CLEVELAND — For football fans, the NFL draft is all about the pick and the players.
For Cleveland’s civic leaders, it’s all about the visibility and visitors.
Thursday's draft in Cleveland follows nearly two years of planning and promises of unrivaled fan fun and an economic windfall of $100 million or more. The event may be the closest Cleveland ever comes to hosting a Super Bowl (we would need a covered stadium or better weather).
"It's going to be incredibly cool for the tens of thousands of people who will be here, locals and out of towners," said David Gilbert, CEO of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, which is largely responsible for getting the NFL Draft here. "We're going to be watched by 50 million viewers around the country. They are going to see Cleveland unlike before."
The NFL Draft has been growing each year since the league moved it from New York in 2015. Cities bid against each other to host the event, and Cleveland’s pitch was accepted in 2019, though an earlier Cleveland proposal that included a partnership with Canton – home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame – failed.
The pandemic nixed last year's NFL Draft spectacle for fans in Las Vegas, and until just months ago threatened to limit Cleveland’s experience. But declining COVID-19 cases and the relaxing of health restrictions in Ohio opened up more options. Cleveland's event space along the lakefront, from FirstEnergy Stadium to North Coast Harbor and south to public malls, also provide a large open space to allow fans to spread out.
"It's not elbow-to-elbow as far as the eye can see," Gilbert told 3News during a recent tour of the site. "But because we have such a great footprint, there'll be a lot of people. In fact, we're very lucky because we have such a large footprint. It is allowing for a lot of people to be here and for a draft experience portion where people can flow into more than a half million square feet of outdoor space."
What it's costing the city
The price of this party is in the millions, though a breakdown of the exact costs is hard to tackle. The NFL won't disclose what it spends to stage the event, televised to more than 45 million people.
The sports commission and community promised to cover between $5.5-$6 million. While that was raised largely through private donations, public dollars and in-kind contributions are included, says Gilbert.
"We don't write the NFL check," he explained. "It's all things that the community provides. Rent...safety and security and marketing and signage and lots of different stuff. I haven't seen [the NFL's] numbers, but it's tens of millions of dollars that the NFL spends in their production."
A copy of the agreement between the sports commission and city of Cleveland obtained by 3News through a public records request offers some insight into local costs. (You can read it below.) Cleveland is allowing the NFL to use the harbor and the malls for free, but the city wants tens of thousands of dollars from the sports commission for adding barricades and the use of parking. Additionally, the document says the commission should reimburse the city's parking and streets division nearly $77,000. An email from City Hall to 3News updated that figure, putting it at a little more than $100,000.
The contract says Cleveland is seeking reimbursement for an estimated $400,000 for police and security related issues. It also details how the commission must replace trees cut down to make room for the stage.
Last year, to open up the lakefront, the city spent $1 million to raze two old warehouses it planned to remove for future development. The sports commission says the NFL Draft, next year's NBA All-Star Game and other one-time events make such investments worth it.
"These events collectively will mean somewhere between $200 million and $400 million in new direct spending into the city," Gilbert claimed.
Gilbert said the commission launched a fundraising campaign several years ago called "Velocity" to raise money – about $15 million – from private sources to cover the cost of hosting the 2019 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, the 2022 NBA All-Star Game, the NFL draft and the NCAA Women's Final Four in 2024. He said the campaign is about 10% short of its goal.
Sports economists often question economic impact projections, arguing boosters and their studies fail to tally the true cost to taxpayers, follow spending that ends up in out-of-town corporations like hotel chains or account for money that would have been spent on entertainment here anyway.
"My rule of thumb: Take whatever number that commission study gives you or the sponsoring event and move the decimal point one to the left, and it's pretty close," Allen Sanderson an economist at the University of Chicago, said. "Is it a benefit? Yes. Is it a big benefit? No."
Sanderson said he has the studied economic impact of the NFL Draft in Chicago and other sports events around the country.
"Not that many people stay in hotels for the NFL draft," he said. "If I come in to Cleveland and stay in the Sheraton and spend a couple of hundred dollars on a hotel room, not much of that two hundred dollars stays in Cleveland. That may be where I swipe my credit card, but it actually leaves Cleveland immediately."
Gilbert said the sports commission looks closely at direct spending and focuses on out-of-towners who spend money here.
"Look, I would tell you, somebody who's driving in from Mansfield, that counts for us," he said. "That's not money that would have been in Cuyahoga County, for instance. But, yes, anybody local doesn't count, and that doesn't include multipliers. We also talk about the trickle down effect of the dollars for us, what we count is direct spend."
Gilbert said the commission has hired a consultant to study the impact.
"We're having a third-party research study done, but it's looking very promising compared to what we thought it might be even just a few months ago," he said.