who's gonna clean this up?

A few weeks ago my wife Angela won a pair of tickets to the Big Game. Even when recording a video for the company that gave them away, it couldn’t be referred to by name, just the Big Game or the Event. I’m surprised that NBC didn’t complain about that. The name is protected by the NFL in that there is a layer of promotion and advertising that occurs with and without it; they enforce this and have strict guidelines (as well as financial considerations) that must be followed.

Everyone knows that this Event is about money. Cities fight for hosting it, companies spend 3 million dollars for a 30 second spot on TV during the game and the price of everything goes up for the finale of the American football season. Tickets, parking, concessions, lodging, drinks and merch are more than the week before. As much as this sounds like corporations flexing their capitalistic muscle, it also plays into the very real passion of the sporting fan, their team, their community, their love for the game. It’s a perfect storm of greed and passion, played out on TV worldwide.

I know a thing or two about events, from town parks to stadiums. I’ve been working in the event business for 25 years in many different roles:stagehand, roadie, vendor, stage manager, production coordinator. I’ve also participated in 3 different Super Events in 3 different roles; in 2005 I worked for a band at a televised off site event, in 2009 I worked for another during the Halftime Show and this year in Arlington, I went as a crowd member.

I am somewhat jaded when it comes to events, as I have spent so long having All Access passes and not having to herd along with the Great Unwashed. You might find this ironic but as much time as I have spent in arenas and stadiums, I really dislike crowds. For me a backstage pass isn’t about getting somewhere else, it’s about getting away from the crowd. Spoiled as I am, I still go to events without anything other than a ticket and can have a good time.

There is so much that goes into making a good event. Execution does little good without planning. Advance work and the ability to make use of time before doors is key. As my friend Chopper showed me, a good advance leaves you with time to deal with the 200 or 300 things that happen every show day that are unanticipated by people at every level. A good production person is one who handles those audibles with a level head and a smile.

Others I’ve worked with are pioneers in the event industry who created the modern festival format, stadium security and video reenforcement. Without the basic infrastructure, the most simple acts can become a tragic error. Putting colored tape on the edge of the stage, lines on the floor to follow, barricade, proper staffing… they all go unnoticed but when missing can be a dangerous fault.

OK, what does all this have to do with the Super Bowl? (there, I said it) My experience yesterday began on friday when we went to pick up the tickets. This week in the DFW area has been extraordinary weather-wise, with an ice storm. freezing temperatures and a 4″ dusting on Friday. As these are things that are usually momentary here in North Texas, a week where all these special events are going on (many outside), you can see why the game is usually held in Florida or somewhere else that has a good chance of being safe from inclement weather. Dallas is usually pretty mild, but ice storms, cold snaps and some light snow are not unusual. They just don’t usually shut down the city for a week.

Friday Morning before the Super Bowl

Here they sand the roads a bit, especially the big bridges and overpasses on the freeways but rarely plow. In our town, until Saturday afternoon when the temperature finally got above freezing, the major streets were still rutted ice, from Monday. Schools were closed all week. Fed Ex wouldn’t deliver on our street for days because of the lack of roads being cleared.

When we went to pickup our tickets, there was a high sense of SNAFU going on. Though the contest had been going on for a month,the tickets were not delivered until way after business hours on Friday. We figured it was the company who put on the promotion or the brokers they used. Once we had them in hand I checked a chart and found that they were in the temporary seats constructed on the west end zone “party plaza”, a giant concrete slab that is filled with standing room only patrons during Cowboys games, nearly 30,000 can fit on both sides for a somewhat reasonable $29 a head. While there you can drink $10 beers and watch the big screen standing up. Of course you’ve already spent $70 to park your pickup, so, you’re well on your way to a $200 day anyway.

The NFL erected giant temporary bleachers on these plazas, above the end zones. The seats extended way above the giant video screens. This way they could fit 15,000 people into assigned seats; the venue was designed to be able to do this. It was not some last minute jury rigged fix.

Green and Gold

Angela and I left the house about 11am and drove to our new light rail station one mile from our house. The Super Bowl committee got the transit authorities of Dallas, Forth Worth and Arlington to band together for the event, issuing a $30 transit pass for 4 days which would work with all the systems in a nice sleeve and lanyard (which, at the Super Bowl, people wear multiple ones to show their elite status). We traveled south to catch the TRE (Trinity Railroad Express), the commuter train that runs from Dallas to Ft. Worth. At the mid-point, Centrepoint Station, busses waited to shuttle the remaining 7 miles to the stadium. We were dropped off at the nearby Rangers baseball park and joined the throng walking the half mile to Jerry’s House.

And a horse made of crackers...

For the Superbowl, the outer part of any stadium is rebuilt for the event, corrals for the endless media, segmented areas for corporate shmoozing and the slaughterhouse-like funnels for security and ticket scanning. What struck me first was the general lack of signage and the serpentine tapeworm layout for the general public. The mood was positive and the amount of bedecked fans from both sides was trippy.

When we got to the ticket scanning part, both of our barcodes created scrunched faces of the ushers and they announced to us we needed to go to “Resolutions”. Being over a month from New Years, I was concerned. No one was really sure where this was, just “down there, at the end”. Walking at a 90 degree angle of lunging football fans for a 1/4 mile we arrived to a pile of disgruntled patrons also labeled “Resolutions”. Information was not forthcoming from our keepers so we all compared notes and tickets and found that most of us were all in the same temporary seating area. Many of the people in our group came from the season ticket holder lottery on both the Pittsburgh and Green Bay sides. They won the chance to pay face value (another source tells me they mostly paid 3 to 4 times more than face value) and get their butts to Texas to see their teams compete.

