NFL picks Cleveland to host 2021 draft with COVID-19 protocols still in play

The NFL announced Monday that the 86th annual draft will take place at multiple venues in downtown Cleveland between April 29 and May 1.

Sites include FirstEnergy Stadium, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Great Lakes Science Center.

This year, a selected number of prospects will be able to take the stage in-person.  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will be on hand to welcome the league’s newest players — but from a short distance. Building on the success of last year’s virtual event, when the commissioner read players’ names from the basement of his home, other draft picks will participate remotely from around the country.

The league said the three-day event will be open to the public, and COVID-19 safety protocols drawn from the experience of hosting the Super Bowl in Tampa will be in place.

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The league will again partner with state and local public health officials to ensure the safety for fans and participants. Fans will be required to wear face coverings and adhere to physical distancing.

A main stage will be built along Lake Erie to serve as the central hub for draft activities, including unnamed musical acts

"We are thrilled to be heading to Cleveland for the NFL draft, which has become one of the most highly anticipated events in sports" NFL executive Peter O’Reilly said.  "Just months after executing a safe and successful Super Bowl LV, we look forward to bringing the excitement of our Draft traditions to fans in collaboration with the Browns, Destination Cleveland, Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, the City of Cleveland, and all of our local Cleveland partners."

The NFL will also use this year’s draft to promote the COVID-19 vaccine. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 44 million Americans have been fully vaccinated, representing 13.3% of the total U.S. population.

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Last year, the draft originally was scheduled to be held in Las Vegas, but the NFL canceled all public events as a safeguard against the coronavirus. 

The virtual draft averaged a record 8.4 million viewers over all three days, according to the NFL and Nielsen. The previous high was 6.2 million last year.

Each day attracted record audiences. Thursday’s first round averaged 15.6 million, Friday’s second and third rounds 8.2 million and Saturday’s final four rounds 4.2 million. ESPN and NFL Network had a combined production all three days while ABC had separate telecasts Thursday and Friday before simulcasting the ESPN/NFL Network feed Saturday. ESPN Deportes also had a separate broadcast.

This year’s draft coincides with the Cleveland Browns’ 75th anniversary.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.