The 2021 NFL Draft will place a spotlight unlike any other on Cleveland next week as the city becomes the center of one of the NFL's biggest events, but it will also provide tremendous opportunities for community growth that will leave a footprint in the city for years.
The plans for how that impact will be established were unveiled Wednesday by the NFL. Among the activities included are a Play Football Town Hall, an NFL FLAG Regional Tournament for youth flag football players, three separate environmental restoration efforts that will take place at Big Creek Reservation, North Coast Harbor inner basin and a portion of the waterline at Burke Lakefront Airport and William Rainey Harper School.
Donations also will be made to a community gathering space in the region to bridge the digital divide among students in Northeast Ohio, and another donation will be made to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, which will also receive aid from the NFL and members of the Cleveland Browns in their weekly food distribution event.
"It's always important for us to leave a legacy in every host city we visit," said Anna Isaacson, Senior Vice President of Social Responsibility for the NFL. "We know there's going to be great football storylines next week, but we always believe here at the NFL that, even just as important, there will be real impact made across this great football city in Cleveland, and we look forward to seeing that come to life over the next few days."
The timing in which Cleveland will host the draft comes one year after the city experienced the initial pain created by the COVID-19 pandemic, which will still impact audience levels and procedures throughout the week of the draft.
Repairing those initial damages became a priority for the impact the NFL hopes to leave in Cleveland, and they rolled out several other actions built to provide aid to some of the biggest issues the pandemic has placed additional stress toward: the digital divide, food insecurity, health disparities and mental health awareness.
All of those problems will be addressed through the NFL's Draft-a-Thon fundraiser, which will drive awareness and action to close critical gaps at the intersection of pandemic recovery and the hardest hit communities across the country.
For David Gilbert, the President & CEO of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission and Destination Cleveland, the years-long efforts to prepare for the draft during the pandemic and create extensive opportunities for growth in the city couldn't produce a higher feeling of pride for himself and the team of organizers and workers who will make the draft possible.
"We've been tracking this and going to a lot of other drafts prior and imagining what it would be like in Cleveland," he said. "We were seeing throngs of people going elbow-to-elbow, and that's certainly not going to happen (in Cleveland), but I think there's a couple of really important things that overcome that."
Those benefits include the opportunity for Cleveland businesses to see a much-needed increase in revenue as a result of fans and Ohio residents flocking to the city for the draft. Restaurants, hotels and downtown retail businesses — many of which took a hard hit in the early months of the pandemic — are expected to benefit from the draft's extensive reach throughout the city.
"This event will have an outsized importance for them," Gilbert said. "We've heard from some (business owners) who said this is what they've been hoping for to keep them hanging on onto the other side of COVID. I think the glass is way more full than it otherwise would have been."
In addition to efforts for improving the overall well-being of the city, the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission has created the "Power of Sport" Summit, which will be located at Progressive Field during all three days of the draft and serve as a hub for dialogue about racial and gender equality in sports, athletes' mental health and more.
"This is a really unique, authentic, once-in-a-lifetime program that we are offering to the region," said Jenner Tekancic, Vice President of Community Relations for the Cleveland Browns. "It will also be in a digital format for anybody who cannot be part of the programming to take part in it. We are brining together some teenagers and law enforcement for conversations for change as one of the many panels that will be offered during the Summit."
The Summit will be carried out through workshops, demos and exhibits and provide tabling opportunities for local organizations to meet with attendees and promote information and resources. A virtual workshop will also be included as part of the Summit, and registration for any part of the activities can be completed through www.clesportsummit.org, the GCSC website, or on-site at Progressive Field during the summit.
"There is really something for everyone in terms of what we have to offer for the workshops," said Rachel Stentz-Baugher, Vice President of Administration and Development for GCSC.
The Cleveland Browns Foundation's "Stay in the Game" initiative, which was created in 2019 to reduce chronic absenteeism among students in Northeast Ohio and reduce learning barriers for students who are living in poverty, will also take part in the Summit and use the draft platform to create dialogue for solutions to improving student attendance rates. The Summit should also provide an opportunity to further the "Stay in the Game" initiative's goal of bridging the digital divide many students have faced before and during the pandemic.
"Our work on the foundation, which is our primary focus for the Browns foundation, is really on education," said Renee Harvey, Vice President of the Cleveland Browns Foundation. "We believe that education is vital, and it's something that every child deserves and access to high quality education. And in order to receive that opportunity. We really need to make sure that kids are attending school and that they're there every day."
Activities to end the week will include a field refurbishment groundbreaking ceremony at Shaw High School in East Cleveland, where the NFL, the Cleveland Browns, city and school reps will participate to commemorate the start of the school's football field refurbishment project. The efforts are being funded by the Browns and supported by the NFL Foundation through a $200,000 matching field grant.
Following the ceremony, a community garden build will take place across the street at Chambers Community Center. The project will be led by the Cleveland Browns and funded by the NFL. Volunteers will plant new garden boxes and landscape, and the garden will then be used by students to grow their own food.
"These are the kind of things that make Cleveland year in and year out one of the best and most important cities in the country for hosting major events," Gilbert said. "So many of these things are being done on top of extra efforts that are going to be so well worth it for the community."
An overview and schedule of all the events taking place throughout the city and Northeast Ohio can be found on the GCSC website.
The 2021 NFL Draft is coming to Cleveland, and you can be a part of the action at the NFL Draft Experience. The free, three-day football festival celebrates all 32 clubs and attracts fans who want to feel connected the NFL, its history and future. Click to get your tickets now.