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Fan's guide to the NFL draft in Chicago

AP Photo/Ben Liebenberg

When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell learned that New York's Radio City Music Hall wouldn't be available in either April or May for this year's draft, the league didn't panic. Instead, it saw the situation as an opportunity.

Radio City had hosted the draft since 2006, but there's always been a desire for something bigger. Something that could attract more people. Something that could turn the draft into a truly fan-driven event.

So, instead of searching elsewhere in New York, the city where the draft has been held for the past 50 years, the NFL considered other options. Twelve cities showed interest, but the league preferred to pinpoint its focus on two spots it felt were best prepared to accommodate such lofty plans.

After deliberating between finalists Chicago and Los Angeles, the league decided to bring the 2015 NFL draft back to the Windy City, which hosted in 1964 -- the last year before it was moved to New York.

"We ultimately decided on Chicago for multiple reasons," NFL director of event operations Eric Finkelstein said in a phone interview with ESPNChicago.com. "One of which is because it's centrally located [11 NFL teams are within 500 miles of the city], because it had such an avid fan base in the market and just because the opportunities that presented itself in moving the event to that location.

"We've done some stuff in New York, but never to the level of this. When we saw this, it really got us thinking this could really be something special."

From April 30-May 2, the NFL will "take over the city," as Finkelstein put it, with a fully immersive draft experience. The first three rounds of the draft (Round 1 on Thursday night and Rounds 2 and 3 on Friday night) will take place in the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University in front of fans who won tickets through an online lottery.

After the selections are announced, the picks in attendance will be ushered across the street into "Draft Town," a fan festival spread between 900,000 square feet of Grant Park and Congress Plaza. Specifically, they'll be paraded into "Selection Square," a ticketed area where they will be interviewed in front of the crowd by ESPN and the NFL Network. Selection Square will also feature the tables where representatives of all 32 teams will submit their selections.

Rounds 4-7 will take place entirely in Selection Square. Tickets are required for that area on all three days of the draft.

Aside from Selection Square, entry into Draft Town will be free of charge for fans and open to the general public during all three days of the draft.

"We're really reinventing what the draft was," Finkelstein said. "Historically, the draft has been a theater show, and we're expanding beyond the walls of the theater to really bring it to more fans than ever before.

"We're going to have all different interactive elements and opportunities for those fans that come down to participate in all different areas of the event."

The festival will feature food, free player autographs, interactive games, photo opportunities and the Lombardi trophy. Street pole banners will line the streets, some of the city's buildings will be lit up with event-related messages and Grant Park's famous Buckingham Fountain will be lit up in the colors of the team on the clock during the draft's first two nights.

The festival will then conclude Saturday night with a free concert headlined by 2012 American Idol winner, Phillip Phillips.

"It's going to be a great atmosphere for all days of the event," Finkelstein said. "We've always been looking for ways to accommodate as many of our fans as we can and having the park really afforded us something that took it to a whole other level."

Prior to the draft's start, a group of NFL legends will take the stage in Pioneer Court on Wednesday along with 2015 draft prospects to discuss their careers both on and off the field. The event is scheduled to start at noon and will be open to the public.

On Thursday morning, select prospects will visit pediatric patients and their families at Shriners Hospital for Children as part of the NFL Play 60 program. Other prospects will visit a local high school to speak with students.

Following the draft prospects' gold carpet arrival to the Auditorium Theatre on Thursday night, Round 1 of the draft will take place starting at 7 p.m. CT. Rounds 2-3 will start at 6 p.m. CT on Friday in the Auditorium Theatre, with second-round picks being announced by former NFL players.

The group includes six Pro Football Hall of Famers -- Mel Blount (Pittsburgh), Willie Brown (Oakland), Charles Haley (San Francisco), Jim Kelly (Buffalo), Dwight Stephenson (Miami) and Dick Butkus, who will announce the selection made by the hometown Chicago Bears.

Rounds 4-7 will take place starting at 11 a.m. CT on Saturday.

While a decision regarding next year's location won't be made until later this year, the NFL's hope is that Chicago's fan-friendly draft experience becomes the blueprint for years to come. Whether that means the draft will remain in the Windy City has yet to be decided, but for now, Finkelstein and the rest of his staff are excited about what they've been able to put together for this year's event.

"We think that this model really changes the game on so many levels for the event," Finkelstein said. "We definitely are looking for this to be something that we look at for the future."