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As NFL Draft Kicks Off, Chicago's Ready For Its Close-up

Crain’s Chicago Business, April 30, 2015

By Danny Ecker

Tonight's NFL Draft coverage will be a major commercial for the city of Chicago.

The enormous TV viewership of last year's three-day event—more than 45 million people nationwide watching ESPN and the NFL Network, approaching half the viewership of the Super Bowl—may be tough to top.

But even half of that number of eyeballs fixed on the city's skyline and the massive NFL Draft Town festival in Grant Park would be meaningful exposure that the city would otherwise pay dearly for as part of targeted ad campaigns in specific markets.

And while the costs of hosting the made-for-TV event remain under wraps per city tourism arm Choose Chicago's immunity from public records disclosure rules, showcasing the city's goods over three days is highly valuable heading into the prime tourism months.

"There's hundreds of thousands of dollars of value there," said Brad Adgate, vice president of research at New York City-based ad agency Horizon Media. "There's so much dead time in the draft. They do all this analysis and are still waiting for picks to be made. There might be some talk about Chicago, some incidental signage and mentions that these hosts can talk about . . . maybe things like eating deep-dish pizza, going to an art museum."

Measuring the real impact of the exposure is tricky. Some experts argue that announcers talking about the Windy City and showcasing its attractions coming in and out of commercial breaks don't necessarily translate into new visitors.

The notion that TV coverage of the draft will lead viewers in other cities nationwide to book a trip to Chicago "has never been substantiated by empirical evidence," said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College and author of the book "Circus Maximus," which discusses the economic gamble of cities hosting the Olympics.

Op-ed: Chicago's ROI on the NFL draft is hardly worth measuring

But the reality is that brands pay a small fortune to show ads during the draft. Advertisers for last year's coverage collectively paid around $12 million, according to media research firm Kantar Media.

A 30-second spot during a typical prime-time TV show costs around $150,000, while the same spot during NBC's "Sunday Night Football," one of the highest-rated prime-time shows on the market, costs more than $600,000, according to Adgate.

Those are dollar figures that the tourism bureau, whose entire 2015 ad budget is about $3 million, could not afford on its own dime. It also has already committed $2.2 million to its recently launched "Epic" tourism promotion campaign.


Jim Andrews, senior vice president of content strategy at Chicago-based sponsorship consulting firm IEG, said the bigger value for Chicago's perception might be that the NFL chose it in the first place.

"That, to me, is more valuable than a shot of Grant Park," he said. "The NFL is saying, 'We consider Chicago just as much of a world-class city as New York.' "

Choose Chicago spokeswoman Meghan Risch said the city tourism arm did not purchase any airtime for spots during the draft coverage, though DirecTV subscribers outside of Chicago watching the draft that "meet our travel enthusiast target criteria" could see a Chicago tourism ad.

The bureau also ran a small promotion over the past month with radio stations (mainly ESPN Radio affiliates) in 13 regional markets. Stations talked up the draft and each selected a winner at random for a VIP experience at the draft including airfare, two nights at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, restaurant gift cards and two Chicago CityPass booklets, among other prizes.

The cost of the promotion came only from putting together the prize package (ESPN affiliates were seeking such promotional content to tout the draft), but Choose Chicago estimated that the event has gotten $250,000 worth of exposure from it.


While the TV spotlight is valuable for the city, it's still unclear who is footing the bill for many aspects of the three-day event, including city permits, security and advertising, among other expenses. So we don't know—and may never fully know—the price of the exposure.

Choose Chicago CEO Don Welsh has said that no taxpayer dollars will be used to host the event but that Choose Chicago would need to raise $3 million to $4 million from its partners and sponsors to cover certain expenses, such as rent for the Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University and assorted city services.

Any shortfalls in the cost will be covered by Choose Chicago, whose $30 million budget comes from a mix of grants and hotel tax revenue.

In terms of visitors coming this weekend, Welsh has equated hosting the draft to a small to midsized convention, based on the room nights it generates. NFL employees, former players, prospects and their families are filling between 3,500 and 4,500 room nights on the busiest night of the event.

The state regularly spends millions to subsidize conventions. It can spend up to $20 million per year, an expense that convention officials justify as the price of doing business in an industry that upholds thousands of Chicago jobs and generates tens of millions of dollars in economic impact.

But unlike the real value of TV exposure, the economic benefits of the draft are a big question mark, since this is the first time it has been held outside of New York City since 1963 and the first time it has included such a sprawling fan festival.

Tracking how many people come to Chicago for the draft—and where they are from—will come mainly from NFL data. While the Draft Town festival is free to enter, anyone who wants to partake in activities like the 40-yard dash, field goal kicking, the skydiving simulator or other attractions must first register for the NFL's Fan Mobile Pass, which collects attendees' names, emails and hometowns.

That will help provide some clarity on whether the draft attracted visitor spending from outside the Chicago area or whether it only redirected money from area residents that otherwise would be spent on something else.