By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - The 2021 NFL Draft will have a more familiar feel compared to the fully virtual one held last year amid the COVID-19 outbreak as it will feature select player prospects and fans across several Cleveland locations, the league said on Monday.
While final numbers were not provided, the league expects to welcome tens of thousands of fans at its NFL Draft Experience, a free and interactive football theme park that will be open each day of the April 29-May 1 mostly outdoor event.
"This will be a large-scale event even if we are not announcing the exact numbers today," Peter O'Reilly, the NFL's executive vice president of league events, told reporters on a conference call.
"The general message is that certainly we want to welcome fans not only from Cleveland but from outside as well."
O'Reilly said the NFL wants to "maximize the number of fans" it can allow and is working with local and national authorities to determine that number while adding they need to wear face coverings and follow social distancing protocols.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who last year announced draft picks from the basement of his house, will instead perform those duties from a stage set against the backdrop of Lake Erie.
Players expected to be taken in the first round of the seven-round draft will be invited to attend while most other prospects will participate remotely.
"We're starting to extend those invites to top prospects, likely night-one round-one selections, who we'd love to be with us and have the opportunity that didn't exist last year to walk across the stage and have that really special moment," said O'Reilly.
A theatre will serve as a viewing zone for the main stage and will seat the invited guests.
In a bid to promote the importance of getting the COVID-19 vaccine, the NFL will allow individuals chosen by each of the 32 clubs to have a front row seat to the main stage as long as they are fully vaccinated.
Like last year's NFL Draft, teams will gather at a location of their choosing to make player selections while following appropriate protocols.
"The plan is really coming together," said O'Reilly.
"We learned a great deal over this last year and are excited to be able to have an in-person free outdoor event with all of the protocols in place."
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)