I had the opportunity to attend the NFL Draft in Kansas City, Missouri last month, and while I overall enjoyed the experience I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed by the draft itself. The league has room to improve on the in-person aspect of the event but it might take only a few tweaks to satisfy both die-hard and casual fans.
Otherwise, I am probably never going to attend another NFL Draft because fans who are actually there are missing out on most of what makes watching the NFL Draft so exciting in the first place.
I had almost no expectations walking up the National WWI Museum and Memorial lawn to the massive crowd of people—estimates indicate that around 312,000 fans were in attendance over the weekend. Admission was free, as you only had to download the NFL OnePass app to register. Doors opened as soon as noon Thursday and Friday with the actual draft slated for 7:00 and 6:00, respectively. Fans scanned the app upon entry and at each attraction within the draft experience.
Our cameras were rolling all afternoon as as fans flowed onto the north lawn of the National World War I Museum and Memorial ahead of opening night of the 2023 NFL Draft. #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/eR2EPWHyjS— KSHB 41 News (@KSHB41) April 27, 2023
The draft experience allows fans the opportunity to test their mettle as a prospect, competing in the same events that you’d see at the NFL scouting combine or pro days:
- 40-yard dash
- Vertical jump
- Field goal kick
- Hail mary passing
Current NFL players ran alongside participants of the 40-yard dash, which seemed to be one of the main features. Derrick Henry and Saquon Barkley blazed across the LED screen while the amateur prospects raced towards a hefty wall of padding.
As expected the lines were long for each of the activities. NFL+ subscribers were able to obtain a wristband that allowed them to “fast pass” through the lines—moving into a separate, shorter queue more so than skipping the line in its entirety.
There were also smaller but just as entertaining attractions that featured much smaller lines. The YouTube TV Sunday Ticket booth was a faux draft stage where fans could hold up the jersey of their favorite team as if they just heard their name called by the commissioner. The Little Caesars Pizza!Pizza! Perfect Pass was a high-end Pop-A-Shot game where former players also made the rounds throughout the weekend.
- Draft Stage Presented by Sunday Ticket
- Little Caesars Pizza!Pizza! Perfect Pass
- Championship rings from all 56 Super Bowls
- Kansas City Chiefs three Lombardi Trophies
Oversized replica helmets for each team lined the paved road through the experience, and across from them were the “Look Like a Pro” body-cast molds where fans could stand in and appear like they were wearing the full uniform of their favorite franchise. Both were great photo opportunities for individuals and families alike.
While the attractions skewed to a younger audience, there was still plenty to do for the 21+ crowd. The Bud Light Backyard bar was inside the general admission viewing area for the draft stage atop the hill overlooking KC’s historic Union Station. Crown Royal’s Block Party offered samples of their new canned cocktails along with a live DJ. The Barefoot Wine Bar was a fine alternative for all the non-beer drinkers at the event. There was also a row of restaurants that hosted a number local Kansas City eateries and a wealth of barbeque options.
KC Culture takes centerstage at the #NFLDraft today!— KC Sports Commission (@SportKC) April 29, 2023
Celebrate by sampling the best BBQ from more than 10 local pitmasters at the Draft Experience on the North Lawn of the National WWI Museum and Memorial!
➡️ https://t.co/HYnM2UBA84 pic.twitter.com/F0o6KtbiqC
Overall the NFL Draft attractions were enjoyable, especially for those who brought their family. There was something for everyone, and even just spectating the prospect challenges like the field goal kicking or 40-yard dash left you with some lasting memories. The mid-day activities seemed to overshadow the viewing experience of the draft itself, and the NFL has some work to do on that end. If the league wants to enhance the in-person draft, they can take solace in the idea that it will only take a few tweaks to make the event better for everyone in attendance.
Why the draft fell short and left fans wanting more
I grew up watching the event held at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City year after year, watching fans agonize over ill-fated picks and others celebrating a new sense of optimism. In 2015 the league packed up and relocated to Chicago—Philadelphia, Arlington, Nashville, Cleveland, and Las Vegas have also served as host cities.
Most of the host cities have closed streets and had fans pile in close to the stage; however, in Kansas City there was only a select “invite-only” area in front of the stage with the general admission area far back on the hill above Union Station. Prospects on the stage looked more like ants than human beings, and this was especially true for the first overall selection—Bryce Young (5-10, 194 lbs.).
The crowd for the NFL Draft in KC pic.twitter.com/109X7oTlLr— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) April 28, 2023
Overall I would describe the draft as a cover band concert where they stop playing music to announce a selection and then quickly resume. The bottom line is that you’re better informed watching from your couch at home, which waters down the in-person experience. There’s no analysis or highlights showing the players—it’s just views from the green room showing them walking out on stage with brief interviews afterward.
The crowd was also so condensed that most cellular connections were overwhelmed. Die hard fans couldn’t get real time information on trades or insight into players, and casual fans missed the personal stories that make the draft appealing to a wide range of people. It’s particularly disappointing because this was an exciting year for the draft that included some spectacular moments such as the Houston Texans trading back up for the third selection after picking second.
How the NFL can improve the in-person experience for 2024 and beyond
I would be weary of re-creating the broadcast and emulating the draft show you see on TV, as the NFL should seek a separate viewing experience for fans that attend in person—otherwise you might as well stay at home.
A good starting point would be an analyst desk to announce the details of trades as they happen, provide real time breakdowns on selections and profiles of players, cover the personal stories that make each prospect unique, and help build hype or occasionally serve as the emcee. Fans don’t travel from around the country to hear a cover band play music at an overwhelming volume. Don’t make them suffer through mediocre renditions of Lizzo and Journey.
I only attended the first round on Thursday night but originally planned to attend on Friday as well (it was all I could handle). There’s a very good chance that after the first 10 picks most fans don’t recognize the names being called, and not informing them or helping create lasting connections to the players is simply a lost opportunity for the NFL. I imagine on Saturday most people in attendance found the attractions much more appealing than watching unfamiliar names be dryly announced. The north lawn seemed fairly empty throughout the final day.
There’s not much you can do to shorten lines with a crowd 300,000+ people over a few days, but the draft event itself is completely within the league’s realm of control. Improvements are needed in order to create an atmosphere worth attending instead of getting a better experience at at home—and the silver lining is that it wouldn’t take much for the NFL to get there.
My personal experience at the draft probably means that I’m one and done—I got my fill in only a single night. Missing out on trade details and insight into how certain players fit with their new team gave me more FOMO than being absent from one of the biggest events that Kansas City has ever hosted.
Some fixtures of draft town so far:— Jack Soble (@jacksoble56) April 27, 2023
- Touch throwing setup where you can throw around Willie Gay, Trent McDuffie and Justin Reid
- Great view of the WWI Memorial
- Field goal kicking
- So, so many local BBQ stands @CoMoSports pic.twitter.com/7Pmtik5wqg