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Meet the Vendor
What it takes to Produce the Super Bowl with the NFL's Katie Keenan
by Chris Carver
on August 16, 2016
Katie Keenan

(~6 Minute Read) 

INTRODUCTION
If you could work on any event in the world, what would it be?

My guess: The Super Bowl is definitely in your top 5. It's such a massive production and the whole world would see your handy work. It's also one of the top five most watched events around the globe: #4 behind: the Cricket World Cup Championship, the Olympics and the World Cup Finals. 

It's hard to even imagine what goes into it. So... I thought I'd ask one of the key peeps behind the "granddaddy of em' all". Katie Keenan is the Director of Event Operations for the NFL.

So, if you're one of those that geek out on production shit like me, get your little notepad ready for some action. This one will not disappoint. 

49ers_museum.jpg
One of these kids is doing her own thing... at the 49ers Museum for Super Bowl 50.

LET'S SET THE SCENE
First off, I love the behind the scenes stuff, so as usual I had several questions for Katie (literally pages). But I forced myself to at least start with three goals: 

FIRST:
I really wanted to hear how she ended up in such a big-time role.

SECOND: I wanted to understand what goes into managing such a massive production. Just wait till you hear how many staff they credential for the event (mind blowing).

THIRD:
I wanted to understand how their production process has evolved as the NFL has become more and more of a media juggernaut.

Enjoy. 

Katie, you ready to do this?
Definitely. 

BTW - what's that noise in the background?

Sorry we're just getting the red carpet ready for the NFL Draft tomorrow. 

Oh, I'm glad you're not busy or anything.
Hah. I was excited to do this. I'm honored you'd ask.

Before:
image4.jpg

After:
image3.jpg
Although it doesn't compare to the size of the Super Bowl Production, the NFL Draft is no small feat.

So where did you grow up?
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York.

Big family, small family?
Medium size family. I have two brothers, I'm the oldest. My mother is Italian and my father is Irish.

That's got to be a lively household.
Yeah - It's a lot of fun.

Family_in_Hoboken.jpg
Katie and the Keenan fam in Hoboken

So how would you describe 15-year-old Katie?
At 15, I think that's probably freshman or sophomore year of high school. I went to an all girls Catholic high school. I was shy. I was also a big punk rocker. I had pink hair.

image.jpeg
Katie with The Stanley Cup (circa 2000)

And If your friends were a little tipsy, how would they describe you now?
Oh boy. I think they'd say, "loud, honest, sometimes brutally honest".   

Were you a sports fan growing up?
Oh yeah. I was always a big sports fan. I played, I watched, it was a big part of my life. I was very close to my father growing up, so that had a big influence.

Favorite sport?
Hockey. Big hockey fan. I Love the New Jersey Devils.

Roger Goodell (if you're reading this: ear muffs)

Sooo... you grew up in Brooklyn, but you're a New Jersey Devils fan?
Let's just say that the 400 level at Madison Square Garden wasn't exactly the most appropriate place for a young girl back in the day. And my father's co-worker had Devils season tickets. I just ended up becoming a Devils fan over the years. It was all I knew. 

If you were a piece of production equipment, what would you be?
A walkie talkie, of course! It is the most useful piece of equipment at an event and it ties everyone together. Plus it's fun!

Copy that.
Exaaaactly :)

 SB_48_sideline_solo.jpg
Katie rockin' the walkie & headset at Super Bowl XLVIII. 

Speaking of the walkie, do you think it will ever go away? 
I certainly hope not, because I love the walkie-talkie. I think the beauty of a walkie is its resilience. It's on its own wave length. Even if everything goes down, it doesn't really depend on anything other than the system, the repeaters, and whatnot. I think that the walkie will be around for quite sometime.

So how long have you been at the NFL?
This July will be four years that I've been with The League.

What is your current role?
I was originally hired as accreditation and operations manager. I inherited Super Bowl accreditation, which is a huge process that hadn't been given much love in the years prior to my arrival. We credential over 40,000 people. So that was the majority of my job for the first couple of years. I worked to bring it into the "2000's" by adding technology and new procedures.

And besides the Super Bowl?
Besides Super Bowl, I work on operations for other league events. I’m most heavily involved in the Draft handling general operations and the Red Carpet, and NFL Kickoff which is a big concert and fan event we put on to kick off the season.

I am also working on our international team now. I am the event lead for the game in Mexico City in November. As event lead I’m tasked with keeping the train on the tracks when it comes to everything related to event operations. Most of my focus is making sure that all stakeholders are both getting what they need and delivering whatever we need for them.

 image1.jpg
Katie prepping for the Mexico City game this fall at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.

Congratulations on the new gig, but I’m not sure I can get over the fact that 40 THOUSAND people work on the Super Bowl and you ACTUALLY credential them?
Hah. Well thank you and yes you heard me correctly. If I had to guess, I'd say 70% of the credentials are vendors, transportation, bus drivers, guest services, ticket-takers, whatever.

Yeah no big deal at all.

SB_49_Gameday_credentials.jpg
Boxes on boxes of credentials for Super Bowl XLIX. Photo Cred: Katie Keenan

Super Bowl is a tremendous build out. And in the last couple years, we've had multiple locations. In New York, we had New York and New Jersey. In Arizona, we had Glendale and Phoenix. This year we had San Francisco and Santa Clara and next year in Houston it will be the same.

