Roger Goodell: Chicago ‘earned’ NFL Draft

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel sent a helicopter over Grant Park on May 2.

From inside it, a photographer snapped a picture of “Draft Town,” the free fan festival that helped the NFL Draft draw estimated 200,000 fans over the three-day event.

The picture was framed and on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s desk two days later, a memento of the league’s first draft foray outside New York in 50 years. And a bit of lobbying, too, to bring the draft back to Chicago.

Emanuel got his wish Tuesday, when the city and the NFL signed final documents to hold the 2016 draft in Chicago from April 28-30.

“You made the Second City the first choice again,” Emanuel told Goodell.

The NFL did not name a theater for the draft but, sources said, plans to use the Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University again. Choose Chicago CEO Don Welsh merely painted the theater, which held 2,800 fans at the last draft, as the favorite.

The NFL plans, too, to expand the footprint of “Draft Town” within Grant Park.

“The success we had last year I think set a new bar for the draft,” Goodell said.

Speaking at the NFL owner’s meetings in Schaumburg, Goodell said the city “earned” another draft. As a condition to host the 2015 draft, Chicago had agreed to do the same in 2016 if the NFL wanted to return.

Los Angeles was an option, but the league, which owed Chicago an answer by Sept. 30, realized “relatively quickly” they wanted to return, NFL senior vice president of events Peter O’Reilly said.

“The city knocked it out of the park last year,” Bears chairman George McCaskey said. “So it’s just a question of taking that model and improving upon it.”

That includes creating more action inside the theater, to keep fans from wandering outside, and convincing top picks to attend. The top two selections, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, were not among the 26 that witnessed the draft in person.

“That’s the commitment we have to our partners here in Chicago, including the city and the Bears: how do we make it better?” Goodell said.

At least for one more year.

When the league announced the deal Tuesday, it stressed it would begin taking bids for the next two-year cycle, 2017-18, in the fall.

Chicago will be prepared to bid, Welsh said. Its parks should help the pitch, as O’Reilly called the fan festival “the new normal of the draft.”

Still, Goodell hinted that moving the draft around the country could be beneficial, saying the first year in Chicago proved that “a lot of good things can happen if you’re not afraid of trying to make it better” every year.

“We’re not afraid of moving it around to give people an opportunity to experience the draft that never have —and may never will if we don’t,” Goodell said. “And it’s been good for the draft. It’s been good for the league overall. And I think it’s been good for the fans.”

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