SBJ/20090126/Super Bowl XLIII

Travel plans in works long before teams set

When the AFC and NFC champions meet in Tampa on Sunday, their berths in the game will be a mere two weeks old, but each organization’s front office has been planning toward the appearance for far longer.

Not that much was said about it.

“Everybody knows you have to do it. You just don’t want to talk about it,” said Gary Wright, former Seattle Seahawks vice president of administration. “Whether it’s being superstitious or whatever it is, it’s important that people concentrate on the job of getting to the game, and let us worry about what’s going to happen once we get there.”

Wright is not alone. Early preparations for a Super Bowl trip have become the rule rather than the exception for NFL teams, with much of it done undercover.

One executive admitted to traveling incognito to a Super Bowl host city in November to scout out the town, even telling hotel officials he was thinking about holding a convention there. Wright said he did a Super Bowl dry run one year when the Seahawks spent a long week in Jacksonville between regular-season games, taking advantage of the opportunity to set up an auxiliary training room, an equipment room and offices at the hotel.

Well before players touch down, or even
win their way into the Super Bowl, team
executives and travel agencies start
working out details of the trip.

All this team-level work serves to complement an organizational system that begins with the league. The playoffs are a league-led venture, and with the Super Bowl being the crown jewel, the NFL directly takes care of many aspects of the Super Bowl trip for the teams.

The league provides hotels for the players and front-office personnel of both teams, as well as friends and families. The NFL also reserves all necessary facilities for each team, including practice space, weight rooms, meeting rooms and makeshift offices. The league even works with the teams for their postgame parties, hospitality areas and suites.

It’s Frank Supovitz, senior vice president of events for the NFL, who ensures that all teams are fully prepared for the game logistically.

“We try to minimize the distractions for the clubs so they’re able to focus on what they are there for, which is a business trip and the playing of the game,” Supovitz said.

Ahead of Week 17 of the regular season, the league holds a conference call with all teams that are still eligible for the playoffs, going over every aspect of the experience. Teams gain access to an intranet site containing details on the league’s contributions toward everything from hotel rooms to rings. The NFL also provides teams with a manifest of all tickets that will be in their allocation — generally about 17.5 percent of the available tickets in the stadium for each team — allowing teams to have a database of all the ticket locations so they can work ahead and begin planning for distribution both within the organization and to their sponsors.

Once the conference championship games are set, the next level of planning begins.

The league invites representatives of the four remaining teams to the Super Bowl host city, where Supovitz leads the teams through tours of the game venue, practice facilities, hotels, meeting rooms and even bus routes. Supovitz and his crew also provide a comprehensive guide outlining rental cars, hotel rooms, meal functions, tickets, parties, hospitality and suites.

And when the Super Bowl matchup is set, the league meets the teams at the airport when they arrive in the host city and provides at least two staffers to assist with any needs throughout their time there. The NFL staffers aiding the teams report to Bill McConnell, director of event operations for the league, who oversees every aspect of the team experience during their stay, from hotel rooms to locker rooms.

Representatives of several recent Super Bowl teams praised the NFL’s involvement in the planning process, acknowledging the league’s vast experience in both running the Super Bowl and observing teams’ preparations for the game, but they stressed the importance of the team-level work, as well.

The staff of the Patriots put in 20-hour
workdays getting ready for Super Bowl
XXXVI, but the experience paid off
when the team planned subsequent
trips to the big game.

Lou Imbriano, who led the planning for the New England Patriots ahead of their Super Bowl appearances in 2002, 2004 and 2005, said the league-hosted meeting ahead of the championship games is far too late to begin preparing.

“If that’s their starting point, they’re way behind the eight ball,” Imbriano said. “There’s no way you can plan for what happens in that week, in the three weeks before an event. As much as the NFL does, if you’re going to take it to the next level, your group has to be prepared. They have to have assignments.”

Former Seahawks executive Wright, who led the planning process for Seattle’s Super Bowl trip in 2006, echoed the need for advanced planning.

“Once you realize you’re going to go into the playoffs,” he said, “then you have to start.”

