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SBJ/November 3 - 9, 2003/This Weeks Issue
Quick action, cooperation save MNF game
Published November 3, 2003
Workers paint the Chargers’ name over Arizona’s during preparations at Sun Devil Stadium.
The producer of ABC's "Monday Night Football" was running his usual Sunday morning planning session when announcer John Madden walked into the room and asked, "Have you been watching the news?"
It was an innocent question, but it was Fred Gaudelli's first hint that his well-laid plans for the Oct. 27 game between the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins might unravel.
Fires had raged across Southern California for days, destroying homes and lives, but until that moment, at 10 a.m. Pacific time on Oct. 26, Gaudelli and his staff had assumed that the game would go on.
A little while later, though, a production assistant walked into the Carlsbad, Calif., hotel meeting room to tell Gaudelli that it was getting dark at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, just down the coast.
"It's raining ash out of the sky," he said. ABC's crew at Qualcomm was wearing surgical masks for protection from the ash and smoke.
Even as the potential scope of the problem began to dawn on the little group in Carlsbad, officials with the Chargers and the city of San Diego, as well as at NFL headquarters in New York, were taking their first steps toward a decision that would lead to the logistical nightmare of picking up and moving one of football's biggest weekly productions more than 300 miles on the day before the game.
No NFL game had ever been moved within 24 hours of kickoff. Here's how it happened. All times are Eastern, unless otherwise noted.
Sunday, Oct. 26, 9:30 a.m.: It's 6:30 a.m. San Diego time when Chargers president Dean Spanos wakes up and looks out the window of his home. He sees a billowing cloud of black smoke several miles to the east. Qualcomm Stadium, home of the Chargers, is several miles to the east.
"You could see the smoke," he said, "but you couldn't really smell it."
1 p.m.: The smoke is getting thicker, and closer to Spanos' home. He calls Chargers executives at the stadium and learns that conditions there are bad and getting worse.
Spanos then calls Ed McGuire, the team's director of football operations, and asks McGuire to alert the league office to what seems to be a growing problem. More smoke, and then ash, begins drifting over Spanos' home. "By [midday], our house was covered with soot," he said.
At the same time, although Qualcomm Stadium "really isn't designated as a Red Cross shelter area, our parking lots became a gathering area," said Steve Shushan, the city-employed assistant stadium manager.
1:30 p.m.: The Miami Dolphins get on their American Airlines charter flight and are told by their pilot that the San Diego airport is closed. The Dolphins take off, anyway. Team officials know they will have to land somewhere on the West Coast, and they at least want to be headed in the right direction.
In San Diego, Sean O'Connor, the Chargers' director of marketing and special events, arrives at Qualcomm to find that a white tent set up for pregame activities is covered in black ash. Still, he doesn't think the game will be canceled.
"At that point, no homes were destroyed," he said.
2 p.m.: Spanos calls NFL executive vice president Roger Goodell. "We have a real problem here," he tells him.
NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue is called at home and quickly heads for the league offices on Park Avenue in New York.
2:30 p.m.: Peter Hadhazy, director of football operations for the NFL, tells Tagliabue that the city of San Diego has declared a state of emergency.
Dick Maxwell, NFL director of broadcast operations and services, calls producer Gaudelli to say that the NFL is "very concerned" about the situation in San Diego.
"[Maxwell] said there was a chance the game could be moved out of San Diego," said Gaudelli.
3 p.m.: A cleaning crew at Qualcomm to pick up trash left from the previous night's college football game can't work because of the air quality. Workers are sent home.
O'Connor hears that the fire is heading toward his neighborhood and goes home to check on his house and family.
3:30 p.m.: Three members of the league staff — Goodell, John Beake, vice president of football operations, and Jeff Pash, executive vice president and chief legal counsel — begin a 30-minute conference call with Spanos and members of his staff.
Rescheduling the game isn't an option. Both teams have already had their bye weeks, and there is no gap in the schedule that would allow for a makeup game.
The only decision, then, is where to move the game. Los Angeles is ruled out because the fires are too close. The group quickly puts three candidates on the list: Oakland, San Francisco and Tempe, Ariz.
