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Mike Scanlon learned a valuable lesson early in his career as a facility manager — never take your building for granted.
Scanlon was the general manager of Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton, N.J., when the unthinkable happened during a sold-out minor league hockey game in 1999. The day before, new Plexiglas panels were attached to the
“We had to move people out of their seats in the first two rows, the best seats in the house, to the club level so they could stand up there and overlook from both ends,” Scanlon said. “We took all the ushers and put them behind the glass and any time it looked like a player check, they had to stand up and physically put their hands up so the glass wouldn’t pop out.”
Fourteen years later, the longest night of his professional career taught Scanlon that it’s best to walk a building prior
Photo by:Philadelphia Union
“You’ve got to get out from behind your desk,” Scanlon said. “You’d be amazed when I come back to my office what I pull out of my pockets with things I find [including] nuts and bolts. Being in an outdoor stadium, you could find a deceased bird in your seating area. You can check the building top to bottom in the morning and by 2 in the afternoon things change.”
The greatest compliment Scanlon received was the day in September 2004 when he was offered the job to run the financially troubled Rose Garden on behalf of the bondholders owning the arena after the Trail Blazers’ facility management firm filed for bankruptcy protection.
Global Spectrum turned things around for the building over the four years Scanlon was in charge. From 2004 to 2008, the arena averaged 48 concerts a year, an increase of 20 shows over the previous regime.
“When I got there, they had undergone massive layoffs … 100 full-time staff at one point,” Scanlon said. “We officially got the keys to the building at midnight Jan. 1, 2004. We had a televised NBA game at 5 p.m. that day and the next week had the U.S. Figure Skating Championships for 10 days on national television. It was quite an undertaking to get ready. We changed ticketing systems and were able to bring the staff back up to 100 people. It was phenomenal to bring the arena back to life and out of bankruptcy.”
Jimmie Sacco is a rare breed of stadium manager. In an industry where individuals often operate buildings in multiple markets, Sacco has never had to leave his hometown of Pittsburgh for another job.
As a kid, Sacco hung around the old Forbes Field on weekends with his father, who worked a second job as an usher at the Pirates’ ballpark to support the family. Sacco himself became an usher at Pittsburgh Civic Arena, the Penguins’ old rink, working his way up through operations, security and, finally, management.
He hung around the arena long enough that the DeBartolo family, who owned the Penguins at the time and controlled the arena, offered Sacco a full-time job.
After spending 20 years at Civic Arena, where he became vice president of operations, Sacco took over as SMG’s general manager of the old Three Rivers Stadium in 1990. Several years later, the Rooney family tapped him to head in-house stadium operations at Heinz Field, the Steelers’ new stadium that opened in 2001. It was a sign of how much trust and respect the Steelers had for Sacco as a facility manager.
Over the past 12 years, their relationship has deepened as the Steelers expanded their reach beyond the stadium
Photo by:Pittsburgh Steelers
Sacco has seen the industry evolve from municipalities running arenas and stadiums to teams taking control of building operations.
“Teams need to have control of everything that generates revenue,” he said. “They have to be able to compete.”
The competition extends to special events to generate non-NFL-related income that the Steelers do not have to share with other teams. Heinz Field has played host to the 2011 NHL Winter Classic, multiple concerts and major film shoots. The stadium books roughly 275 to 300 events in its club areas annually.
To attract stadium shows, the Steelers decided in 2005 to start co-promoting concerts, spending millions of dollars upfront in exchange for a greater return. It’s paid off with Heinz Field becoming an annual stop for Kenny Chesney’s extravagant summer tour productions.
Said Sacco: “We have brought these [NFL] buildings back to notoriety again … with teams looking for additional revenue streams.”
In his 33 years of facility management, Rick Nafe has hosted two Super Bowls (and served as a consultant on behalf of the NFL on nine others), the NCAA Final Four and the World Series, been the point man on the development of three professional sports venues (and currently trying for a fourth), and secured long-term leases for those buildings.
But the Miami native has learned that no matter how hard you try, you can’t plan for everything. Such was the case 24 hours before the kickoff of Super Bowl XXV at Tampa Stadium in 1991.
“They’d been painting the 25th anniversary shield for about two weeks. There’d been a heavy dew and somebody during the New York Giants walkthrough that morning had walked through the shield and made it look almost three-dimensional.”
Repainting wasn’t an option. Nafe needed to find high-grade Bermuda grass to replace that portion of the field.
