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'Proud of our community for sure:' KC Sports Commission, Visit KC CEO Kathy Nelson on hosting 2023 NFL Draft

Posted: 4:56 PM, Apr 24, 2023
Updated: 2023-04-25 11:50:31-04
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Kansas City Sports Commission and Visit KC President/CEO Kathy Nelson

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kathy Nelson, CEO of the KC Sports Commission and Visit KC, envisioned the NFL Draft here before anyone else.

Although she's far too humble to boast about her leadership and impact, anyone who has been part of the effort from the bid process through the big day will tell you so.

KSHB 41 Anchor Dia Wall has covered the effort to bring this event to Kansas City for years, talking to Nelson at every milestone. Here's their conversation just days away from the historic event in KC.

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Dia: I've been talking to you about the draft for years and it's here.

Kathy: "I know. I look out my window, see the tents going up on the south lawn. I think about that time that we were in Nashville and you stopped me on the sidewalk. We were rushing to something and now it's here and we're days away."

Dia: We talked about the process, just to let people know what Kansas City was all about, what this city had to offer for the draft. What was that process like looking back now?

Kathy: "Oh my gosh. It was so much work back then getting all of us on the same page to go after something this big. There was still that unknown. It was still new out and about in other cities. There were so many questions like, 'Well, how does this work, what do you bid on, what do you present, who promotes what, how do you take care of this expense?' Now, looking back, I'm kind of glad it was one of those still unknowns from both sides, both from our city and from the NFL of how big this really is.

I feel like we jumped in at the right time back then as one of the newer cities. I think we were the sixth city, maybe seven, that they've taken this to so there's still a lot of lessons to be learned from both sides, but I think our city has stepped up big as has the NFL."

Dia: When you come to the Sports Commission, the city, Visit KC, years ago and say, "I want to try to get the draft here," what was the reaction initially?

Kathy: "Well, I mean anything football, anything NFL, goes very well in our city so when you have the support of the Chiefs and you have the support of, back then it was Sly James as our mayor and our city manager Troy Schulte, of course now the mayor and city manager, and everyone's all in. I don't think anyone thought I was crazy and if they did, they didn't say anything. Our board of directors maybe said, I do remember a few board members going so what does that mean and how big is big? Looking back laughing. I still struggle to define the word big."

Dia: What was the hardest part?

Kathy: "It's taking hundreds of people behind the scenes back then to make the bid happen and then, the idea of bringing it here happen and then now, making it happen. The hardest part both then and now is communication. I think sometimes we take that for granted. We feel like we overcommunicate and every day we're finding, wait, they didn't know about this or oh my gosh, the tenants didn't know this or the fans need to know clear bag policy so, we're learning.

We lean on the NFL a lot for that, we lean on the Chiefs. I think the hardest part is knowing you can never communicate enough."

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Rendering of the 2023 NFL Draft Theater in Kansas City, Missouri.

Dia: Kansas City was a bit unique. Nashville changed sites six times. From the day we had the conversation about bringing the draft to Kansas City, you said it's going to be right there in front of Union Station and that's exactly where it's been. Why is Kansas City kind of an anomaly in that way? Why was the site such a lock and has everything gone according to plan?

Kathy: "Ummmm no. That's all I'll say on number two. The first part though, about Union Station. We certainly presented other opportunities. We presented the idea of hosting at Arrowhead in the parking lots. We presented the lawn of the Nelson Atkins, the beautiful lawn that rolls over into Theis Park. There are other opportunities in our city. Once you host a parade or two or three and know how our city comes together, it became pretty clearly the obvious choice. With the backdrop of the city at night, the draft takes place mostly in the evenings Thursday and Friday, just having that visual it was hard to pass that up.

For us, that was our No. 1 opportunity and idea when we pitched this and then they came back and they saw the site and they walked the site a few years ago. They were here in 2017 or 2018 maybe. I get my years all confused now, but whenever the NFL came to town with dozens of people and they walked the site, I think they understood the iconic signature it would give for the draft. For us, it's been the site. It was the original idea for the site even though we had a couple others in our back pocket if this one didn't work."

Dia: Everybody we've talked to who is one of the volunteers, or I forget the official term, for the NFL Draft has said how excited they are. The folks that are going to be running the games and everything. Have you been pleased with the reception from folks around Kansas City and their willingness to just jump in and be part of it?