4:10 p.m.: Tagliabue calls Mike Bidwill, vice president of the Arizona Cardinals, who is in the press box in Arizona State University's Sun Devil Stadium for a game that has just started between the Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers. Tagliabue says Arizona might be in play as a site for the Monday night game, and asks for Bidwill's help. Other NFL officials call Amy Trask, CEO of the Raiders, and 49ers CEO Peter Harris to have the same discussion.
Gaudelli decides to suspend setup for the San Diego game and start planning a move to Tempe. "I couldn't wait for them to make a decision," he said.
Gaudelli focuses on Tempe because it is the only one of the three sites hosting a game that day. "There was a television production truck there," he said. One catch, though: It was a Fox truck. Had his trucks been able to leave by noon Pacific time, Gaudelli said, they could have made it to Tempe. But the final decision was still hours away.
4:15 p.m.: The Dolphins land at the San Diego airport, which re-opened as they neared the city. "When we were flying over San Diego, we hit the smoke," said Harvey Greene, the team's senior vice president of media relations, who was on the jet with about 150 other members of the organization. "When we got off ... we could see all the black ashes blowing across the tarmac."
The team's operational staff, which is already there, tells the group on the jet that there's a 50-50 chance the game will be played in another city.
The Dolphins decide to head for their hotel in La Jolla, Calif., farther away from the fires than the airport. They want to stick to their normal pregame schedule.
4:30 p.m.: Nancy Behar, assistant director of NFL broadcasting, calls Fox to ask if the network's crews can leave their equipment at Sun Devil Stadium.
5 p.m.: San Diego City Manager Bruce Herring takes a call from Chargers CFO Jeanne Bonk and outside counsel Allan Mutchnik. Qualcomm had been designated as an evacuation center for people fleeing fires. The stadium is ideally situated, Herring said, between "two big nodes of fire." It also has a 19,000-space parking lot, the kind of open space that's hard to find in San Diego. As many as 5,000 people are already taking shelter at the stadium.
"[Bonk and Mutchnik] called, and I explained to them the magnitude of the real disaster we are having down here," Herring said.
They discuss the potential of having 60,000 people travel to the sold-out game and the problems it could cause with fire and other emergency vehicles trying to get around the city.
6 p.m.: NFL and Chargers officials convene a second conference call and make a tentative decision to move the game to Arizona, subject to confirmation that Qualcomm will be unavailable.
6:30 p.m.: "We told them it would be best to delay the game or relocate the game," Herring said. "The city manager's office made the decision. We conferred with the mayor and he agreed."
It was a decision that would cost the city as much as $600,000 in revenue from stadium rent, concessions and parking and the city's 10 percent cut of ticket sales.
"It was probably the game of the season for us," said Shushan. "We would have had more people here than for the Super Bowl because the Super Bowl takes up more seats with event production and press. We expected 68,000 to 69,000. [Dolphins linebacker and former longtime San Diego star] Junior Seau was also coming home. It was going to be pretty exciting. Now, it's all down the drain."
Stadium caterer Centerplate decides to distribute food prepared for the Monday night game to the volunteers, agencies and firemen helping with relief efforts. The company's losses could exceed seven digits, said John Vingas, vice president of catering, who supervises the premium dining operation at Qualcomm. Nearly 100 luxury suites had ordered food for the game.
7:11 p.m.: In Tempe, Mike Chismar, Arizona State University associate athletic director in charge of operations and facilities, is standing in the end zone of Sun Devil Stadium as the Cardinals kick the winning field goal in overtime against the 49ers. He takes a call from Cardinals vice president Ron Minegar, who says the stadium is being considered as a host for Monday's game.
Chismar and his staff begin calling the supervisors of the roughly 600 employees who had worked the Cardinals game, asking them if they could work on Monday.
"We had to call our clean-up crew," Chismar said. "We said, 'You have to clean it up like you are having another game tomorrow, because you are.' "
8 p.m.: In San Diego, Ed McGuire, director of football operations for the Chargers, tells O'Connor the game is being moved.
8:10 p.m.: Hadhazy advises Tagliabue of the final word on Qualcomm. The stadium is out of play.
8:30 p.m.: Tagliabue, Goodell and Hadhazy call Mike Bidwill and ask him to tell the local media that there's a 99 percent certainty the game will be played in Tempe.
