (my DSLR with multiple zoom lenses), and “outside food or beverage of any kind” (in my case, a few granola bars). I quickly grew nervous that my “no media pass, no problem” methods were going to maybe be a problem. But to my surprise, they were fairly lenient on the rules and let it all through. It isn’t the first time the NFL appears to have unclear rules.
Upon first impression, I could only note that the town was very blue. And not just any blue, the three shades of NFL Blue: Hex #003399, Hex #0067B1 and Hex #007DC3. The blue pattern was draped over the fences that lined interior border of the town, along with the signage on almost every stage, building, and tent. The color scheme continues on 15-foot LED screens, visible from any direction one can look, to view both the ESPN and NFL Network broadcasts of the event. And also on a dozen 10-foot cubes and a 40-yard-long wall, which loops through an NFL Combine graphic in the games area where fans can try to match the athletic feats of the draft class. A single social media cube at the center of the town displays photos and ads, also in NFL Blue. You approach the cube as if lost, hoping it might display a map or announce instructions, but it instead lists Instagram photos, sponsors, and the occasional schedule for autographs and cheerleader Q&As.
The bizarre but curious truth about Draft Town is it’s almost self-sustaining. The town is only open from noon until 10 p.m. (10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday), but one could foreseeably live there for the entire weekend. The cost of living might not be sustainable between the eight dollar beers and three dollar bottled waters, along with five dollar fries with ten dollar sandwiches, but there are ample restrooms, free water dispensing tents, and multiple giveaways, including a seamlessly never-ending supply of 2 oz. Mountain Dew shots and 8 oz. Dannon Oikos Triple Zero Yogurts. The yogurt giveaways are handed out from a set of three ten-foot yogurt cups that look like they belong on a zero-added-sugar Candyland board. And Draft Town might be even better equipped than some main streets. Vehicles, bikes, and scooters are all banned, but there’s a pseudo-Hyundai-dealer at the center of the town, along with a Verizon Store. It has a brick and mortar look with a glass encased showroom for a few 2016 Hyundai models and a roofed porch space where patrons can sign up for promotions on a set of iPads.
The Hyundai Dealer even had a “McDonald’s McCafe” table for free coffee. I stopped there first, as it was a damp and foggy forty degrees with even colder wind chills, only to find that the McCafe’s eight coffee urns had long been emptied, without the capability for brewing refills. Instead, the single McCafe barista just stood and apologized to the disappointed customers that followed the signs for free hot coffee: “But we should have more tomorrow if you come back.” I tried again on Friday and found the same outcome. This was the dilemma of Draft Town, the repeated promise of the next generation of NFL Talent and hot, caffeinated beverages, and the disappointment of overpriced beer and empty coffee urns.
I arrived an hour before the first pick of the opening round in order to get a feel for the layout of Draft Town. The town is divided into four regions: A western entryway lined with photograph opportunities—giant helmets, headless-player statues, and individual team draft boards; to the north, a Bud Light Tavern offers a sports bar viewing experience and a few space heaters; to the south, a choose-your-own-NFL-Combine game center, playing fields, and an NFL shop offers a family-friendly option; and to the east, Selection Square at Buckingham Fountain, where fans eager to be on TV assemble. A majority of the green space and fields on either side of Grant Park were closed off within Draft Town. It was difficult to see beyond the interior borders due to the buildings and stages, but it appeared to be mostly empty space with some operational activities going on.
The NFL Draft’s ticketing was closed by the time I attempted to purchase tickets, but the site recommended patrons download the NFL Draft Fan Mobile Pass App, the registration card of Draft Town. It’s a free app that asks for your identity, contact information, and #GAMEFACE in exchange for a QR-Code that can be scanned at any of the Draft Town venues, including a Ferris wheel and the virtual line to fill seats at Selection Square. The app requires a scroll through a five-page agreement and limit of liability, I get through four paragraphs before skipping to the end and agreeing. After registering on the app and checking in at Selection Square, a text message informs me that I am number 3,926 in line to enter Selection Square, so I settled into the Observation Deck with the fans.
It was cold and overcast, low-40s, right on the lakefront, but weather most NFL fans are accustomed to enduring. The group—eight hundred or so patrons in jerseys and gear—was mostly Bears fans, but I found myself between a family of Cowboys and a Philadelphian couple in matching green Santa hats. As news of Laremy Tunsil’s gas mask broke and the quarterbacks went off the board, the crowds slowly thinned pick after pick. First, the Rams, then, the Eagles, until I was a pack of Cowboys and small children away from the front of the deck. As Jerry Jones reached for running back Ezekiel Elliot to the outcry of a kid in a Romo jersey that had been set on Jalen Ramsey, I reached the front in time for the Browns eighth overall pick.