“I raced over to the Yankees’ minor league complex, because I knew that’s the turf they had, but theirs wasn’t root-bound far enough,” Nafe said. “We needed to dig that turf 14 inches deep so it wouldn’t move during the game.
The only place we could find with the right grass was the University of Tampa’s soccer field.”
While Toma’s crew dug out the middle of the Super Bowl field, Nafe’s crew worked at the soccer field with
Nafe, center, celebrates as Tropicana Field wins an Energy Bowl award from the Stadium Managers Association in recognition of the stadium’s energy efficiency initiatives.
Photo by:Tampa Bay Rays
“Somewhere around 1 a.m. we had the new turf in, George’s crew repainted the logo, and no one was the wiser. If my guys hadn’t been so tired I would have brought the shield to the soccer field.”
Not every solution is as fixable, however. The toughest point in Nafe’s career came in 1998, less than two years after the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays then-owner Vince Naimoli hired him as $85 million in renovations were under way at the ThunderDome (now Tropicana Field).
“The building had been awarded the NCAA men’s basketball 1998 regional and 1999 Final Four,” Nafe said. “We were probably 50 percent under construction in March of 1998. The inside was basketball-ready, but the entrance that would take in about 70 percent of the fans wasn’t. We had 30 straight days of monsoons. It flooded out the entrance and the press area.
“I finally had to have a press conference explaining to everyone that there were four sites for the regionals and one of them happens to be a construction site. Everywhere you turned, nothing was right.”
Weather aside, the regionals went off without a hitch, and two weeks later the ThunderDome reopened on time, with all the public areas completed, for the Rays’ inaugural game. A decade later it was the site of what Nafe says is one of his fondest memories as a stadium manager: hosting the 2008 World Series.
“My office overlooks left field, and ESPN set up their desk right there. So Chris Berman, John Kruk and all their baseball guys were right there outside my window. The whole thing was just such a fantastic experience.”
Jack Larson’s love of hockey drove him down a path to managing major league arenas.
Larson played hockey at Richfield High School in Minnesota and his coach got the team jobs cleaning up after North Stars games at the old Met Center, where Mall of America now stands. As a prep, Larson also got to play on that ice during a 1972 winter holiday tournament.
In 1991, the late Frank Jirik, Met Center’s former general manager hired to oversee development of the San Jose Sharks’ arena project, brought Larson on board as the team’s director of booking and operations.
While the arena was under construction, the Sharks played their first two seasons at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. The facility, built in 1941, is shaped like an old airplane hangar and it did not have a hockey tenant for 20 years until the NHL expansion team arrived.
Larson’s duties included getting the venue ready for hockey, and it wasn’t easy. To get from their locker room to the
Photo by:Minnesota Wild
“It was like night and day moving into a beautiful new building in San Jose,” he said.
In 1994, Larson moved back to Minnesota, spending seven years at Target Center in Minneapolis before taking over as vice president at the new Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, home of the Minnesota Wild. It was his second stint working for an NHL expansion team.
Over the past 13 years, the two arenas separated by the Mississippi River have fought each other hard for concert tours passing through the Twin Cities. Larson knows the key to getting a show are the bonds formed between venue managers and the promoters and agents.
“There is always that challenge of finding and developing relationships that can get you business, that you can count on year to year to bring acts back to your building,” he said.
The Met Center was demolished 19 years ago but the memories, both good and bad, remain fresh in Larson’s mind, including the night the restrooms overflowed as the doors opened for a Neil Diamond concert after a two-by-four clogged the sewer system outside the arena.
Another bad day unfolded after a weeklong leather coat sale on the arena floor during a North Stars’ road trip. It was early in the season and humid outdoors, and the floor decking protecting the ice surface got stuck and came up in broken pieces.
The North Stars had a home game the next night and arena officials had to cancel both teams’ pregame skates so they could melt the ice to remove the rest of the decking before forming a new ice floor.
“We started at midnight and finished at 5:30 the night of the game,” Larson said. “We had future coat sales but we also made sure we knew what the conditions were outside to make sure the temperature controls [inside] were all set properly.”
Brenda Tinnen still gets goosebumps thinking about the events at Staples Center after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The Los Angeles Kings had two hockey scouts die on American Airlines Flight 11, one of two planes that struck the World Trade Center. The team had a special ceremony honoring them during a preseason game a few days after the attacks.
“When they played the national anthem, it was eerily quiet but people were singing it,” Tinnen said. “I get very emotional about it, but I am so proud of the Kings for going on in terrible circumstances and our staff for showing up under trying times.”
