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Chicago promises ‘bigger, better’ Draft Town after smashing debut

"Draft Town" (under construction last year in Grant Park) will be bigger and better this season, event organizers said. (Sun-Times media)

When Chicago was awarded the NFL Draft after a successful debut last year, the expectation from the NFL was that the next one would be bigger and better. Though the Chicago site was a huge hit, the NFL and event organizers saw potential for much more.

Organizers of the April 28-30 festival at Grant Park expect this year’s draft event to be better, but as they outlined Wednesday at the centerpiece of “Draft Town” — Buckingham Fountain — it will definitely be bigger. This year’s event will provide more activities — youth football, flag football, “Play 60” events. There will be “more NFL legends and probably even bigger-name NFL legends,” according to Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president of events. There will be things to see, things do — all sorts of things of interest and fun for football fans of all ages at the three-day festival.

It will include an exhibit from the College Football Hall of Fame — a new wrinkle this year. The biggest addition will be a 120-foot Ferris Wheel, which will allow fans a birds-eye view of the event and the magnificent backdrop of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue skyline.

And more space — including use of the expansive area around Buckingham Fountain — to accommodate the huge crowds at Draft Town last year. Organizers expect to “go well beyond” the attendance of more than 200,000 at the three-day event last year. O’Reilly said the previous event covered 15 or 16 football fields. This year’s event will cover “well over 20.” There will be more room for fans to get autographs.

“I think we learned a lesson,” O’Reilly said. “We knew that Chicago fans and fans across the region were huge football fans and they loved a good festival that was free. But they exceeded even our wildest expectations.

“Our goal, and our encouragement is, ‘We’ve got the space. We’ve got so many more activities — come on down this year and any of that crowded nature of Draft Town you felt last year will hopefully be alleviated by the larger footprint.”

The tremendous response last year earned Chicago the second consecutive shot at the NFL Draft. While the draft in New York was at a fever pitch for the first round on the first day, the Draft Town event in Chicago sustained the excitement.

“The people and the fans of Chicago made last year so great,” O’Reilly said. “The fact that there was such strong interest across all three days. When we were there on Day 3 and saw all the way through “Mr. Irrelevant” — the last pick of the draft — [Grant Park] full of fans having a great team that went beyond just charting every single pick. I think the energy and enthusiasm that the people of Chicago showed made all of us, the commissioner [Roger Goodell] and others say, ‘This is a great home for the draft in 2016. Let’s learn from the thing that we could do better and give all those fans another free opportunity to experience the draft in a way that had never been done before.’”