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Volume 21 No. 6
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Teams, sponsors gear up for NFL draft

All 32 of the NFL’s teams are staging fan and sponsor events this week tied to the NFL draft, which starts Thursday night, underscoring that even during the lockout, clubs are looking to conduct business as usual.

While the sport last Wednesday was awaiting a federal judge’s decision whether to lift the six-week-old lockout — and if so, whether she would stay the move pending appeal — teams were treating this week much as they have in previous years.

In some cases, they were treating their planned events with even added urgency.

“We see the draft as a great opportunity to interact with our fans in a period of uncertainty,” said Matt Higgins, executive vice president of business operations at the New York Jets, who along with the New York Giants are opening their shared stadium Thursday night to a major fan festival.

As the draft over the last decade has mushroomed into a major spectacle and the league’s principal offseason marketing event, teams in turn have created sponsorship and fan-promotion platforms locally. Franchises design the events to communicate with fans, sell tickets and merchandise, and offer hospitality to business partners. Appearances by coaches, general managers, alumni players and cheerleaders are staples. (Houston Texans fans this year can even vote at the club’s event on the 2011 Texans cheerleader squad).

Active players have attended the events in the past, but unless the lockout is lifted, they cannot do so this week.

Despite labor uncertainty, teams are treating this week much like they have in past years.
Last year’s switch of the draft from a Saturday morning start to a Thursday night launch led some clubs to scale back slightly on their efforts, given the changed time frame. Most events are full throttle ahead, though, and many teams will stage multiple parties, geared to specific groups like suite holders or sponsors, stretching over the full draft.

The Carolina Panthers are embracing their No. 1 overall selection by opening Bank of America Stadium completely for the first time to fans, with locker room and field access. The field will be as it is on game day, down to the Gatorade coolers.

“While no team aspires to have the No. 1 pick, we are celebrating it,” said John Berger, Carolina’s director of sponsorship sales.

Twenty-three of the clubs’ principal events will occur either at or around the team’s stadium or team headquarters. Seven teams are entertaining at restaurants and bars, and of the remaining two, one is at a convention center, the other at a shopping mall.

If the lockout continues, the draft events are the closest fans will get to interact with players, even as the incoming rookies are not formally signed. Under rules of the lockout, draft picks are allowed to come to team facilities for marketing and promotional purposes but cannot have football-related contact with coaching personnel, and they must leave once the draft is over.

Most teams minimized any added significance to this year’s celebrations and said they will answer any fan lockout questions as in the past: They are expecting a season and are hoping for the best. Still, some contended that given this offseason’s turmoil, communicating with fans carries heightened importance.

“Engaging fans and season-ticket holders is as important as it has ever been because of what we are experiencing right now,” said Rich Dalrymple, spokesman for the Dallas Cowboys, who are hosting their draft event at Cowboys Stadium.

Six teams — Chicago, Kansas City, Minnesota, New England, Pittsburgh and San Francisco — will charge for their events. Chicago has the priciest offering: a $600 table for 10 that includes a gift and two parking passes. An individual pass, which includes food, costs $40.

The Chiefs are selling an $85 VIP pass that accounts for 20 percent of their draft party ticket sales, with standard tickets $18 at the door and $15 in advance. The Patriots boast the most expensive standard ticket at $65.

The 49ers, who are charging $2, are alone among the six in donating the proceeds to charity, with the funds going toward Japanese earthquake and tsunami relief.

The Steelers will waive their charge for fans who donate blood at the event.

Only three teams were promoting any draft day activities to kids — the Steelers, Texans and Panthers — and the Texans were the lone team last week touting a draft-day program for female fans.

“The Battle Red Ladies presented by State Farm will host a ‘Draft 101’ party in one of the luxury suites at Reliant Stadium,” the team announced in a press release. “The Battle Red Ladies will have the chance to learn first-hand what goes into the draft process from Texans coaches and scouts throughout the evening.”

A team-by-team look at NFL clubs' plans for the draft is here.