8:35 p.m.: It's 6:35 Tempe time, and crunch time for ASU's Gene Smith and Michael Chismar. They've got 20 or 30 frantic minutes in which to make a final decision on hosting the game. NFL officials have told ASU they need a decision by 9 p.m.
"My initial thought was to say no," said Smith, mainly because of the hardship on the staff from hosting two games in a row.
"But as the conversation flowed and we started talking about what was happening in San Diego, it became clear," he said. "You know, it's a natural disaster and people have to step up. Here I was thinking about the guys that have to work some extra long hours, and in San Diego people are losing their homes and maybe their livelihood."
The decision was Smith's. He tried to call ASU President Michael Crow, but Crow is out of town.
"I probably should have called other people at the university because it really should have been a university decision," Smith said. "I felt, though, that I'd gone through all the scenarios that could have potentially had a negative impact on the institution."
9 p.m.: There's no word yet from ASU, but the NFL goes ahead with a conference call with Chargers officials. A few minutes into the call, ASU officials are on the other line. They will host the game.
ESPN is alerted, and Chris Berman makes the announcement on national television a little later, at halftime of the Sunday night game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills. ABC Sports and ESPN President George Bodenheimer calls Gaudelli and says, "We are really going."
ABC Sports cameraman Sean Cooney makes adjustments during preparations for the game.
Fortunately, Fox has agreed to lend ABC most of the trucks, cameras and equipment it needs. Only one ABC truck absolutely has to be there: The edit truck, from which the Monday night crew controls graphics for the game. The truck leaves immediately, but doesn't arrive in Tempe until about 12 hours later. "Many of the roads were really backed up," said Gaudelli. Members of ABC's crew aren't the only ones leaving San Diego.
Madden, a fearful flier who hasn't been on an airplane in years, begins his trip to Tempe in his bus. Gaudelli and about nine crew members drive 120 miles north to Burbank, Calif., home of ABC owner Walt Disney Co., to catch a ride on the Disney corporate jet. About 75 other ABC crew members take a charter flight out of San Diego.
Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt decides to keep his team in La Jolla for the night. "He wanted our players to get their normal sleep," said Greene.
But the team's operations staff goes into high gear, making travel plans and, with the help of the 49ers, securing the same hotel rooms that the 49ers used the night before their game with the Cardinals.
10 p.m.: Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano takes a call from Mike Bidwill.
"[Bidwill] said, 'We have a situation with the NFL in San Diego. Is the city willing to do what they need to do?'" said Giuliano. "I said yes, and we moved forward."
Chargers President Dean Spanos holds a conference call with other Chargers executives, including O'Connor.
"We talked about the logistics of trying to move a football game from San Diego to Phoenix," said O'Connor. "We were kicking off in 23 hours. How [could we] make it a home game 350 miles from here?"
Chargers business manager John Hinek joins other team executives in tackling the logistical problems, even though Hinek knows his family has been evacuated because the fire is nearing his home. With help of NFL staff, Hinek books the team on a flight to Phoenix on Monday on Hawaiian Airlines. "We usually use Delta, but [Hawaiian was] the fastest to respond and we needed a response pretty quick," he said. After Hinek books the flight, he learns that his home has burned down.
Chargers game day operations manager Kevin Daly and stadium services manager Christian Webb work until 3 a.m. Eastern loading a truck headed for Tempe.
"We took all of our infield decorations [and] signage," said O'Connor. "We tried to dress [Sun Devil Stadium] up as best we could."
The team also packed hundreds of "Game Day" magazines and touchdown towels provided by sponsor Union Bank of California, as well as stencils used to paint the Chargers name and logo on the field.
10:45 p.m.: Todd Everett, district manager for Sun Devil Stadium concessionaire Aramark, takes a call and finds out about the Monday night game.
"I was in the stadium wrapping up the 49ers game," he said. Many of the 1,000 to 1,200 people Aramark employs for games at the stadium had already gone home. But the people who were there, Everett kept there, and they all started trying to find enough people to work another game.
"It was basically a cold-calling operation in our office," he said. "We called everybody under the sun."
Monday, Oct. 27, 6 a.m.: Beer trucks arrive with deliveries, followed by Coca-Cola with soda at 8-9 a.m. and bulk distributor Sysco at noon with hamburgers, hot dogs, nachos, pretzels and other items. Aramark isn't sure how many people will attend the game. The Cardinals normally draw 40,000 tops. Officials prepared for a full house by ordering more food than usual, knowing that leftover supplies could be used for home games for the Sun Devils and Cardinals the following weekend. "It's not like the product would go bad or go to waste," said Everett.
