NASHVILLE, Tenn. — You could call the Tennessee Titans‘ April 4 uniform unveiling a test — the team, along with the city of Nashville, was curious just how interested the public would be in seeing new uniforms revealed outside on a 40-degree Wednesday night in the middle of the offseason. They found that, as Steelers receiver Antonio Brown says, “Business is always booming.”
Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk beamed with pride, looking out at the seemingly endless rows of people dancing shoulder to shoulder down lower Broadway Street that night, and proudly proclaimed: “I am blown away by this. Nashville needs to host the NFL draft.”
Now Nashville is just a few days away from learning if the NFL selected it to host the 2019 or 2020 NFL draft. A decision is expected to be announced at the league meetings in Atlanta (May 22-23). Sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that Nashville is the “leading contender” for the 2019 draft, and would be the favorite for the 2020 draft in the unlikely event it doesn’t get 2019.
Las Vegas, Cleveland/Canton, Denver and Kansas City are the other candidates. Nashville reps are “cautiously optimistic” about their chances, conservatively putting their odds at better than 50-50.
There were NFL reps at the uniform unveiling, and they passed info to decision-makers about the event’s success. One of those NFL reps told ESPN that the league wants the Nashville event to be the standard for future uniform unveilings. Another NFL source said the uniform unveiling positively impacted Nashville’s chances to host the draft. A win-win for all involved.
Butch Spyridon, CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., is the point man for all Nashville events. He said his biggest surprise didn’t come from the 20,000 people in attendance April 4, but how many people came two hours early to party and stood outside in the cold for four hours. Always pitching, Spyridon shot a text to NFL senior vice president of events Peter O’Reilly: “20K, not bad for a fashion show.” Spyridon believes hosting the draft would be at least 10 times bigger.
“It’ll be like the Titans’ uniform unveiling on steroids,” Spyridon said. “We’re the perfect location for the draft. The brand, the destination, the convenience of our downtown and location of the stadium, the star power that can help promote it and be part of the entertainment.”
ESPN spoke with reps from the city of Nashville, the Titans, the NFL and other sources involved in the process to get a glimpse inside Nashville’s bid. Here’s what we found out:
‘We’re going to do it big’
The NFL doesn’t want a buttoned-up draft. Throughout the process, the league has repeatedly said it wants the host city to “reinvent the wheel” — to make it a fun event that takes on the personality of its host city. Nashville/Titans reps’ ears perked up at that, because they feel it drastically increases the city’s chances.
Nashville would embrace everything that makes the city special — music, honky-tonks, a convenient downtown with a nearby stadium, and maybe even the Nashville Predators‘ catfish tradition. The city could land A-list performers from multiple music genres, especially country stars.
Imagine a big draw (Carrie Underwood? Justin Timberlake? Tim McGraw and Faith Hill? Chris Stapleton? Keith Urban? Brad Paisley? Blake Shelton? Thomas Rhett?) gracing the stage before, during and after the 2019 draft. With hundreds of thousands partying, enjoying live music and drinking at Broadway honky-tonks, restaurants and sports bars. All of this could be a reality next April 25-27.
“At one point, the NFL folks said music never really worked very well with our audience. I looked at them and said, ‘You’ve never done it in Nashville,'” Spyridon said. “We’re not going to do it without music. We’re going to do it big. We could do it in a real fun, cool way.”
Nashville came to the Titans (and then the NFL) in 2011 and 2013 with a desire to host the draft, but the idea didn’t go far. Once the league opened up the bidding, Nashville worked with the Titans to convince the league to include it. Nashville made the first cut to 17 cities, and then the five-city short list.
The NFL made the process to get a bid considerably harder than it was for Chicago (2016) and Philadelphia (2017). The contending cities were invited to New York to present in late November and early December. The NFL visited Nashville two or three times and held weekly calls with all five cities. Emails were frequent. The New York Times reported in April that Spyridon figures it will cost about $3 million to host the draft, but visitors would spend between $5 million and $10 million.
“The league doesn’t want to make a mistake. Part of the convincing is that you won’t make a mistake with this city,” Spyridon said. “We’re the smallest market of the five standing, so we have more to prove. We have the most character. We play above the rim; we have to hustle because we’re shorter than everyone else.”
Nashville in the national spotlight
Nashville prefers 2020, citing a better fit for minor logistical reasons, but the city told the NFL it won’t be picky. Having enough hotel rooms for 2019 was a hiccup midway through the process, but the city worked with its clients and hotels to achieve the capacity needed to host the draft.
On the Titans’ side, Steve Underwood (president and CEO), Stuart Spears (senior vice president and chief revenue officer) and Burke Nihill (vice president and general counsel) have been the go-to resources. Spyridon and NFL reps also lauded the role Strunk played in the process. Landing the event would be a major win for Nashville but maybe a bigger win for a talented and ascending small-market Titans team that would have the national spotlight that weekend.
Nashville and the Titans sent reps to the Philadelphia and Dallas drafts to see how things were done. The events were completely different, which confirmed the NFL’s personality criteria.
“In 2019, we can blow this thing up, following Dallas indoors in the stadium. It’d be a 180-degree turn,” Spyridon said. “New York is the gold standard, but New York is an event. Dallas is an event. Nashville is a party. You’re going to know that you were going to be in Nashville and you’re going to have a good time.”
The Nashville team felt Las Vegas was its biggest competitor because of its resources, but the feeling from multiple people involved in the process is that Las Vegas (the Raiders are expected to arrive in 2020) and Cleveland/Canton (the NFL’s centennial celebration year) were likely to be top candidates for 2020. Denver seemed to be more ideal for 2019 and Kansas City was open.
If Nashville does get the 2019 bid, credit the NFL for buying into a strong pitch, embracing a party/music-centered draft and loving Nashville’s convenient downtown location and proximity to other NFL cities.
Nashville has four main goals if it lands the draft:
Build an event that locals want to attend and will make them proud.
Get fans from nearby markets to attend — Atlanta, Indianapolis and Cincinnati are all within a four-hour drive. (Reportedly 63 percent of the 250,000-plus fans in Philly for the 2017 draft were from out of town.)
Convince top draft prospects to come to Nashville for draft weekend. (One of the NFL’s big focus points is increasing the attendance of big-name prospects.)
Top 400,000 in online app registrations for fans wanting to be in the actual draft theater. (Dallas had 400,000 fans register to attend the draft.)
Spyridon said the city encouraged the NFL to use the Ascend Amphitheater for the draft theater, Nissan Stadium (home of the Titans) and its parking lot area against the Shelby Bridge for the fan experience, and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center for the team war room/team desk. Music City Center convention hall was also presented as a potential option. Spyridon also suggested that Broadway Street and First Avenue, which is full of honky-tonks and includes nearby Bridgestone Arena, be a big part of draft weekend.
Ultimately, the NFL will create its own event based on the potential locations provided.
A Nashville draft would certainly be unique, and it’d be nothing short of a big party.