It was both the worst day and the best day of her professional life, captured in one heartwrenching moment, according to Tinnen.
Tinnen’s nearly five decades of facility management experience cover five major league arenas in Kansas City,
Photo by:Staples Center
“A lot of people fantasize that they would like to be a general manager because you get to see all the shows,” Tinnen said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s not me hanging out with the teams or the artists. It’s making sure you’re responsible for keeping everybody safe.”
Tinnen was born into the sports industry in Kansas City. Her mother, Alma Baker, was the ticket manager for the old Kansas City Athletics. Tinnen’s grandfather, James Loos, worked security in the team’s clubhouse at Municipal Stadium.
“I literally grew up at the ballpark every summer,” Tinnen said. “I would hang out with my mom in the box office. As a young child, she was always trying to keep me busy with the tasks of [organizing] tickets and labeling envelopes.”
Mom and daughter both worked for the Kansas City Royals as well before moving to new Kemper Arena in 1974 to work for the Kansas City Scouts, an NHL expansion team. By that time, Tinnen already had several years of ticketing experience.
During her 14-year tenure at Kemper, Tinnen met a young Tim Leiweke, who at the time worked for the Kansas City Comets, an indoor soccer team. Later, after Leiweke moved on to bigger things, he convinced Tinnen to help open two new arenas: Target Center and Staples Center.
“I was married with three children,” she said. “It was unique at the time for the wife to be the one that moved the family. I did it, and we had great support.”
Chris Wright’s job with O.co Coliseum requires him to be a quick-change artist as the venue doubles as the home of the Oakland A’s and Oakland Raiders. Those skills were put to an extreme test in October.
At 9:31 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 5, when the last of the 48,000 fans had departed after watching the Detroit Tigers beat the A’s in Game 2 of the American League Divisional Series, Wright’s crew cleaned the ballpark, relocated the pitching mound, installed 6,679 seats, removed foul poles, installed goal posts, removed various sponsor signage and passed a safety inspection. All in 17 hours.
“It was a crazy conversion done in record time,” Wright said. “You need to plan for every single contingency. If a crane goes down and you don’t have a backup, you’re talking about hours of delays. This time around, we couldn’t even afford minutes. And four days later we hosted a sold-out Game 5 at the same time as a sold-out Pink concert next door. We had 63,000 people on-site.”
Wright’s career in facility operations began in 1995 in the corporate finance division at SMG’s headquarters in
Photo by:O.Co Coliseum
Wright next went to Long Island where he served a stint as general manager for the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, now the NHL’s oldest unrenovated arena. “In Nassau, you truly never knew when or where the next problem was going to come from,” he said.
In March 2006, for example, a sewage pipe burst in the ceiling above the Islanders’ dressing and workout rooms, dropping debris and sewage everywhere.
“[Islanders general manager] Mike Milbury was in the training room at 4 or 5 in the morning with hazmat gear on, and I was just thinking, ‘I have to find something else to do.’”
Not all of his challenges on Long Island were venue-related.
“One night, there was an urban artist who just did not want to finish his set,” Wright said. “The promoter was upset because he’s way into curfew, he’s paying stage hands overtime to stand around, and his guy just wouldn’t wrap it up. So the promoter jumps on the side of the stage and he’s signalling for the artist to get off. The crowd can see the whole thing and they love it, of course. It was hysterical. So the promoter jumps down and pulls the plug on the sound board. The artist is furious and jumps off the stage, breaks the sound board and attacks the promoter. Yeah, that was a fun night.”
In the summer of 1979, Jim Folk was a sophomore at Loyola University of Chicago working on his marketing degree with plans on going to law school when he took a part-time job with the White Sox, who were owned by sports’ No. 1 marketer, Bill Veeck.
Then disco changed his life.
Folk was an entry-level security guard that night. It became obvious early that trouble was brewing.
“By the second inning of Game 1, we realize that we have about 60,000 people inside this 45,000 [seat] stadium and a mass of humanity outside trying to get in,” Folk said. “They closed the Dan Ryan Expressway because there were 10,000 pedestrians blocking it. People were climbing on top of the ticket booths to get in, using the TV broadcast cables to scale the outside walls to climb into the press box, climbing the foul poles … .”
What happened after the Game 1 postgame record demolition is part of baseball lore.