7 a.m.: One of ASU's biggest challenges is the field. Not only must turf be repaired and lines drawn, but the end zones need to be painted to make this a home game for the Chargers.
The field stencils for the Chargers name and logo are on a truck coming from San Diego, but the ASU grounds crew doesn't know that. Instead, they improvise.
"They had to freehand the Chargers' logo," said Smith. "They downloaded it off the Internet."
Later that morning, as Chargers executive O'Connor's plane is descending over Sun Devil Stadium, he sees that the Arizona State University staff has already painted the Chargers name and logo in the end zones.
"It was a great feeling, coming in and seeing that," O'Connor said. "That is when it dawned on me, 'This might work.' "
7:30 a.m.: It's only 5:30 a.m.in Tempe, and already there are as many as 1,500 people lined up to get into the game.
Some Chargers ticket holders drove or flew to the game. ASU officials had a special ticket line for them and tried to put them in comparable seats.
9:30 a.m.: It's 7:30 in Tempe, and another round of planning meetings begins for the staff at Arizona State University.
ASU's expenses for a Cardinals game typically total between $100,000 and $125,000. For the Monday night game, though, ASU plans for 70,000 people, and ASU officials estimate the cost to operate the stadium could be $200,000. The stadium holds a maximum of 73,379.
ASU waives its usual $30,000 rental fee but will get a percentage of concession sales. The school just wants to break even, and Smith says NFL officials have assured him that that will happen. "I just felt like we shouldn't profit on the circumstances that a natural disaster creates," Smith said.
12:30 p.m.: After breakfast, as they are taking off for Phoenix, the Dolphins look down at the devastation in San Diego. "It became apparent to us that the game could not have been played there," said Greene.
6:30 p.m.: Thousands of people have been in line all day to take advantage of free tickets to the game. The gates open at 4:30 Tempe time for a 7 p.m. start, "and it took till almost game time to get them in," said Chismar.
Smith said part of the problem was unfamiliarity. "I think a good portion of the crowd had never been to Sun Devil Stadium," he said, "so they weren't familiar with all of the entry points."
ASU said the crowd eventuality tops out at about 72,500.
Amazingly, said Chismar, "things went pretty well when we got people in the gates." There were 13 arrests during the game, and three streakers. For the typical Cardinals game: eight arrests and no streakers.
9 p.m.: Game time.
The city has assigned 50 of its 195-member police force to the event, and several sanitation crews. Giuliano said he'll ask the staff at the next city council meeting what it all cost.
"If [the bill] is substantial, we would give it to the National Football League, I would think," he said.
"I was pleasantly surprised the way the broadcast came off," Gaudelli said. "Monday Night Football" had to make do with about 10 cameras, rather than its usual 16 to 17.
Gaudelli said he and other ABC employees tried to stay calm and keep in mind "the grand scheme of things. There were people who had died and there were people who had lost their homes. There were firefighters who were fighting this for days and were going to fight it for days more."
Keeping in mind that with free admission patrons probably had more money to spend on concessions, Everett said Aramark's sales were equal to its biggest regular-season NFL games when the Cardinals play the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers. "We had people there that had never been to an NFL game before," he said. "There were a lot of families. It was a younger crowd, a lot of kids ranging from toddlers to teenagers."
ASU estimated that the profit from concessions would be between $500,000 and $600,000, with the school getting about $300,000 of that, money that would go to pay for operational costs and prepare the field for the next weekend's games.
Tempe had no real difficulties. "I was mayor when the Super Bowl was here," said Giuliano, "so this was nothing."
Spanos summed up the ordeal.
"The darkest moment was when your first thought is, 'Oh my God, the game! What are we going to do?' " he said. "But then reality sets in and you see all these people on TV losing their homes and you realize, 'This is just a football game.'
"I give a lot of credit to the Bidwill family. I think Mike Bidwill stayed up all night. I know he had his players and his cheerleaders and his staff greeting fans coming into our game, and it says a lot about both the Cardinals and the Bidwill family. They are friends."
Staff writer Daniel Kaplan contributed to this story.