NASHVILLE — Grading any NFL draft can be challenging, and snap judgments after the last pick usually are far too positive.
Yes, Music City couldn't keep the rain away from downtown this past Thursday, opening night of the league's extravaganza of optimism. Still, closing off both the honky-tonk district on Broadway and putting out the welcome mat at the Tennessee Titans' stadium a short walk over the Cumberland River allowed Nashville to turn this year's NFL draft into a three-day football and music festival that drew rave reviews.
"To this point, hard not to give Nashville an A-plus for this draft," said Peter O'Reilly, the NFL's senior vice president of events.
Philadelphia drew a record 250,000 fans over three days for the 2017 draft, and the NFL also has taken this annual event to Chicago (twice) and the Dallas area since deciding to leave Radio Music City Hall and its longtime host city, New York, after 2014. Nashville, which first offered up a 55,000-square foot ballroom back in 2011 for the annual draft, simply smashed that attendance mark with some 600,000 spectators over three days.
"It's a testament to Titans fans, to NFL fans globally who've just embraced this draft concept and it's a testament to Nashville," O'Reilly said.
Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., sent that first email to the NFL back in 2011 and worked with Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk to land this event last May.
"Far outkicked our coverage, our dreams, our thoughts," Spyridon said. "Way bigger than anything we could've imagined."
Nashville rewrote how to host the draft itself, starting with a six-story tall stage, with several city blocks shut off to traffic. That freed fans to walk in and out of honky tonks while waiting for the next pick. A house band also played beside the stage between selections — a touch O'Reilly said likely will be a staple of future drafts.
At Nissan Stadium, fans could run a 40-yard dash, kick a football, get autographs from former and current NFL players or simply listen to music. All free except for souvenirs, food and drink; even parking at the stadium and nearby state government lots had no charge.
Country music star Tim McGraw performed for more than an hour to cap Friday night's festivities, while Dierks Bentley gave another free concert on the main draft stage to finish off festivities.
Las Vegas, next year's host, had representatives on hand studying what Nashville did, and 12 other markets had people looking for tips to improve their own bids to host: Carolina, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Green Bay, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Seattle.
Nashville had some complaints, and Spyridon said this was a learning experience dealing with each issue as quickly as possible. Nashville police made five arrests Thursday and another five Friday for public intoxication, including Houston Texans tight end Ryan Griffin for punching out a window at a hotel late Friday night.
Music City hit plenty of high notes, though, even hosting a marathon Saturday morning.
Paul McMeekin of Omaha, Nebraska, who ran the accompanying half-marathon, didn't notice Nashville was hosting the draft the same weekend as his race until about two weeks ago. He said that explained the higher Airbnb rates. He and his wife, Kelly, stopped by the draft both Thursday and Friday, and he had one word to sum up the atmosphere: "Electric."
Keith Coes wore his Vikings helmet and jersey and attended all three days. A Minnesota native who moved to Nashville in 1975, he said he booed Roger Goodell on Thursday night, then got a picture with the commissioner Friday. Coes said Music City showed the country what it does best.
"Nashville's a party town," Coes said.
Titans general manager Jon Robinson said the turnout was unbelievable, and seeing all the fans on Broadway is why he wore a hat that read "RSPCT NSHVL" when he summed up Tennessee's draft.
"I think there's a respect factor that comes with this city and this state now," Robinson said, "because we lived up to the hype."