Back in the 1990s, what did people first say to Butch Spyridon when he would tell them he was from Nashville, Tennessee?
“You mean after they stopped laughing?” joked Spyridon, who has served as president of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation since 1991. “Back then, conversations were usually about two-stepping, line dancing, ‘Hee Haw’ and the Grand Ole Opry.”
Nashville still has all of those. It also has a lot more — booming growth, a strong, diversifying economy and a reputation as a tourist and convention destination.
"Now they say, 'I was just there, I'm going there or I want to move there.'"
In 1990, the metro population was 985,000. Today, it’s an estimated 1.9 million ... and counting.
The once-sleepy Southern state capital also has two major professional sports teams (the NFL Titans and NHL Predators), something Spyridon called “critical” to the area’s surge.
This week is something of a milestone for the city as it plays host to the NFL draft. It is also a milestone for the NFL, continuing the league’s push to bring one of its signature events to less-traditional spots around the country.
From 1965-2014 the draft was held in New York. Through the years television turned it into a true standalone event, so when a scheduling conflict arose with Radio City Music Hall, the league decided to take it out of Manhattan.
Spyridon immediately thought Nashville would be perfect. Heck, he broached the idea as far back as 2011. At the time, however, the NFL wasn’t ready to go too far astray, focusing on either Los Angeles or Chicago, which would host in 2015-16. Spyridon didn’t quit, though.
“We may not be smart but we are persistent,” he said.
Now Nashville gets a chance at what seemed like a ridiculous idea, but now makes a lot more sense than returning to New York, at least under the old Radio City venue format.
Philadelphia turned the draft into a true civic event in 2017 by staging all three days outdoors in front of the Museum of Art. Some 250,000 people turned out, and it was clear the old days of a small theater were over.
AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, hosted last year’s draft and that was fine, but returning to the public square — downtown Nashville, free and accessible to all — is the right move. The city’s still relatively small size and middle-of-the-country location are positives, not negatives.
The NFL doesn’t need a media capital to promote itself anymore. The media will come to wherever this thing is held. And giving fans here, not to mention those who can make an easy drive from Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi and even southern Indiana, a taste of the league is perfect.
“I think it’s brilliant on their part because it is such a fan-faces event where the Super Bowl has become more corporate,” Spyridon said. “It’s perfect for markets like ours and I think it’s really smart to keep it free. It is such an outreach for their product and their brand.”
Las Vegas will host the 2020 draft, a way to jump-start the arrival of the Raiders to the city. That’s fine, but after that, the NFL should avoid glamorous locales and focus on putting this in the markets that have served it, places where something like a draft would be a huge deal.
Cleveland. Buffalo. Detroit. Denver. Pittsburgh. Kansas City. Green Bay. Baltimore. And so on.
For Nashville, this isn’t just an event, it’s a massive undertaking that has brought everyone together. The draft will take place right in the middle of the downtown entertainment district and will include not just the traditional NFL Experience, but some 20 different bands providing free concerts featuring all genres of music. That includes major shows headlined by country stars Tim McGraw and Dierks Bentley. It’s a three-day, NFL themed-party.
There is even a house band that will perform during the draft that Spyridon said is working with each NFL team to learn a song that is linked with either the team or the home city.
“It’s a little more personal,” Spyridon said.
This is a long way from indoors, Saturday at noon in Midtown Manhattan.
“Philly was what absolutely turned my head about why this would work here,” Spyridon said. “I think the entire community will come from all corners. Kid and family friendly during the day, more mixed at night.”
This is what the draft should be. It’s part fun, part ridiculous, part important. Mostly, it’s a chance for the NFL to give something back to the fans and the cities that have supported it for years. Nashville isn’t an old NFL market, but it’s passionate. Tens of thousands of fans turned out for the reveal of the Titans’ new jersey last year and has long been a college and high school football stronghold.
The Super Bowl can’t go everywhere. The draft can. So keep sending this thing out into the country and let each region put its own spin on it.
“Nashville loves a good event,” Spyridon said. “Nashville loves a good party. This is perfect for us.”
And for a city near you, too.
More from Yahoo Sports: