(NEW YORK) — The 2021 NFL Draft will return to an in-person, live event after last year’s virtual presentation and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is swapping out his basement broadcast setup for a massive outdoor stage.
Hours ahead of Round 1, Goodell spoke exclusively to ABC News’ Good Morning America from Draft Theater in Cleveland, Ohio, where the festivities will commence for football’s big night.
“The thing we miss the most from the 2020 season, whether it’s a draft or our entire season and the postseason Super Bowl, were fans. We all felt the lack of energy without the fans, so this year I think we’re going to be able to have the energy of our fans and having them back which they love being here and being a part of this draft,” he said. “We’re going to be able to combine it with a lot of technology and some of the things we did to give people and our fans an inside view of our players, of the coaches, of the general managers and the inside of access that people really want from the NFL.”
As Goodell presents from the largest draft structure the NFL has ever built, 50,000 fans are expected to pour into downtown Cleveland with multiple outdoor events spread throughout the city including FirstEnergy Stadium and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Forty-five players will anxiously await the picks virtually, while 13 draft prospects will attend in-person. With Goodell fully vaccinated, bro hugs are allowed once an in-person player’s name is called and they take their stride across the stage.
“You work so hard for this opportunity. And your dream comes true and it’s an emotional moment. It’s a real privilege for me to be there and experience it with that young man and his family and to be able to see him start his career in the NFL,” Goodell said of what it means to be back in person. “So whatever happens at that moment is really up to that young man and how he feels at that particular moment, but it’s really maybe a little bit of relief, excitement — the anxiety building up to this as you wait to figure out what team you’ll play for in the NFL is tough on these kids and so this is a great moment for them tonight.”
Five players from the NCAA champion Alabama Crimson Tide will be there including quarterback Mac Jones, defensive lineman Christian Barmore, cornerback Patrick Surtain II, and receivers Jaylen Waddle and Heisman Trophy winner Devonta Smith. Other players who have accepted the in-person invite include BYU quarterback Zach Wilson, North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance, LSU wide receiver Ja’maar Chase, Miami edge rusher Gregory Rousseau, Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater, Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley, Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons and Florida tight end Kyle Pitts.
One tradition that lived on virtually was giving fans the ability to “boo” Goodell, but even he admitted, “it’s a lot better in person.”
“When you walk out on the stage and feel that, it’s great because it’s just the fans being a part of the event which is really become a tradition and I love it so I can’t wait,” he said.
The 2020 NFL season saw multiple games moved or postponed, but none were canceled and even with 600 players and staff testing positive for COVID-19 at some point, overall Goodell was impressed with what the league was able to pull off.
“I don’t think there are too many people who thought we could play a full season on time and that really was something that we were focused on,” he said. “But I tell you I give so much credit to our players and our coaches and our medical experts to come up with the protocols, to apply the protocols, to adapt the protocols, and all of us had to adjust we were dealing in uncertainty, but they did it.”
He hailed the teams for playing “at the highest level” and bringing “extraordinary” competition.
“We had record scoring, we had record competitiveness of our games, and that’s tough to do in the environment that they were dealing with. So obviously we’re prepared to do this again next year. We think that the environment is going to be a lot different, the protocols will be different but we think the same quality football will be out there,” he said.
While it’s mandatory for NFL staff to get vaccinated, Goodell said “we’re encouraging everybody to get vaccinated.”
“We just think it’s the safest thing you can do for yourself and your family and, of course, those around you. And so we had tears last year where no one was allowed to be involved with the actual players unless you were actually tested on a regular basis,” he recalled. “That will continue this year but all of those 150 people will need be to vaccinated so the players are safe and make sure we do everything to ensure their safety”
Fans can stream the draft from home through ESPN and NFL’s digital platforms. ABC and ESPN will also have live TV coverage of the first round on Thursday, beginning at 8 p.m. ET.
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