The PA system interrupted: “Cleveland has traded the pick, Tennessee is on the clock.” The Bears fan laughed as if this was a bad decision, but I’ve known far worse outcomes than fleecing a team for picks. A couple in Browns hoodies high-fived in relief and made their way back to get some food. I followed.
I stopped to capture a few photos of Chicago’s signature skyline, which was lit up with marquee-style messages and NFL colors in honor of the Draft. From there, I headed to the Draft Tavern, presented by Bud Light. It’s a football field-sized tent with two large screens projecting the draft, standing tables and picnic benches that made up some of the only seating in the town, and a long single bar counter where a staff was eagerly waiting to serve a selection of Goose Island and Budweiser products. The entire tent was lit up by just a few strands of string lighting, a collection of Bud Light neon signs, and the two ten-foot screens in opposite corners. The same signature blue glow. During commercial breaks, the screens just cut to an ominous Bud Light logo, thus limiting the risk of other beverage companies getting any airtime in their tent. I found a few collections of Browns fans taking in the festivities before exiting back to the center of town.
Draft Town is kind of exhausting, especially when refusing to pay for the food. I munched on a granola bar and stared at the central social media hub. It’s like a ten-foot-tall iPhone with a Twitter feed of people-watching timelines way better than mine. As I stared and ate, fans wander back from Selection Square with their phones on record, giving hot takes on the picks, some stopped to dance with a jazz band performing at a stage near the Vince Lombardi Trophy, others live chatted with friends about the Draft Town experience. To my right, the ESPN and NFL Network studios glowed from studio lights behind glass windows. On the left, an enclosed and heated VIP tent with waitstaff and couches taunted me. A PA continues to announce the clock management. “Indianapolis has selected, Buffalo is on the clock.” It’s all a bit much and I opted to sit down, watching the Buckingham Fountain switch colors between picks.
I hunt for a seat to upload photos, and wind up on a Bud Light Truck converted into a bar with foldout stools. There’s no public wifi, and I am forced to abandon a slow connection from my phone’s hotspot when the bartender begins to collapse the hydraulic powered canopy of the Bud Light Truck on me. I resign for the night at 9:50 p.m. CT, walking past groups of excited fans taking photos inside giant helmets and headless mannequins. I check my spot in line one more time on my way out—3,630 ahead of me for Selection Square.
On the second day, I was determined to make it to Selection Square, and arrived an additional hour early to check-in at the line, only to find myself back behind 3,289 virtual fans for a seat. But as I attempted to register my QR code at the kiosk, which seemed to have difficulty with the damp conditions, a member of the event staff invited me to walk up the ramp to the stage in a roped off “Walk-Up” lane, the very lane I had waited to enter through 31 selections on day one. Thousands were waiting ahead of me in line, and the lane was being opened up by some strange alternative rules of a staff member in violation of the Fan Pass App agreement, and Draft orders everywhere.
The NFL Combine Games are made up of three physical tests: The vertical leap, the 40-yard dash, and a field goal. By far the most addictive is the 40-yard dash. It’s a 40-yard, ten foot tall LED screen that runs a video on loop of an NFL prospect’s time. A voice counts down 3 – 2 – 1 before there’s a bass drop and the oversized virtual player races against a group of fans on green artificial turf. At the end of the forty, a set of blue cushioned blocks await those willing to leap for their best times. Most spectators line up on a fence along the track and watch as they eat from the tents across the street, but I watched from the finish line to grab some actions shots. A group of three somewhat buzzed fans watched with me while one friend was eager to return to selection square. “One more,” his friend pleaded as he sipped his beer. They repeated this routine for the five minutes I stood and documented the dash.
“Are you happy with the picks so far?” A man in a Browns quarter-zip asks.
“Yeah, I mean we haven’t reached for a quarterback yet, and we traded down but finally took a wide receiver, so I can’t complain,” I reply.
“Yeah… yeah…” He stares off, he’s seen more than a few drafts than me, but is trying to catch some of my optimism. But maybe I’ve spoken too soon. The Browns trade down again with a third round pick and then select a USC Quarterback ranked behind two other pocket passers still on the board. I watch as I again return to the Bud Light truck, the only relatively distraction-free seats in the town. It’s now dropped below forty and my aluminum MacBook has numbed my hands as I edit photos and upload them.
