Men With Local Ties Play Key Role in NFL Draft Preparations

The “Rocky” statue looms to the right of the newly constructed stage at the Philadelphia Museum of Art where the NFL Draft will take place from April 27 to 29. Photo by Jon Marks

When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell steps onto the stage at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on April 27 to announce the first draft pick, it will culminate months of preparation for four men with Jewish connections.

And each has unique ties to the area.

Larry Needle, executive director of PHL Sports, has been here since 1991 when he started working at the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau. He’s helped bring in such events as all-star games in baseball, basketball and hockey, the NCAA basketball tournament and the NHL Draft, but said this is the biggest thing yet.

Onnie Bose

Onnie Bose, vice president of events for the NFL, grew up in Lower Merion, where his in-laws still live. He and his wife, Julie Nissenbaum, were just here for a seder, since they’re raising their family Jewish, though Bose, whose family came from India, is not.

Westchester, N.Y. native Matt Shapiro, the NFL’s director of event strategy and integration, has in-laws in Elkins Park, whom he just visited for Passover.

And Eric Finkelstein, the NFL’s director of event operations, is just happy Passover will have ended by the time the draft gets underway.

Last year at the draft in Chicago he found himself searching for kosher-for-Passover food, eventually bringing in a kosher caterer to feed the 20 to 30 staffers observing the holiday. His father, Alan Finkelstein, graduated from Temple’s Maurice H. Kornberg School of Dentistry, where he was largely responsible for the dedication of a Tree of Peace sculpture.

Together, the four of them have helped lay the cornerstones for what promises to be a memorable weekend on Ben Franklin Parkway — assuming you don’t intend to drive or park anywhere in the vicinity.

According to Needle, the lessons learned through the 2015 papal visit and last summer’s Democratic National Convention (DNC), are paying off now.

“Events like this are a challenge, especially when it’s something this big and will affect, in some cases, everyday life,” Needle said. “We learned more than anything [that] people want to be communicated to and be part of the conversation.

“We’ve done everything we can to interface so people knew what was coming and understood why we brought this event to the city.

“It’s for all the great reasons you would expect: the economic impact, the [hotel] room nights, the tremendous national exposure we’ll get. It’s probably the most impactful thing we’ve brought to the city in recent history.”

It’s a pretty big deal for the NFL, too, which is going all out to make this a weekend to remember, regardless of whom the hometown Eagles pick. Until 2015, the draft always took place indoors in New York. But since the league decided to take its act on the road, interest has soared.

Like any good football team, the focus here is strictly day-to-day.

Matt Shapiro

“We’re not looking beyond that,” said Shapiro, who’s largely responsible for planning out the particulars, which include the top prospects leaving the green room when their name is called, walking down the museum steps, then onto the stage to be greeted by Goodell. “Next weekend is for the fans and the prospects.

“The way we were able to build our draft location, with the museum and the parkway and the city, gave us an attractive vision of bringing the event to life,” he continued. “To build a stage on the Rocky steps and have the fan festival on the parkway — those things are exciting to us.

“And there’s no more iconic place to do that.”

Yet it’s possible the draft won’t be a one-and-done in Philadelphia, similar to how it went two years in a row in Chicago.

“The focus is primarily on next weekend in Philadelphia, and a determination about 2018 will be made down the road,” Finkelstein said.

If it rains, there are contingency plans to move the whole thing indoors — if absolutely necessary.

Eric Finkelstein

“It’s like football weather. We anticipate going rain or shine,” said Finkelstein, who arrived last weekend and will remain here until the draft is complete to oversee last-minute details. “It’s definitely taken lot of time to work through and figure out how best to lay everything out to accommodate the most people and most elements along the parkway.

“Every year is uniquely different, especially now that we’re moving cities. This gives us a unique opportunity and presents challenges. The theater we’re building outside for the first time will accommodate more than ever.”

Meantime, Bose will be providing content on the video boards while the draft is in progress, as well as during those long intervals when nothing is happening. That’s not only during the draft but for the fans who participate in the NFL Draft Experience events.

“In between those highlight moments, our job is to make sure you’re engaged,” explained Bose, who grew up a passionate Flyers fan in the late 1980s and interned in the team’s public relations department. “We’ll have screens up and down the parkway with content: interviews, historical stuff, draft information on the players and the teams.

“Our history shows we got large crowds in Chicago because people want to be part of it. This is one event where all 32 teams are fully engaged, so we’ve gotten video pieces for all of them. The draft begins at 8 [p.m. on April 27]. We’ll have a half hour prior

to that introducing the 22 prospects who’ve come here. We’ll do the pageantry.”

All in all, it’s a prodigious undertaking, yet one Needle is confident will show Philadelphia at its finest.

Could this be the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the city and NFL, perhaps leading to hosting a Super Bowl?

“It’s been a lot of work,” admitted Needle, a longtime member of Beth Am Israel Congregation in Penn Valley. “More than we even anticipated. But we truly expect it to be well worth it in the end.”

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