Commissioner Roger Goodell eschewed bro hugs and a podium during the NFL draft last April, when he was forced to announce teams’ picks from his wood-paneled basement as the league conducted the event virtually while the coronavirus raged.
For part of the night, when New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick briefly left his setup at a dining table, his pet dog, Nike, seemed to be orchestrating the franchise’s moves. TV cameras captured the husky sitting near its owner’s computer.
Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury drafted from his luxurious, white modern home, and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones sent in his choice from below deck on his yacht. Scenes of both men went viral because of their backdrops, and a record 15.6 million people watched the first round despite its teleconference feel.
The 2020 NFL draft was very different from the glossy production that the league has become used to hosting. Since 2015, the three-day event has grown from a staid broadcast to a multi-location football festival with musical performances. The event last year was supposed to culminate with an extravagant display in Las Vegas, where drafted players would be ushered by boat to a stage floating in the fountain outside the Bellagio Hotel & Casino. That plan was moved to 2022.
The NFL announced Monday that the coming draft, slated to take place from April 29 to May 1, will be a bridge between the league’s recent extremes. Goodell will once again announce selections from a stage, this time in Cleveland, and team personnel will once again be allowed to work from so-called war rooms, as long as they follow local health guidelines. ESPN, ABC and the NFL Network will televise the event.
This version of the annual spectacle will marry the ceremony of the league’s recent drafts with the socially distanced production elements from last season. Some rookies will still participate virtually from their homes, while mask and distancing requirements will be in place for those on site in Cleveland. The NFL did not immediately respond to a request for comment about how many prospects will be in Cleveland, or about whether health protocols will prevent the bear hugs between draftees and Goodell that have been a hallmark of the event.
The draft will be the NFL’s first public event since Super Bowl LV, which took place with a hybrid attendance model in Tampa, Florida. There, 22,000 fans — a relatively large number in the pandemic era but the lowest attendance ever for the event — watched in person, following masks and social-distancing measures, at Raymond James Stadium as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs.
The prospect of a celebratory championship, or even completing a full season, had been in doubt in March 2020. But despite outbreaks at team facilities and the slew of schedule changes that resulted, the NFL played all 256 regular-season games and a full playoff slate within the confines of the season’s planned start and end dates. From August through the end of the playoffs, 262 players and 463 team personnel, or 0.08%, contracted the coronavirus. Those statistics, along with a steady decline of infections and loosened local restrictions across the country, allowed some of the league’s teams to raise permitted attendance levels at games as the season progressed.
Goodell will announce picks from an outdoor stage near Lake Erie, and invited fans from all 32 teams will watch from a nearby theater. Those fans must be fully vaccinated, according to a statement released by the league Monday. Entertainers, coordinated by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, will also perform at the main stage.
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