“First of all let’s just say they may have used a little more dynamite than was needed,” Folk mused. “There was 10
Photo by:Cleveland Indians
Despite the riot squads, the flying wedge of police motorcycles and the fear he felt while bunkered down in the locker rooms with his co-workers, Folk stuck around.
For the next couple years, he scheduled his classes around his Comiskey Park work life, which was just three blocks from his apartment. In May 1984, he had a decision to make.
“Graduation day was a Sunday afternoon. We were playing the Twins. I was paid by the hour, so I went to work. I picked up my diploma a few days later, folded it up and used it to balance my three-legged dorm fridge and never looked back.”
During his three decades of experience, Folk opened and ran the $110 million Florida Suncoast Dome (now Tropicana Field, home to the Tampa Bay Rays); Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field); and in 2009 he was put in charge of developing Goodyear Ballpark, the Cleveland Indians’ $108 million spring training complex in Arizona.
He now helps operate the ballpark.
Looking back, Folk says this is the time of year when he realizes how much his job description has changed.
“There’s no offseason now. We used to be able to put our feet up on the desk in October and relax until February, when someone would realize, ‘Oh crap, we’d better start getting this place ready.’ Now as soon as you’re done in October you’re planning for next year’s stadium experience. And our job now goes way beyond the venue — it starts and ends in your garage. Everything in between is part of the Indians’ stadium experience. And if we’re doing it right, no one knows we’re here.”
What hasn’t changed, he said, is his job’s favorite reward: “Nothing is cooler to me — nothing — than seeing a kid at his first game. That look of awe never gets old.”
As a teenager growing up on Long Island in the 1970s, Peter Sullivan sneaked into Nassau Coliseum to see Dr. J and Rick Barry perform their wizardry for the New York Nets.
“It’s not something I’m proud of,” Sullivan said. “[But] I vividly remember that this would be the greatest thing of all time if you could work in a building like this. From that point on, I set my sights on getting involved in the business.”
After earning a graduate degree in sports administration from the University of Massachusetts, Sullivan got his start in 1982 as an intern at the Worcester Centrum working for Tony Tavares, the arena’s general manager for SMG, the firm operating the building.
“That was a time in the industry when arenas were doing killer numbers of concerts,” Sullivan said. “The Centrum was one of the busiest buildings in the country. We did 50 to 55 concerts a year.”
During his tenure with SMG, Sullivan worked on the feasibility study tied to building a new stadium in St.
Photo by:University of Phoenix Stadium
In early 2004, while on spring break with his family in Florida, Sullivan got a call from Global Spectrum officials asking if he wanted to run the first NFL stadium featuring a cutting-edge design where both the roof and the field were retractable.
At the time, Sullivan ran a minor league ballpark and a convention center in Lansing, Mich. He took the Arizona job and, close to 10 years later, shakes his head at the dramatic change he’s seen in the West Valley landscape surrounding the Glendale facility.
“The Coyotes’ arena was about five months old and the stadium was 15 percent complete,” he said. “I looked around and saw nothing else. It was daunting. Now, there is [Westgate] outdoor mall, [Tanger] outlet mall across the street, the Renaissance Hotel and condominiums.”
There have been many highlights over his career, but Sullivan points to the startup of the Common Ground Music Festival in Lansing as one of his best moments. The event — as he promised the city would happen — lost $400,000 before turning a profit in its fourth year.
“That’s a big deal to me because it’s not every day you can start a festival that’s still going to be around after 14 years,” he said. “It’s hard to keep those things going, so I feel really good about that.”
Bob Hunter’s plan was to work in sports medicine, but his internship when he was a graduate student at the University of Washington was an eye-opener.
“I realized that I really did not want to work with athletes,” he said.
So Hunter started his career at Ontario Place, a 96-acre entertainment complex in Toronto. “I was not a mascot, although that would have been a much more fun job considering all the hours I was working,” he said.
In early 1987, Hunter was recruited to oversee the development of the $500 million SkyDome (now Rogers Centre),
“One night back in 2001, we hosted the Backstreet Boys, when they were the unbelievably hot commodity,” Hunter said. “We totally lost control of the floor seating early in the night. It took us an hour and a half to get it back. I was fighting with screaming, fighting kids — teenage girls mostly. And at one point I looked around and asked myself, ‘Why exactly am I in this business. Is this my future?’ But in this business you have a tendency to forget the bad. A lot of people don’t last because it really is a different, difficult lifestyle. I mean, you work when other people don’t.”
Hunter took a hiatus from the sports world in 1994 to launch a real estate investment consulting firm. But in January 1998, he returned to the sports and entertainment industry.
