In less than one week, thousands of people will descend upon Cleveland for the 2021 NFL Draft. Despite the uncertainty over the past year about hosting events during COVID-19, the city of Cleveland is ready to host another high-caliber sporting event.
Over the past 20 years, the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission has helped to bring in more than 200 major sporting events to Cleveland, including the 2007 NCAA Women’s Final Four basketball tournament and 2019 Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
The Cleveland Jewish News spoke with David Gilbert, who is president and CEO of both the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission and Destination Cleveland, about the NFL Draft. Gilbert, a Solon resident, is a member of Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights and Pepper Pike, and he and his team were the driving force behind delivering the NFL Draft to Northeast Ohio.
CJN: When did you start your efforts to bring the NFL Draft to Cleveland.
Gilbert: Probably around 2017 or so. I think that’s kind of when the draft really had gotten on our radar, and a lot of other cities, that it was becoming a much larger and live event. We had actually sent some folks to go see the draft, and what it might entail. The first big bid process that we ended up getting involved in would have started in probably the latter part of 2017.
CJN: What was the process like?
Gilbert: There were initially 22 NFL cities bidding for three years of the event. And it was a long process of a very large, detailed bid. They invited a certain number of those cities to come to New York and present to dozens of people. They narrowed down further to site visits. They picked the first two years, we were not among them. We went back to New York, and met with them again and tried to show them a different vision that we had for the event. And ultimately, we were successful in being awarded that third year, but it was a very l ong, detailed and sort of arduous process.
CJN: Why do you think the NFL chose Cleveland to host this signature event?
Gilbert: I think they chose Cleveland because we really proved in so many different ways that events could be successful here. Everything from our history of putting on major events, everything from having incredible partners with our sports commission, the Browns, and many other organizations who’ve been pivotal and make this successful. Our ability to raise the funds to fulfill the community obligations. I think they trusted that we would be great partners.
CJN: How has Cleveland become such a hot spot for high-caliber sporting events?
Gilbert: I think over the past 15 years or so, it really picked up. A lot of it is about earning a reputation and maintaining a permeability to make sure that our community can successfully manage these kinds of events. Our goal is that any event that comes to Cleveland is more successful here than it is anywhere else. And we’ve really built an organization and community infrastructure around the ability to do that.
CJN: What makes an event successful?
Gilbert: We’ve built a very large suite of elements that we can bring to the table to make an event better, and it’s really important for us in our process to find out how that organization defines success. How the NFL would define success is very different than how USA Wrestling might define success. They’re really across the board. It could be attendance, it could be media, it could be an ability to hold an event in a cost effective manner, it could be the number of participants.
CJN: Why is it important for Cleveland to host events like the NFL Draft?
Gilbert: It’s really three things. I think No. 1 is economics. It’s become one of the largest attended sporting events in America. The number of out-of-town attendees, even in this COVID year, compared to other events, is enormous, and that simply means significant dollars. Those dollars translate into jobs, those dollars translate into tax revenue. Two is, part of the job is to enhance the image and perception of Cleveland. This has also become not just one of the most attended, but one of the most watched sporting events in America. Last year’s draft had 55 million viewers. The NFL does a terrific job of incorporating the essence of the host community into its events. For everybody who tunes in to watch the draft, not only are they going to know it’s in Cleveland, but they’re going to see an amazing Cleveland. That translates into more people wanting to visit, wanting to live here, wanting to invest here, all kinds of things. The third reason is, it’s important for Cleveland to continue to enhance our own self image and continue to make Clevelanders feel great about their own city. That had a lot of importance in kinds of different ways. Clevelanders not only know that we were chosen to do this, but that we can successfully do this and be proud that the world is watching us.
CJN: How much money will be pumped into the community because of this event?
Gilbert: We don’t know yet, but we will know not long afterwards. Based on the history of the event, we would normally think it’d be probably somewhere in the $100 to $120 million in direct spending. So, economic impact is actually even above and beyond that, because of multipliers, and media effects, and so on. In this COVID year, it will be significantly less, but we don’t know how much less . We’re still going to have a very large number of out-of-market visitors, but we probably won’t know until maybe 60 days afterward what that economic impact was.
CJN: How many guests are you expecting?
Gilbert: Well into the tens of thousands. But the final number of attendees, as COVID is changing, hasn’t completely been finalized. Nashville (hosted the last in-person event in 2019) estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people a day at the draft. Now that wasn’t all unique. Some people may have attended one, two or all three days. It was in the hundreds of thousands, maybe 200,000 unique individuals. That certainly will not be the case this year, but it will still be fairly high. What we do know is we’re seeing hotels, restaurants, retail that have been starved during COVID, those travel tourism related businesses, are going to have the best week they’ve had in the last 14 months.