CLEVELAND — The Browns have had a one-sided relationship with the NFL Draft for decades. The team has needed it, and fans looked forward to it, way more than was healthy. To the point where Hollywood made the movie "Draft Day." Adults (including me) paid good money to watch a film about a sports executive who has to – and this was the dramatic part – decide something.
Only in a city that spent decades waiting for next year would they make a sports movie about the offseason.
Back when it was announced that Cleveland would host the draft in 2021, it felt like a natural but also darkly humorous fit. Northeast Ohio is the birthplace of pro football, and, hey, Browns fans, you can finally watch the team’s only meaningful annual event in person.
Then – unexpectedly – the Browns got good, a global pandemic broke out, and the draft that would have been framed as “Will the Browns screw it up in front of the home fans?” took on new significance.
Normally, it’s the Browns that desperately need the draft. This year, it’s the NFL and the city. The Browns just need a backup linebacker.
For the NFL, this event has several layers of meaning. It’s an on-ramp to a season with fuller stadiums and increasingly welcome normalcy. We used to worry that people were too obsessed with diversions like sports, but after living through a pandemic we can see that obsession for what it really is -- a blessing. You can obsess about sports when you’re not worried about whether or not Thanksgiving will put grandma on a ventilator.
This year’s draft, for the league, is also a signal, a chance to show everyone that authentic Midwesterners who do authentic Midwestern things like watch football, grill brats and express strong opinions about pickup trucks still love pro football, even as the league, and its players, publicly stake out progressive stands on social issues. That’s probably not why the NFL chose Cleveland, but it will benefit from our fervor. Cleveland is many things. It is not phony. The league will spend three days basking in the glow of that most valued of traits in our social media world – realness.
As for the city, there are two ways to view Cleveland hosting the NFL Draft in 2021 – lucky or unlucky.
The case for unlucky is this – in a normal, non-pandemic year, more tickets would be made available. More fans would come. More athletes would attend. More events would surround the festivities. More tax revenue would be generated. The city might have a Nashville moment. Remember when ESPN flew over the crowd in 2019 and the NFL Draft went from being the SNL musical act to football Coachella?
We will still have fans and events, and it will all look very good on TV, but it won’t be what it could have been.
Or maybe we got lucky. Not every city has a glossy, global event on its calendar just as the country turns the corner on the pandemic. Cleveland won’t hesitantly crawl out of the morass. It’s leaping right into living rooms – national buzz, on TV, outdoors, downtown and open for business. A large event that draws Northeast Ohio’s attention back downtown, after a host of state health orders and new social norms kept it quiet for a year, could not come at a better time.
Are we lucky or unlucky? Depends. Is it better to host a full draft when it’s a nice-to-have, or a semi-draft when it’s a need?
We used to feel nervous when Cleveland hosted large events. Something bad will happen, we told ourselves, because bad things always happen here. That seems to have passed. Cleveland has a chance to again do the one thing everyone acknowledges it does pretty well – host a large event. We’re failing or uneven in so many other areas, but we’re on a roll when it comes to inviting the world in. Here’s hoping Cleveland can pull it off one more time. The stakes are higher than anything the Browns have ever faced on draft day.