Peter O'Reilly has always used one word to describe what the NFL Draft means to the league and football fans around the world: hope.
For the 32 teams, the draft offers a chance to add promising youth and potentially change the trajectory of their franchises. For fans, the event is the biggest spectacle the NFL hosts between the previous Super Bowl and Week 1 of the following season. For hundreds of players, the draft will become the biggest day of their lives and offer an opportunity to leave a legacy in football.
"The draft every year is about hope," said O'Reilly, NFL Executive Vice President of Club Business & League Events. "It's about fans having hope of new players entering their teams. It's about the weather turning better in parts of the country and the hope that comes with that."
On April 29, the city of Cleveland will become the epicenter of hope in the NFL. The city is hosting the 86th annual NFL Draft from April 29-May 1, but the "hope" that stems around this year's draft will hold a much more significant meaning.
The NFL announced Monday that it plans to hold fans, prospects and executives from across the league for festivities surrounding the draft, which will be set on the backdrop of Lake Erie and will feature iconic downtown Cleveland locations, including FirstEnergy Stadium, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Great Lakes Science Center.
Those plans are a stark contrast to what the NFL was able to do last year under the limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the league to conduct the draft from an entirely virtual setting. Now, thanks to Ohio's vaccination rates and advancements for safer in-person activities, the league was happy to announce that the draft will look much closer to "normal" when it comes to Cleveland.
"The plan is really coming together," said O'Reilly, who joined David Gilbert, President & CEO of Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, Jon Barker, NFL Vice President of Event Planning, and Brian McCarthy, NFL Vice President of Communications, on a conference call Monday with national reporters. "We've learned a great deal over this past year, and we're excited to be able to have an in-person, free outdoor event with all the protocols in place."
Among the plans announced Monday include the addition of "Inner Circles," pockets of fans — all of whom must be fully vaccinated — chosen by each of the 32 teams who will have a front row seat to the NFL Draft Main Stage. The draft site will also feature an interactive football theme park, which will be free and open to the public around FirstEnergy Stadium during all three days of the Draft, and will also include live musical performances each day on the Main Stage.
The NFL doesn't yet know how many total fans will be allowed in attendance or how many draft prospects will make a trip to Cleveland, although they expect the host "tens of thousands" of fans throughout the weekend. The fan capacity will be set in accordance with health and safety guidelines from the city of Cleveland, CDC and public health authorities and could be flexible as the league monitors COVID-19 cases and vaccination rates.
"We want to maximize the amount of fans who will be a part of this free outdoor event safely," O'Reilly said. "This will be an opportunity for a large number of fans to be a part of these free outdoor events across the draft experience."
Among other festivities will include the announcement of Day 1 picks from commissioner Roger Goodell, who will be present on all three days of the draft after conducting 2020 draft proceedings from his house and, in the spirit of working from home, announced picks from his basement chair.
"His chair is a little worn out at this point," McCarthy joked. "He's excited to get out of his basement."
Day 2 will feature draft announcements from current players and team legends while Day 3 will include announcements from team coaches, general managers, owners and other executives. Those features will mimic the intimacy draft viewers felt last year when cameras were placed inside the homes of coaches and GMs and offered fans a true behind-the-scenes glimpse at where big draft decisions were being made.
The greatest part of the experience, however, will be having fans in attendance to cheer on the draft selection and welcome players to their new homes. The city of Cleveland will be transformed to welcome them, too, and Gilbert said the NFL and Greater Cleveland Sports Commission is working with restaurants and other Cleveland businesses to ensure the fan experience is maximized.
"You're going to feel throughout all of downtown that the draft is coming and that the draft is upon us," Gilbert said. "We want all of downtown … to feel like an extension of what is down at the lakefront. Between things like the fan activities, the taste of Cleveland elements and music, that will be a part of each day. That's one of the great parts of the draft model that's now come to life. You've got an opportunity for families and more casual fans to be a part of it."
For Cleveland, the celebration will be unlike anything the city has ever hosted. All of the festivities throughout the week promise to bring the NFL world together and show the progress the country has made toward suppressing COVID-19 and returning to normal while celebrating a new wave of talent infusion to the NFL.
"We're thrilled to be able to create and provide for fans," O'Reilly said. "This year, probably more than ever, is about coming together and signaling a brighter future for communities being able to come together safely with the right protocols but pointing to what's ahead. We hope to play a small part in that."
Fans hoping to visit Cleveland and participate in draft festivities should visit NFL.com/Draft and download the NFL OnePass app for more information and updates.