From football to fountains: NFL Draft embraces flavor of Sin City

LAS VEGAS -- Draft night on Thursday will include prospects walking a red carpet above the Bellagio fountains, a theater built specifically for the proceedings where they hope to hear their names called early, and the aura of gambling everywhere.

How about that for something different for the NFL?

There's no question the flavor of Sin City - from the attractions to the casinos to themed hotels to showgirls lining the players' walkway to the mountains nearby - infiltrates this draft. The league seems very pleased with that symbiosis.

"The key thing for the draft is to take on the character of where we are," said Eric Finkelstein, NFL senior director of event operations. "This is not a cookie-cutter event. We try to embody and highlight where we are."

He then noted the High Roller Ferris wheel directly in front of him and perhaps three football fields away from the theater stage where Commissioner Roger Goodell will announce the 32 picks on opening night. Finkelstein also mentioned circles on the stage emulating the famed "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign.

Construction began on April 1.

Above the stage flashed digital playing cards, each one designed for a specific NFL team. Adjacent to the theater, which will seat about 1,500 and has a footprint of about 1 million square feet, is Caesars Forum. That convention center even has an "NFL Draft Door," which the league requested during construction.

"We worked with Caesars to add a door to allow us to get the prospects out of the building with a direct connection to our theater build," said Heather Nanberg, the league's director of events.

The 2020 draft originally was scheduled for Las Vegas, but became a virtual exercise because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So 2022 was substituted, and some plans changed.

"We were supposed to do this draft two years ago in Las Vegas. So here we are two years later and have a chance to do it right," said Peter O'Reilly, Executive Vice President for the NFL.

At the Bellagio, for example, there was thought of placing the prospects on boats in the fountains to get them to the red carpet. Time constraints and weather concerns - Thursday night's forecast calls for strong wind, unusual in Vegas this time of year - canned that idea.

Should the players need to escape the heat before or after walking the carpet, though, Kelsey Pietrangelo, the NFL's manager of live event operations, joked that "we will have scuba suits if they'd like to jump in."

Indeed, there were workers in scuba gear on Tuesday making late adjustments to the stage and walkway.

"Using six divers is a first for us," she added.

Pietrangelo noted that 300 drones will circle the fountains through Friday and the fountains will be in use during the pre-draft festivities.

From the Bellagio, two billboards advertising sports betting, including one with the NFL logo on it, are in full view. As they certainly can be for the TV networks later this week. No one from the league seems uncomfortable with that scenario, instead emphasizing the importance of their "partners." Particularly Caesars Entertainment.

"We really focused on our prospect experience this year," Nanberg said, "and we are committed to Caesars Forum."

Since the league turned the draft into a road show in 2015, it has held what in some (dull) circles is called the "Selection Meeting" in Chicago for two years; Philadelphia; Arlington, Texas; Nashville; and Cleveland. The general consensus is that Music City topped the charts with its presentation, shutting down Broadway for what has been estimated as close to 600,000 attendees over the three days. Thrown in were free concerts by Tim McGraw and Dierks Bentley, plus all sort of freebies (and other enticements) at the honky tonks.

Las Vegas might top that weekend, willingly shutting down a significant portion of the Strip and offering up Weezer, Ice Cube and Marshmello in concert. But the myriad other attractions in town - music, magic, ventriloquism, the tables and slots - could scatter visitors, something that didn't occur in Tennessee.

"The picks will be made from a lot of celebrity fans. So celebrities who just love their team and come out and represent them and make the pick from the podium," O'Reilly said.

"Las Vegas is the entertainment capital of the world," Finkelstein said. "We know there are a lot of things going on in this town. They all get how to do a big event. We've gotten to towns where that was a little bit of a challenge with size. Here, they know what we are trying to achieve."

A star-studded stage also speaks to the popularity of the event in recent years.

"Having it in Vegas I think that's a smart move. That's a destination town obviously," said former Houston Texans defensive end ND Kalu, who is now an analyst for Sports Talk 790. Kalu says each year, he is reminded of his own 1997 draft class.

"You always remember the feeling you have when you hear your name called. When actually becomes official, and you get a chance to say this is the team that I'm playing for, this is one of the teams I grew up watching, it's a surreal moment," Kalu said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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