BEREA — Music City, Sin City … Browns Town.
The NFL Draft — the league’s biggest offseason event — is coming to Cleveland in 2021.
After being a finalist but coming up short in their quest to host the 2019 and ’20 drafts — given to Nashville, Tenn., and Las Vegas — the bid by the Browns and the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission was chosen for 2021, Commissioner Roger Goodell announced Wednesday afternoon at the owners meetings in Key Biscayne, Fla.
“Cleveland has a passionate fan base and the city offers distinctive iconic locations and attractions that will bring the NFL Draft experience to fans in unique and exciting ways,” Goodell said.
The 86th NFL Draft will include free celebrations for fans at locations around FirstEnergy Stadium, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the lakefront. The exact locations and dates haven’t been finalized, but the three-day draft is traditionally held the last weekend of April, so April 29-May 1 is likely.
“It will certainly utilize a number of different downtown venues,” said Greater Cleveland Sports Commission president and CEO David Gilbert, who added it will probably take a year to finalize the venues but they will be primarily outdoors. “It will feature a lot with the lakefront, the malls. It will be centered all around downtown.
“It has become not just a theater and television event but a major festival.”
The event will also feature the NFL Draft Experience — a large free football festival for all three days. Cleveland will hold a news conference Thursday afternoon at 3, with fans invited for a free tailgate event on Public Square.
The Browns played their inaugural season in 1946, so they will be celebrating their 75th anniversary throughout 2021.
“Dee and I and JW (Johnson) want to thank our fellow owners in the NFL for having confidence in our organization, the city of Cleveland,” owner Jimmy Haslam said at the announcement in Florida. “It’s a big, big deal to our area, one of the founding areas of the NFL, and we look forward to hosting the draft.”
Nashville hosted in April, and Las Vegas is up next spring as it welcomes the Raiders from Oakland. Northeast Ohio will have the difficult assignment of following two of America’s biggest party cities, but Browns guard Joel Bitonio has no doubt it’s up to the challenge.
“We have truly die-hard football fans in this part of the country, and I think they’d come over from all over the Midwest, but Ohio’s a good base to be like, hey, this is what football’s about, kinda where football came from,” he said Wednesday after an organized team activities practice. “And it’d be an awesome week, that would be for sure.”
Cleveland is an eight-hour drive from 13 NFL markets.
“We are going to do it our way,” Gilbert said when asked about following Las Vegas. “We don’t feel that we have to create something, trying to pretend that Cleveland is something else. We have a great city, and it going to show incredibly well for the people who are here.”
Canton, the Hall of Fame city, was part of bids for the 2019 and ’20 drafts but not this one. It will have a role, but the separate locations didn’t work for the NFL.
The Browns and Cleveland kept bidding because of the importance of football in the area and the economic benefits the draft can bring. Goodell said this year’s event in Nashville had a $224 million impact on the city.
Gilbert said the impact for Cleveland “certainly would be $100 million.”
“We are incredibly honored to be able to showcase the City of Cleveland and the passion of Browns fans through the unique international platform the NFL Draft provides,” the Haslams said in the news release. “This is an exceptional opportunity for Northeast Ohio that even extends beyond football.”
Mayor Frank G. Jackson touted the city’s “unmatched” ability to provide “Midwestern warmth and hospitality” along with the amenities of other major cities.
“We look forward to hosting the Draft and once again showcasing Cleveland’s ability to organize successful, world-class events,” he said in the news release.
Gilbert said the draft will provide Cleveland with international media exposure. More than 47.5 million television viewers watched the 2019 draft.
“We look forward to showing NFL fans across the nation how Cleveland throws a party,” he said.
For the past two decades, as the Browns consistently picked inside the top 10, the draft had been Cleveland’s Super Bowl. It was the highlight of the year, filled with hope of a turnaround that felt like it might never come.
The reversal of fortunes seems to be in progress, as the Browns are considered Super Bowl contenders heading into 2019 with quarterback Baker Mayfield, receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and defensive end Myles Garrett leading the charge.
If the Browns fulfill their potential and become playoff participants the next two seasons, that would diminish the emphasis on the draft.
It wouldn’t reduce the excitement of the event for the region and across the league. Nashville set an attendance record with a combined 600,000 people over the three days, according to the NFL
New York hosted the draft from 1965-2014, the final nine years at Radio City Music Hall. Since leaving there, it’s stopped in Chicago, Philadelphia and Dallas before Nashville.
Browns cornerback Denzel Ward, a Northeast Ohio native who attended Nordonia High School, thinks the draft in Cleveland will surpass Nashville in size.
“I definitely believe so,” he said. “For it to come to Cleveland, that would be huge for the city. Everybody should come out and just enjoy that process.”