“Richard Peddie, my former boss, tricked me into coming back. He said ‘We’re opening this new arena for the Raptors and we’d really love to have you on the team.’ So I came back and five weeks later we were bought by the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the whole design of my role and the arena and everything really became more hockey-centric rather than basketball-centric. And now — scary thought — I’ve been here almost 15 years after getting tricked.”
Allen Johnson remembers the day Joe Paterno saved him from further embarrassment.
It was New Year’s Day 2010. Penn State played LSU in the Capital One Bowl on national television and the field conditions at Citrus Bowl Stadium were horrible.
“We resodded the Citrus Bowl but because of the weather, the turf did not have a chance to grow,” Johnson said.
ESPN/ABC televised the game and the field conditions became a hot topic during the broadcast. As the stadium manager, the spotlight turned on Johnson for providing answers on what happened to the turf.
“I had [reporter] Erin Andrews following me around the sideline trying to get an interview and I was doing my best to avoid her,” Johnson said. “Not many men will say that.” The two finally talked, he said.
When asked by reporters after the game about the turf conditions, Paterno told them, “The last I looked, we both
Photo by:City of Orlando
“God rest his soul,” Johnson said.
For Johnson, it was just another lesson learned over his career in facility management covering arenas, stadiums, convention centers and an MLB spring training facility, all in Florida.
Much of it was on-the-job training. In the early 1980s, there was no sport management program at the University of Central Florida, where Johnson earned a degree in psychology. He learned the business through selling tickets and taking a class schedule based on what industry professionals told him he needed to know as a venue operator.
“In college, I worked all the concerts and football games at the stadium, which was then called the Tangerine Bowl,” he said. “I got to know people in management. The advice they gave me was to take classes in accounting, contract law, risk management and marketing/PR.”
The customized course load paid off for Johnson. He learned how to interact with the media (Cap One Bowl excluded), make sense of financial statements and negotiate with concert promoters.
Overall, Johnson takes pride in Amway Center’s unique position as the only major league arena run by a city entity, one of seven publicly owned venues he oversees in Orlando. All other NBA and NHL facilities are run by teams or third-party firms.
“I always say, the book I write is going to be good … when I pass away it can be released,” he said.
A musician friend of Libby Raines recently said to her “You don’t choose a life in music, it chooses you.”
With a facility operations résumé that spans 32 years, Raines knew exactly what her friend meant.
“The same thing could be said for the event management life,” she said. “Once you get into it, it just grabs ahold of you and doesn’t let go.”
“I figured out quickly that I wouldn’t be happy starving,” she said. “So when I came out of college with a liberal arts degree, I naturally didn’t really have a career plan!”
Upon graduating in 1981, she took a short-term position in the ticket office of the Calgary Stampede, the city’s annual fair and agricultural exhibition, where she spent a lot of time “counting deadwood” (unsold seats). In 1983, she became the second employee at the new $61 million Olympic Saddledome (now Scotiabank Saddledome) when the Stampede was awarded the building’s management contract. When the Calgary Flames took over arena operations in 1994, she became an employee of the team and has held the position of vice president of building operations since 2001.
She has guided events around the 1988 Olympic Winter Games, three Stanley Cup playoff series and the 2006
Raines prepares to drop the honorary puck at a Calgary Flames exhibition game at the Saddledome, which recognized her efforts to repair the arena from extensive flood damage.
Photo by:Calgary Flames
Yet many of her most vivid memories include animals, rather than athletes or singers. One such event occurred about 25 years ago when a circus was in town.
“The Stampede was hosting their annual bull sale and the circus had come to town,” she said. “The building was still in hockey mode, so during the conversion the elephants were being set up in an adjacent barn normally reserved for the bulls. One of the ag guys was moving the bulls as the elephants were being moved in.”
When an elephant announced his presence with a loud trumpet, it startled a bull, which picked up its handler and dropped him to the ground, breaking the man’s arm. An earlier incident saw a member of her crew picked up by a pachyderm and dropped, also resulting in a broken arm.
But few memories will be as lasting as those surrounding the floods that devastated the city this summer, with water levels reaching the eighth row inside the arena.
“As much as it was a terrible thing, it was such a positive team building within our operation and for our city,” Raines said. “We had so much support from ticket holders, sponsors and partners. We had fans showing up with pumps. Season-ticket holders calling and asking how they could help. It was really a heartwarming time. We feel so honored that we serve such a wonderful community.”