As with most American crowds when money, sports and passion are involved, it didn’t take long to hear bitter raised voices. They just wanted to get in and see their team win the game. We were shuttled out of the cordon and to an NFL office where information was being given with an eye dropper. We were eventually told to go to the “Resolutions” area in Parking Lot A. After a time we found an unmarked 3-sided white party tent with 2 bare banquet tables and no people. Eventually a nice English gentleman from the NFL was thrown under our wheels to explain.

He said that there was a problem with the temporary seating we were supposed to be seated in, that they were trying to resolve it and that if they could not, they would pay up to three times the face value of the ticket to refund. This was not an acceptable answer for most of the crowd.We were then directed back to the security abattoir for another screening and then shipped into some plaza party area away from the TV cameras. There was talk of a $10 voucher but it never materialized. A second sheet of paper was handed to us explaining about the seating problem and putting the refund offer in writing. Patience was wearing thin. Most of us got into the security line between 11am and 1pm; it was now nearly 4pm, 90 minutes from kickoff.

Cursing in the chute

The crowd cursed. It cursed the NFL, it cursed the Cowboys but mainly it cursed Jerry Jones. Living in Dallas, the first makes sense, the second doesn’t and the third is a given. He’s not a hero to us either. A reporter found his way into our ranks and was passing our story out into the world. I tweeted and Facebooked. I suspected that there were a few groups of us around as this group didn’t equal 7000. We found ourselves pushed against a chain link fence, inches from the admitted public and about 100 feet from the outside of the stadium. While some drafted a class action suit and others quietly discussed the stupidity of it, others participated in a more traditional response, drunken yelling.

Build it and they will sit...

Around 4 an Arlington police officer walked through the crowd and told the security to open the gate. Apparently the fire marshall had signed off on the bleachers. Our gaggle cheered and staggered towards what we thought was an entrance (remember, signage is an issue). We found our way up to the rafters and the shiny aluminum seating. The outside staircases were still roped off with hazard tape and guarded by bored looking ushers but the interior stairs were clear. It looked save enough, compared to some I’ve seen; it can be a mess when it’s not…

Well, we got in. The section seemed pretty full but we didn’t see a lot of the people we were in line with. Since yesterday we’ve heard that 400 of the ticket holders were taken to the field level bars or bunkers which you can really just watch TV from. In the following photograph you’ll also see 2 (of 4) sections we spotted that looked temporary and were empty for the whole game. They appear to be big enough for about 100 people and would account for the ones below. A friend had his tickets in a section in the 300s (331 I think) which on the official chart is empty but was there during the game, without people.

note the 2 empty black areas on the third level...

( update : Also see photos at Dallas Morning News…)

So the game goes on, the crowd cheers, beers are spilt, Margaritas are sold for $19 and a team is crowned world champion in a league that is only played in one country. We get up and begin to depart, no signage to guide us (through scaffolding racks and road cases with thousands of others), a few false starts and backwards through the muddy tapeworm, back to the street. When we arrived back at Rangers Park, we find a line of people the length of the park waiting for the shuttle to the train station; there were no signs, we had to ask the least drunken person what it was. An hour in the light cold rain listening to smashed logic from visiting fans who have hated their Texan Super Bowl experience and we finally get on a bus which arrives in time for the last TRE trains heading to Dallas and Fort Worth at 11:30. I know it’s Sunday and North Texas, but it’s the Super Bowl! Is it because it’s a school night? We arrived at Victory to grab the last Green Line train home. We made it there, saw the game and got back but it was not a pleasant experience.

big fun in the attic

Ok, so we were inconvenienced for a while, were able to see our first Super Bowl from the seats we were assigned and got home safely. What could be done better in a place with the most ridiculous venue I’ve seen, far between the two city centers with a truly unpredictable weather history?

– Improve the Mass Transit options for an event this size. Get the info out. Super Bowl Week is a corporate junket for some, a bacchanal for some more and a grand sporting tradition for others. Why are there people taking cabs from Arlington to Denton? Why are they considering paying $300 to get from the game to Dallas through Waco in someone else’s van?

-Please, please,please rethink the layout of the infrastructure on the stadium grounds. The media area was positioned so that the stadium was the backdrop for all the reports but it made getting in and out of the venue a pain in the ass and potentially dangerous. Invest in some arrows, signs and people who know where the fuck things are.

-According to the NFL, they knew that seating was an issue during the week; why were they working on a fix until doors? The set up and inspection should have occurred days before, with or without the weather. I know how the Fire department loves to show up an hour before show time and ask you to change everything but doesn’t that mean the NFL should too?

-I know from experience that many people who work for the NFL don’t live in the game city and don’t know the area or the building. How about educating them before the public shows up?

-Please have Maroon 5 next year at Halftime; I want to watch their career end too.

after the loss

From talking to many life long fans and frequent Super Bowl patrons, the North Texas Super Bowl experience left a bad taste in their mouth. They were angry, felt ripped off and said they would never return to North Texas if it was held here again. I was embarrassed to be from here and see so many people so bitter about it. For the rich and the famous, these are all issues that will never touch them in the luxury boxes and their shrimp cocktails. The experience of sitting in the stands is like being in coach class with 100,000 people. Parking is like paying for 2 checked bags. Cowboys Stadium prices make you homesick for Heathrow. As much as this may be the facts of moving numbers in and out of a megadome, if the average joe don’t show up, the scallop sauté station isn’t long for the VIP area.

"the belt"

I hope the NFL looks at how this “Event” was handled and makes an effort to make their bread and butter feel a little more part of the team.