The annual NFL Draft is here, having descended last night upon Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, where it will continue over the next two days. (It’s the first time in its 51-year history that the event isn’t being held in New York.) There's been a lot of discussion over the actual importance of the NFL Draft as a televised event. Some find it sentimental and exciting, where athletes’ childhood dreams are fulfilled and fans are given a bit of unsullied optimism; others say the event is overblown, boring, and unnecessary. What you can’t argue with, though, are the numbers: This three-day hoopla, which draws thousands of athletes, families, fans, and media personnel, is a financial and infrastructural burden on its host city.
As revealed by a letter from the league to Choose Chicago, a non-profit tourism agency that is helping organize the draft, this burden is primarily the result of the royal welcome that Chicago is providing the NFL—a welcome that will surely end up costing the Windy City money.
While the draft takes place over just 72 hours, the NFL requested three weeks' free use of the historic Auditorium Theatre, which usually hosts the Joffrey Ballet. Thirteen hotels in Chicago have “preferential rates” and/or reserved rooms for prospective players and NFL staff. The league insists on blocking off portions of Wabash Avenue, Congress Parkway, and Grant Park, in addition to “free parking at draft venues and free police escorts for prospective draft picks and NFL ‘dignitaries,’” writes Jared S. Hopkins, who reported on this for the Chicago Tribune in February.
The NFL, and sports teams in general, have a tarnished history of costing their communities more money than they’re worth.
While there’s no way to know for sure whether the NFL’s requests were met, Choose Chicago said in February that it would need to raise $4 million to cover the costs, leading the Tribune to deem it "the priciest draft ever by far.” (Data on previous drafts' cost is not readily available.) City officials insist that taxpayer money will not be used for the draft, yet that's no consolation for students at Roosevelt University, who are upset that their school is spending their already limited funds on an event that also happens to be closing a majority of the campus' buildings during finals week. This has led some students to protest what they call the “prioritization of corporate greed over students’ needs.”
The NFL, and sports teams in general, have a tarnished history of costing their communities more money than they’re worth. There have been numerous studies on the literal and figurative costs of playing host to a professional sports stadium. A review of such studies by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that “the rate of return a city or metropolitan area receives for its investment [in a stadium] is generally below that of alternative projects. In addition, evidence suggests that cities and metro areas that have invested heavily in sports stadiums and arenas have, on average, experienced slower income growth than those that have not.”
Special events like the NFL Draft are particularly damaging to cities, according to Allen Sanderson, a University of Chicago economist who specializes in sports. "[These events] are basically economic monopolies that have a product to sell,” Sanderson told the Chicago Tribune, “and they can use that substantial market power to extract dollars from cities because they bid against each other.”
So as the NFL draft blows through the Windy City, don't expect much good to be left in its wake.