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Inside the NFL’s $20 million Draft Experience in Philly

A fake Art Museum, thousands of seats and miles of portable toilets. But walk there – definitely don’t drive.

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The NFL is great at a lot of things, and if you have a chance to stroll down the Ben Franklin Parkway this week you can be damned sure to add ‘hosting a huge outdoor carnival that also coincides with the NFL Draft’ on that list.

The NFL Draft experience is vast. The league promised to drop $20 million on this party; league officials said Tuesday that more than 5,000 workers have been part of the draft prep this month and by the looks of the Parkway leading up to the NFL’s makeshift stage at the Art Museum, it sure as heck looks like most of them are going to be working all week to get this draft ready.

They are, in a word, not.

Almost nothing outside of the stage is set up, thanks in part to the weather, but also due to the logistics around the Parkway itself. It’s incredibly easy to walk wherever you want to go on foot. The gates for the fan experience aren’t set up yet, but it wasn’t until I got within a stone’s throw of Eakins Oval before anyone even stopped to ask who I was or why I was taking photos of port-a-potties. Driving anywhere near the Parkway, however, is a disaster. Don’t try it. Don’t even try to cross JFK anywhere north of 18th Street.

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But that’s not the big story about the NFL Draft set-up. Ready or not, they’ll be set for Thursday. What’s actually pretty big news is that the NFL wanted to use the iconic Rocky steps in front of the Art Museum backdrop for the draft and, well, they couldn’t do both. So they faked it.

“There’s a little bit of an illusion there,” NFL Director of Event Operations Eric Finkelstein told the assembled media at Tuesday’s NFL Draft stadium walk thru. “You found us out. We wanted to highlight not only the Rocky steps, but the Museum — real staples of this city to show this event is Philadelphia and part of Philadelphia. So we replicated the front of the museum as part of our stage.”

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Let’s be clear, it looks awesome. But it’s fake. The columns are made of a dense foam, secured with metal rods running through. No, a brisk wind will not knock them down, nor will an exuberant draftee walking out from the players’ green room, which is set up behind (and above) where the Commissioner will introduce them.

Here are some more looks behind-the-scenes at what will be one heckuva football festival come Thursday.

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The photo above is of the entrance of the NFL Draft Experience. As you can see, it’s not quite built yet.

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Giant helmets line the Parkway, one for every team. Surely the locals will listen to the sign to ‘Please stay off.’ When I asked one of the workers in front of the entrance if they were going to finish in time for Thursday he gave an assured nod. When I asked him how it was working out in the wind and rain Tuesday morning, he replied, z Welcome to Philly, NFL Draft!

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Philly’s famed museums are all behind a fence right now. But worry not, culture seekers. The NFL has its own museum ready to go.

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Oh, and speaking of museums, the Franklin Institute is adorned with NFL Draft banners as well.

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The middle banner, above, says Selection Square, which is a good indication that either Friday or more likely Saturday’s picks could be done from the steps of the Franklin. In Chicago, Selection Square was in Grant Park, and it’s where most of Saturday’s picks were announced.

The Franklin steps would be a nice venue for a light crowd, but the construction right next to the museum is not a great look, or easy to maneuver past.

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Also not easy to maneuver past? The bar! There are several, as well as ample water full-up stations. You will not go thirsty at the draft experience.

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You won’t go hungry either. There are many, many places to eat, from Village Whiskey to Di Bruno Bros. to Nick’s Roast Beef to a place called Texas Wieners Philly which is where you can find me all three days of the draft, please-and-thank-you. This is all probably about half a mile from where the actual draft is taking place. But it’s across from where the real action will be.

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Yep. That’s hundreds, maybe thousands, of portable toilets. Right across from the food, from the games, from the Art Museum. There are portable toilets everywhere. And still, surely, there won’t be enough.

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“It’s a lot of work, a lot of coordination, but we’ve been planning this with the city for close to a year and so we’ve had a lot of time to really come up with a thoughtful plan and we think that it’s coming to light right now,” Finkelstein, pictured above, said Tuesday. “There’s a lot of little touches and details that we still have to work on and get through — a lot of it behind the scenes and some of it in front of the scenes —as we get closer to the show.”

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There are 3,000 seats in the arena structure the NFL created on the steps, built on three levels. Not every one is a great seat.

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Fans who don’t have a ticket to the arena (note: they will be seat filling for when people leave) can still get a great look at the action from Eakins Oval.

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When the players are drafted, they will walk out of the green room, shake Roger Goodell’s hand and stare out on the city skyline. Or, as you can see above, a horse’s ass with George Washington on top. Quite the view, truly.

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The stage area is bigger than it looks from the front. The green room is actually built on top of one of the platforms halfway up the Rocky steps, so players will technically be walking down the steps when they get selected. Then, on the second level, are areas for where the fans will sit, and where both the NFL Network and ESPN will have their on-site sets.

Behind that, near the top of the Art Museum, the media work room will be set up. That’s where players will come for interviews after they’re shuttled to the airport to fly out to their respective football cities. That this was all built on the Art Museum steps is incredibly impressive to see, foam columns and all.

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When asked if Sylvester Stallone will make a draft-day appearance beside his famed statue, Finkelstein said he could “neither confirm nor deny,” but did say, “I’m sure there will be some folks that have ties to those movies that very well could be here.”

Ok. That means Michael B. Jordan will totally be here. Or Paulie’s robot. One of them for sure.