I make one more lap around the park, again returning to the social media hub, staring at a list of autograph tent schedules and Instagram photos. I’m an addict, but the Blue glow on day two is almost maddening. I’m alone in an ad-filled pop-up town of a multi-billion dollar non-profit, photographing fans that are either intoxicated from the Bud Light Tavern or exhausted by the continuous stream of NFL prospects and three-minute clocks, almost past 100 selections by the end of the night.
“Are you alright?” A staff member with an ask-me-for-help sign approaches as I stare off at Buckingham Fountain.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Go BRONCOS!” A father and his kids approach me, hoping to show some companionship, extending a hand for a high-five. I oblige him as his kids laugh and inform him: “Daaad, he’s a Browns Fan.”
“Oh, sorry… GO BROWNS!” I accept the corrected high-five.
I wake up on Saturday morning to more cold, and now rain. My phone buzzes.
NFL DRAFT TOWN IS STILL OPEN, despite the rain.
An alert reminds me of my obligation but informs that the Play 60 flag football games are canceled. I pack extra socks and a second coat and gloves before heading back to Draft Town. One more day.
The Ferris wheel has turned into a water ride and quickly shuts down. The limited tents and covered venues prove frustrating as the rain continues. I make a tour through the NFL Museum, which includes a display of Hall of Fame Chicago Bears players and thier uniforms, and a glass display case with all fifty Super Bowl Rings. My Browns fandom begins to hurt, so I opt for a free Danon yogurt and the Tostitos tent. A Chicago Bear, whose name I don’t know, is answering questions and expresses a passion for country music and golf. No, thank you.
I head back out and wind up in the Ada, Ohio, tent. Three workers from Ada, OH—where the NFL’s official Wilson Footballs are constructed—have set up a tent to walk fans through the process of building a ball. The Deflate-Gate jokes by Day 3 have worn on the workers, but they kindly ignore the bit and continue to talk about the detailed and measured process that each ball goes through. At the end of the exhibit, a bin of footballs awaits purchasing.
I finally break down in the cold and buy a grilled cheese and coffee, and head out to enjoy more verticals and field goals. At the Combine corner, the announcer taunts fans that slip and shank field goal attempts as a pack of kids race to catch the missed kicks. The 40-yard dash is still going strong but offers the entertainment of a few spills and slides in the rain.
My phone is dead, but fortunately, a pop-up Verizon store offers a phone-charging check-in service. I ask if they are an actual Verizon store, and they excitedly try to sell me a case and contract.
I return to Selection Square and find I am able to get a seat amongst the diminished crowd. The selections for the final day have moved into Draft Town as fans are chosen to announce their picks live on TV. It feels right. Draft Town had an ominous and cheapening feel in the rain, all the studios behind rain-covered glass in dry and heated rooms, showing the rough conditions of the fans. Like a strange corporate bubble for whatever ratings they can scrape together on a Saturday afternoon. Bringing the Draft into Draft Town at least lessens this blow. The hosts handout autographed jerseys for trivia questions during commercials. It’s great people watching, especially considering the kind of person that shows up to the seventh round of the draft, feet from Lake Michigan in the rain and cold.
As I make my way towards the exit, a marching band parades through the middle of the square. It’s completely pouring at this point, but they are thrilled to perform for the remaining spectators. I watch a few dance numbers with the drum line before heading home.
Draft Town is an whimsical place. It has games and flashy TVs, and exciting foods like funnel cakes. It’s a self-contained ecosystem that could almost be it’s own town, but it’s also an advertising blitz and a bit overpriced.
In the end, it’s a festival in celebration of perhaps the most boring event in sports, the selection of over 300 players to the NFL, most of whom no one knows. It’s not a town where the NFL Draft happens (at least the first three rounds), instead it’s the manifestation of the NFL’s Draft as a town. Instead of picks and highlights and analysis scrolling on a TV, it’s on a PA system and on glowing cubes in the street. Maybe on a sunny, blue-sky day, the Saturday in Draft Town would transform it from a dystopia to a utopia. But for the 2016 NFL Draft, as I moved to exit the town with water-logged shoes, I found myself standing before a 30-foot screen at the entrance to Draft Town staring at a endless scroll of 300 some player names, as Pharell William’ s “Come Get it Bae” played over the PA. I really wanted to check out, but I was having a hell of a time trying to leave.