Beyond planning for their own personnel, friends and families, some teams prepare options for fans traveling to the Super Bowl.

The Chicago Bears, for example, prepared a packaged travel deal for fans including tickets, airfare and accommodations ahead of their appearance in Super Bowl XLI in 2007. As soon as the team defeated New Orleans in the NFC championship game, the Bears launched a site for fans to purchase the travel plan.

Similarly, Imbriano said the Patriots put together trips packaging airfare and parties featuring the Black Eyed Peas and Lionel Richie, among other acts. Imbriano, who now serves as president and chief executive of TrinityOne Worldwide, recommended that teams hire an outside company to handle much of the burden, though the Patriots handled their preparations in-house during his tenure as vice president and chief marketing officer.

Imbriano left the Patriots in 2006 to start TrinityOne, a sports and entertainment marketing firm out of Boston, after working with the team since 1997.

Ahead of Super Bowl XLI, the Bears started fielding calls in mid-December from travel companies interested in leading their planning efforts, according to Chris Hibbs, senior director of corporate sales and marketing for the team. After the team advanced to the Super Bowl, PrimeSport, the company they selected, arrived at Bears headquarters early the next morning and essentially served as a travel agent for everybody from players to VIPs to ownership. The company also led the team’s fan travel efforts.

“The travel relationship is probably the biggest one, because if you choose the right company, and there are only a few of them who do it well and do it traditionally year after year with NFL teams, they handle so much of the truly tough planning,” Hibbs said.

The Seahawks, who boasted several executives who had gained Super Bowl experience with other teams, did not enlist the help of an outside company. But Wright, who gained firsthand experience assisting the NFL for more than 20 Super Bowls in the media center while with Seattle, admitted he might have sought outside help if the team had not had so many experienced personnel.

“Experience is absolutely tremendous,” said Wright, who left the team in March and now works with Seattle’s MLS expansion Sounders FC as senior vice president of business operations. “It helps so, so much. If you haven’t been in it and been part of it, you think you know what it’s about, but that game is huge, and there are so many aspects to it.”

Imbriano said previous experience is invaluable, something he learned from the first of the Patriots’ three-in-four-years Super Bowl trips, Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans.

“I lived through New Orleans, and there was no way I was going to live that life again, because we were working 20 hours a day, sleeping four, and we were scrambling,” he said. “As well as I think we did, there were a lot of things that fell through the cracks. The Super Bowl is big, so you have to be in line with that in the way you handle yourself and the way you operate.”

While the logistics are clearly different from year to year with new cities and venues, Wright stressed the importance of developing a plan and applying that blueprint to each individual experience.

Every Super Bowl has its wrinkles, such as
Jacksonville’s use of cruise ships for housing.

“You can’t just say, ‘Well, we’re going to do it exactly the same way as we did in Detroit.’ You have to be able to adjust,” he said. “But if you have a plan, you have to believe in your plan, stick with your plan — and be able to adjust on the fly.”

Imbriano recalled the league using cruise ships to house people for Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville.

“[There is] always a new wrinkle no matter what city you go to,” he said.

But with owners and coaching staffs being the superstitious type, marketing and event officials find themselves conducting their advanced planning under the table lest they provide bulletin-board material for an upcoming opponent.

“Ownership and the football operations and the coach would’ve had a conniption,” said Imbriano of the extent of his early planning for the Super Bowl.

He added that while the players and staff can, and should, focus on winning a game, he and his colleagues have their own business to do.

“It’s the fiduciary responsibility of someone running marketing to understand what needs to be done … in order to generate revenue for your team when you go to a Super Bowl,” he said.

Hibbs similarly said the Bears parlayed the game into future business successes by reigniting the Chicago fan base.

“From that respect, it was a big boon to our front-office business,” he said. “But certainly the priority for everybody in the organization was, ‘Let’s make this about winning a football game.’”

Wright also noted the off-the-field goals compared with what happens once the game itself begins.

“Everybody that does the planning and everything else, those things are all important,” he said. “But the important thing is winning.”

Erik Swanson is a staff writer for sister publication SportsBusiness Daily.

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