Kathy: "That was never a concern or a doubt for us. We know how Kansas City shows up. So the teammates program is the paid volunteer program and we knew we probably needed about 2,000 teammates and we opened it up and had 7,000 people sign up and had to stop sign ups and the NFL said, "that's a first for us. We've never had a city show up like that." So obviously we weren't worried. We knew we would have thousands sign up and it was kind of fun for us to say, yes we have to shut it down.

Then unfortunately, 5,000 plus people now are without an opportunity to work the draft and probably way more than that who did not sign up on the first go round. So proud of how quickly we filled those slots. So once the teammates were all there and in a waiting portal, then in March we released the times, the actual work shifts. Those filled up within minutes. The NFL said it'll take a week or two weeks to get those filled. I think we filled them in 17 minutes so, pretty proud. Proud of our community for sure."

Dia: When the draft opens up, I don't know where you'll be but I'm guessing somewhere in the footprint, and you see Roger Goodell comes out and it all starts and he says the iconic words, the NFL Draft is now open, what do you really think that moment is going to be like for you?"

Kathy: "You know, it's funny. I've had family and friends ask me that question. I don't know. I get a little emotional thinking that all this work is going to pay off. All the difficult conversations we're having right now. All the negotiating on closed roads and fees and parking prices. All of that will come to fruition and it will be okay. Thursday and 7 p.m. we're all there to celebrate Kansas City and to celebrate football and to celebrate those draft prospects. I'm sure I'll be a little teared up. Those who know me know I cry easily so I'm sure it'll be emotional but I think just that overall we did it.

There's no turning back now. When you see the structures that are being built now and we have all the teammates ready to go and the sponsors are rolling in and there are dozens and dozens of people that have been here for weeks that are living here in Kansas City preparing for this, you know hundreds more will show up Sunday from the NFL and they're here with us for a week. That Thursday night is kind of that exclamation point on everything."

Dia: Kansas City also home of the Super Bowl Champion Chiefs. How wild is it?

Kathy: "So wild! So wild to think that our team won the Super Bowl in the year that we're having and hosting the draft. I will say during Big XII weekend, it kind of caught me off guard and you have to understand people don't live and breathe this like we do, one of the men's basketball coaches, I won't give away the school but, one of the head men's basketball coaches came up and kind of popped me on the shoulder and said, "Congrats." He goes, "That's crazy that Super Bowl won you the draft." I went, "Yes..."

If you really only knew this is not how that works and it doesn't matter but I do think it's fascinating to think people think because we won the Super Bowl this year that we're able to host the draft. It doesn't work that way at all and that's okay. We're here to celebrate our Chiefs and I think you'll see how great the Kingdom truly shows up this week. I do find it funny at times to think that they think anyone could turn the draft in just a few months. Maybe a parade but, certainly not the draft."

Dia: This was really something, Kathy, I know you may not have known exactly what the stage would look like or how big the footprint would be, but you saw this before anybody else. Are you at least this much proud?

Kathy: "Oh, much much more than that. And it's not just proud, boastful proud, by any means. It's pride that we've taken police with us every year, proud that we've taken Kamiko from our city manager's office, we've taken the city manager, we're taking staff. So really, maybe I've been that thread and that constant and was the first one to see it in Chicago, but just so proud that everyone was, 'we've got this. We can do this.' I feel proud as the band director and maybe the parent of it a little bit, but we had a staff meeting earlier today and we were all laughing about who's got what issue going on and where do we need to firefight a little bit?

If people had any idea how much work this takes, I think that's what I'm so proud of. Everyone is going to go enjoy it and have no idea how many hours of work and how many hundreds of people its involved. I feel like it's our time to give back to the city, so yes very proud and very proud that we had that vision that many years ago to make this happen."

Dia: What is your message for folks here in Kansas City in this community about this big event that has taken years and all those hours of work?

Kathy: "Know how special this is even if you don't want to come out and deal with crowds, or you feel like you don't want to find a place to park, I appreciate that. Then watch it on TV. Watch it, tape it, whatever that is and you should be proud as a Kansas Citian that we were able to pull this off together. We are probably the biggest small city in the United States, is how I feel, and to know we made this happen and were able to work with the NFL to do this. It certainly has not been easy.

There are so many behind the scenes things that are happening, but I would tell you people who are just now enjoying it and starting to be aware that it's happening, you see the signage and the decor, just know it took you as a citizen to be proud of Kansas City to really boast about that to help us pull this off."