CLEVELAND — The NFL Draft is the most made-for-TV event in an increasingly made-for-TV sport.
The league has prepared for 50,000 people to fill this city’s streets and parks over each of the next three days, making the 86th Player Selection Meeting pro football’s biggest mass gathering since the pandemic began.
Of course, basically none of the actual action will take place here in Northeast Ohio.
The teams these throngs of out-of-town visitors support, and the executives making those franchises’ most important decisions, won’t be anywhere near the league’s sprawling sound stage on the banks of Lake Erie.
Chris Grier and Brian Flores will be back in Davie, phoning their picks in to an on-site team rep, who will relay them on to the league.
Grier and Flores, who together have run the Miami Dolphins since 2019, pick twice in the first round Thursday, including sixth overall.
But they don’t make those picks in a vacuum.
The actions of the NFL’s 31 other teams impact them — and a big one dropped Wednesday.
The Broncos, who own the ninth pick, made a trade with the Panthers, who own the eighth, acquiring Carolina quarterback (and South Florida native) Teddy Bridgewater.
The swap might have ended any consideration Denver had of trading up for a quarterback Thursday; the Dolphins at No. 6 seemed like an obvious partner.
“Acquiring Teddy Bridgewater adds competition, experience and a strong veteran presence to our quarterback room,” Broncos general manager George Paton said in a released statement. “He’s a talented player and leader who’s had success in this league in a number of different situations. Being familiar with Teddy from Minnesota, he’s going to compete and do everything he can to help us win.”
As a result, the Dolphins might now be stuck at sixth, even if Florida tight end Kyle Pitts and LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase — widely believed to be their top two targets — are off the board.
If so, they will likely decide among receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, both of Alabama, and Oregon tackle Penei Sewell.
Expect plenty more subplots in the coming hours, upping the drama surrounding an event that produces plenty — some organically, some not.
The audacity — and even absurdity — of the weekend can only truly be appreciated in person.
NFL branding festoons most every light post in Cleveland’s downtown core.
Three signature Cleveland landmarks — FirstEnergy Stadium, the Great Lakes Science Center and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — are mere sets in this epic drama, but even they weren’t enough for King Football. So the league built an amphitheater in the middle of it all where NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will announce the 32 first-round picks Thursday, with Kings of Leon serving as the opening act.
Most of the attendees won’t be anywhere near the live entertainment, however. COVID-19 might be on the wane — particularly in Cleveland, where the infection rate is about half of what it is in South Florida — but it’s not gone. So the NFL is having most of its fans watch the night unfold on giant screens from different spots in the area, while still adhering to CDC guidelines.
“We know the pandemic is still out there and that guides our every move, but we want to be able to point to brighter days ahead,” NFL executive vice president Peter O’Reilly told reporters recently.
After a totally virutal 2020 draft, a fully-vaccinated Goodell will give out bear hugs, high-fives and shoulder bumps to the 13 players (including Pitts, Chase, Smith and Waddle) expected to attend after calling their names. But their families will be largely sequestered in individual watch areas.
“The city’s really been doing a really good job,” said Paula Timco, who traveled from her suburban Cleveland home to the city center with her husband Dennis to take in the sites Wednesday. “Most of Cleveland has done a great job with the social distancing, the mask wearing. When we’re outside, obviously, with the new regulations, you can go without a mask. They’ve done a great job of keeping things clean.”
How clean the city will be Sunday morning largely depends on the behavior of its guests.
The airport was packed with arriving football fans Wednesday and hotel rooms were scarce. Even the downtown Comfort Inn was going for nearly $300 a night beginning Thursday — more than twice the normal rate.
The event is a welcome economic bump for a city that has dealt with dueling crises: The pandemic and the population drain. Cleveland proper has seen 4 percent of its residents move out in the past decade — more than a few of them fleeing to Florida.
In other words, Cleveland’s due some good luck. We will see if the weather, which calls for rain all day Thursday but clearing skies right when the draft begins at 8 p.m., cooperates.
If not, it will make for one heck of a show.