NFL draft’s best host yet? Detroit raised the bar in 2024

NFL draft’s best host yet? Detroit raised the bar in 2024


DETROIT – Now that is how you stage an NFL draft.

The city of Detroit put its best foot forward in hosting the NFL’s signature offseason event, drawing a record crowd of 275,000 for the first round on Thursday and poised to break the cumulative record of 600,000 for the three-day event downtown that wraps up on Saturday.

Sure, we may have had a preview of the rabid interest in these parts as the long-suffering yet immensely passionate Lions fanbase became central to the storyline last season of the revival of one of the NFL’s oldest franchises.

The draft, though, took it to a new level.

Which fuels a most-relevant question: When will the NFL bring the draft back to Detroit?

“You know, we don’t make predictions about that,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told USA TODAY Sports. “You have so many interested cities and competition.”

In other words, despite surpassing the attendance marks set by Nashville in 2019, the Motor City will have to get back in line to land another draft.

The bidding for the draft now resembles the bids the NFL draws for awarding Super Bowls. Since the NFL moved the draft out of New York following the 2014 event, Chicago is the only city to claim the event twice, in 2015 and 2016.

Beyond next year, when Green Bay will become the ninth location to host the draft, the NFL has yet to award drafts. So, the earliest that Detroit could host another draft is 2026.

“I was with the Mayor of Green Bay (on Thursday),” Detroit mayor Mike Duggan told USA TODAY Sports, referring his counterpart, Eric Genrich. “We’re going to help them to it next year and we’ll go from there.”

Last year, Duggan was in Kansas City for the draft. As Goodell put it, Duggan said, “Look at that. How are we going to do that?”

Well, Detroit did it even better, with the draft footprint covering a significant part of downtown. The “Draft Theatre” stage was constructed in Campus Martius Park while the league’s theme venue, the “Draft Experience” was situated near the Detroit Riverfront. With road closures, the corridor allowed for ample foot traffic that accessed entertainment venues, exhibits, bars, restaurants and pop-up stores.

Bottom line, Detroit raised the bar for staging the event. In addition to the contingent from Green Bay, there were representatives from nine cities in Detroit observing the NFL’s operations as they consider the potential for bidding on future drafts.

It’s a strong alternative for cities that would be hard-pressed to win a bid to host a Super Bowl.

“I think the beauty of this is that every community does it in their own style and then they raise the bar,” Goodell said.

In addition to the fans, Goodell said he was most impressed with the “teamwork” of the public-private partnership that existed in the six years since Detroit began its pursuit of the event.

“I think it really demonstrated the great things that are happening here in Detroit,” Goodell said. “Really proud to be here.”

During the 1990s, Duggan was chairman of the stadium authority that led to the construction of Ford Field, the Lions’ home stadium, and Comerica Park, home of MLB’s Tigers.

“We talked about these kinds of days,” Duggan said.

With the Pistons and the Red Wings housed at Little Caesar’s Arena, a short walk from Comerica Park and Ford Field, Duggan notes that Detroit is the only city in the nation with all four major sports franchises with homes downtown. The Lions came back from Pontiac; the Pistons returned from suburban Auburn Hills.

“We always believed it had this kind of potential,” Duggan said. “It’s great to see it become reality.”

The next big sporting event in Detroit is ticketed for 2027, when the Final Four, the men’s college basketball championship, will be held at Ford Field. Duggan said that the city, which currently has an estimated 5,000 hotel rooms downtown, will be better positioned to bid on events as ground will be broken soon on a hotel adjacent to the convention center.

The opening night of the draft, though, allowed the mayor to bask.

“I just kept looking back at the crowd,” said Duggan, who joined the legendary Barry Sanders on stage on Friday night to announce the selection of the Lions’ second-round pick, Missouri cornerback Ennis Rakestraw, Jr.  “It was special.”

That much can be said about the draft experience in more ways than one.

On top of the buzz in downtown Detroit with the attendance figures, the NFL draft again pulled in the viewers. WIth broadcasts on ABC, ESPN, ESPN Deportes, the NFL Network and digital channels, the league reported its highest first-round viewership since 2021 with an average audience of 12.1 million, which was up 6% from the first round in 2023.

That’s a higher viewership than the 2023 NBA Finals (11.5 million), the recent Masters tournament (9.6 million) and the 2023 World Series (9.1 million).

And even better for the NFL, people watched and they showed up on the streets of the Motor City.

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