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Last NFL Draft in Wisconsin was missed opportunity for city

The Schroeder Hotel in 1941
The Schroeder Hotel in 1941. It’s Empire Room, noted by the sign on the righthand side of the photo, was the site of the 1940 NFL Draft in Milwaukee. The hotel, located downtown on Wisconsin Avenue, is now known as the Hilton Milwaukee City Center. Journal-Sentinel/Wisconsin State Historical Society photo

By Kris Leonhardt


GREEN BAY – The 2025 NFL Draft will be held in, and around, Lambeau Field and Titletown for the 90th running of the event.

The last time the state played host to the event was Dec. 9, 1939, when the Draft was in its infancy.

“After the NFL instituted its waiver system in 1934 to allow teams to pick up available players, Philadelphia Eagles co-owner Bert Bell felt that his team was at a disadvantage in signing top players. Without the monetary advantage that other clubs had, the Eagles and other teams with fewer resources had little chance of attracting impact players,” the NFL website states.

“At a 1935 league meeting, Bell proposed that the NFL hold an annual player draft to level the playing field and make sure that every franchise remained financially viable. League owners voted unanimously to adopt his proposal, setting up the inaugural NFL Draft in 1936.”

At the time, the Draft was held in the same city as the NFL Championship game on consecutive days.

The 1939 Championship would see the Green Bay Packers hosting the New York Giants

“Curly Lambeau and the Packers’ executive committee had decided, at the urging of the league, that more money could be made if the game was played at State Fair Park in West Allis rather than at Green Bay’s City Stadium,” said Packers Historian Cliff Christl.

“Starting with the 1937 draft, the second in history, and until World War II, the Draft was usually held the day before or after the NFL title game. During the war, the drafts were held in April largely because of the uncertainty over which players would be available come football season. The 1949 Draft, held on Dec. 21, 1948, in Philadelphia, was the last to be conducted within days of the league championship.”

The 1940 Draft was held at the Schroeder Hotel — now the Hilton Milwaukee City Center — which opened a little over a decade before.

“Draft, says the league publicity office, is a misnomer and the selection should be referred to as the right of preferred negation,” a Capital Times article stated the day of the event.

“The names of college seniors who played football are listed. Representatives of the 10 pro clubs then designate the ones with whom they desire to discuss post-graduate gridiron careers. The club lowest in the standings has its chance, and so on up to the championship club. The process is repeated until the list of about 200 names is exhausted. Each club has the exclusive right to negotiate with the players it designates.”

The Draft started at 2 p.m. on Dec. 9, with Packers Coach Curly Lambeau taking the right to negotiate with 21 players — eight backs, three ends, four guards and two centers.

The Packers’ first pick at the tail end of the order was Minnesota Halfback Harold Van Every, who was well-known after making several All-American teams.

The championship game was held the following day inside the Milwaukee Mile at Wisconsin State Fair Park, just outside of Milwaukee.

While Lambeau was correct in the public’s response to the event and its increased ticket sales, its relocation sidestepped an opportunity for the Green Bay area to reap the benefits of visitor influx.

Trains brought a sold-out crowd by the hundreds to Milwaukee, including two special trains from Green Bay on the Northwestern line and the Milwaukee Road.

Seats costing $4.40 each were being scalped for $15, and newspaper accounts report that 1,500 counterfeit tickets were printed.

Green Bay handily defeated New York, 27-0, that day but Green Bay would not see the benefits from those seeing the Packers win on the gridiron.

Over the next few decades, the Draft moved around to hotels in larger cities before finding a semi-permanent home in New York City from 1965 to 2014.

The league then opened the host site up for bid in 2015.

Chicago won the first bid and the Draft was reinvented, with a large free-admission festival to coincide with the event.

After a two-year run in Chicago, the Draft traveled to Philadelphia, Dallas and Nashville before the 2020 virtual event due to the COVID environment.

In 2021, Cleveland hosted the events, followed by Las Vegas and Kansas City.

The 2024 NFL Draft will be held in Detroit.

The year 2025 will bring back Green Bay’s opportunity to showcase its city and its deep football roots as it hosts the Draft on a much larger scale than the December of missed opportunity eight and a half decades ago.

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