I am writing today in a suburb outside of Draft Town, which is what the National Football League is calling Chicago for the weekend.
The NFL has moved its annual draft shenanigans from New York to Chicago, and has taken over a huge area of one of the nation’s great downtowns. From inside The Loop, where the Auditorium Theatre is, straight east to the Lake Michigan lakefront and Grant Park, the NFL is honestly everywhere. You can’t find a football-free block, including those blocks where normal people are not allowed to walk because the NFL asked for them to be designated as such.
This is an amazing weekend for sports in the country, and especially in Chicago. Not only is it enjoying the NFL presence, but the Bulls are in the National Basketball Association playoffs, the Blackhawks are in the second round of the National Hockey League playoffs, the Chicago Cubs are chasing the St. Louis Cardinals for first place in the National League Central Division standings, and the Chicago White Sox just got done playing the first-ever major sporting event in front a crowd of exactly zero in Baltimore.
Meanwhile, the world awaits the Fight of the Century in Las Vegas Saturday night, and the Kentucky Derby also takes place on Saturday.
But in Chicago, and for most of the country, the NFL is what matters. It’s kind of sick, really.
The NFL this week announced that it was renouncing its tax-exempt status, a position that reminded everyone that the NFL even HAD a tax-exempt status. That special condition was granted decades ago, but became controversial when the NFL started pulling in billions upon billions as one of the most successful sports ventures in the world.
Truly, the tax-exempt status means little, because the NFL distributes most of its revenues to the 32 teams, and those teams pay taxes on what it receives. But the new taxable status means the NFL is not required by law to reveal how much its Commissioner, Roger Goodell, is making. The last two years, he has earned between $30 million and $40 million annually, by the way.
He will be in Chicago to conduct the first round of the draft, and this year it will be a little different. If it goes according to plan, the first two players in the draft – quarterbacks Jameis Winston of Florida State and Marcus Mariota of the University of Oregon – will not be on site to take that awkward walk to the stage to hug Goodell. Both have decided to stay at home to celebrate their newfound status with friends and family. The NFL probably doesn’t mind Winston’s decision, since he was expected to draw protestors related to his role in a suspected sexual assault case.
The audience in attendance at the Auditorium Theatre will be small in comparison to the hundreds of thousands who will gather to take in all of the celebration surrounding the draft. The Grant Park party includes games for kids and photo opportunities and autograph sessions and because it is the NFL, the weather for the weekend is expected to be near-glorious.
The NFL just keeps growing. This year it had a two-hour television special to announce its 2015 schedule. Most leagues just send out a press release.
Chicago is going to be the center of the NFL universe for a few days, and inside the United States, the center of the NFL universe is pretty much the center of everything.