SB_49_pre_prod.jpg
A little Super Bowl Pre-Production

There are big fan events and media operations in the downtown area, then you have the stadium piece where we build out a 300-foot perimeter for security and all of our game day operations.

Inside that 300 foot perimeter we have the NFL tailgate party, broadcast compounds, operations compounds, storage, and all the functions of Super Bowl that are too large to fit inside of the stadium.

For the pre-event period leading up to the game, we're credentialing everyone, from the guy who's pulling in the trailer, to the guy who's putting up the fence—every person that comes into the stadium perimeter for more than three days gets the credential. Same with the NFL experience: that's probably an eight or ten-day build out, which is our huge fan event that we do the week leading up to Super Bowl. So the numbers break out to be about 20,000 credentials pre-event and 20,000 or so on game day. And those are only the league sponsored venues.

Staff_check_in_SB_49.jpg
Super Bowl check-in requires an entire basketball arena. Photo Cred: Katie Keenan

That's absolutely incredible.
It's insane. The broadcasting network is another 1500 to 2000 credentials. It takes a tremendous amount of people to execute Super Bowl.

Man I’d love to see that P&L for the Super Bowl.
It’s not small :)

SB_50.jpg Pre-Game Super Bowl 50

So, how big is the Full-Time events team at the NFL?
The lead staff that's in the events department bucket is about 28 with another core group of about 30 contractors that are an extension of our events department. We also have a really close-knit group of vendor partners. Some of them have done the Super Bowl longer than the majority of us who are league employees. We're talking 25 to 30 Super Bowls.

Do you then break out the 28 into dedicated teams?
We're figuring that out, especially when thinking about the international side of things. From the a Super Bowl or Draft perspective we have:

1. An operations group (which is a group that I'm in).
2. A hotel and meetings division.

BTW, meetings are a whole other tremendous part of what The League events department does. We have owners meetings and league meetings, and different business summits that some of the people in the department work on year-round.
 
3. A fan facing group.
And 4. A ticketing arm.

 Kickoff_group_shot.jpg
Katie with some of her crew before a Kickoff event.

What are the top three things that make it a dream job and what are the top three things that don't?

First the dream job part:
FIRST:
I'd say being a part of these events never gets old for me. It's special. It's exciting. And it's just an adrenaline rush every time you do it. That's the number one thing. It's very satisfying to know that when you're working so hard, it's because you're a part of this giant event that's going to be seen by so many people.

SECOND: It's a lot of fun when things are going well. Which is most of the time. Not all the time.

THIRD: You meet the most amazing people in this industry. That's probably my favorite part. You just meet people with the most amazing stories and backgrounds, different people from all over the world. Brooklyn isn't a small town, but I grew up in a small little circle of people. Being able to pick up the phone to someone in London, or someone in Mexico, or someone in San Francisco—that's awesome for me personally.

And the worst things?
FIRST:
The hours are brutal. I probably could work half a year and have technically enough hours to get my salary for the year.

SECOND: The times when you feel like you've done everything you can do, but things still go wrong and someone else is unhappy or suffers from it. You can't control everything, unfortunately.

THIRD: The everyday things you miss out on. Although you get to see and do a lot of really cool things, you also miss out on certain parts of life and certain things that you'd maybe want to go do or be at, at home with the family or friends. 

What areas still blow your mind about the Super Bowl production?

Oh wow. There’s a number.

FIRST: The sheer volume. Just the size of Super Bowl is unbelievable.

SECOND: Although it’s not my world, I have the utmost respect for the transportation team. It is one team that doesn't get any glory, but it's such an important piece of what we do. Such a huge piece.

THIRD:
The tremendous attention to detail and the focus on the brand. We are constantly making sure everything is our brand and everything we’re doing represents the shield. There is a reason why the NFL is so successful. We have a great product on the field, obviously—that's first and foremost—but we are constantly making sure that all of our events and everything that goes on is representing the league, the shield, and the brand. We have a great branding and creative team. That's a huge piece of what we do.

[Side note: Harvard Business Review did a really interesting article on why the NFL Brand is worth more now than ever. Check it out HERE]

Another thing… I think it’s unbelievable that the Super Bowl ratings go up every year. I don't understand how many more people there are, that could possibly watch it. But... it just goes up every year. Our scope and our reach just keeps growing and growing and it's unbelievable.

SB_49_media_day.jpg
Super Bowl Media Day: A production in and of itself. Photo Cred: Katie Keenan

I'm curious, how has your event production process evolved as the NFL has grown as a media powerhouse?
We're very aware of that. We're very tied in with our broadcast partners. We're very tied in with our PR team. We're very focused on the experience that the media has at our events. We're very focused on what our broadcast partners are looking for at our events. They are at the table with us from start to finish.

patriots-seahawks-center-stage-super-bowl-media-day.jpg
Super Bowl Media Day: Photo Cred: NY Daily News

And... We're always thinking about how it's going to look on TV or how the media are going to get to a certain location. It's just part of our everyday conversation. How is this going to be shared with social? What is the NFL Network going to do?

We’re always talking about how we can leverage our assets. We have tremendous relationships with our broadcast partners. Great relationships with media outlets. There are people who work full-time to make sure that those relationships continue. It's part of our day-to-day from an event planning perspective. 

What's the best piece of career advice you've received and from whom?
That's another tough one. I had a professor, Jason Smorol, my freshman year of college, who gave a very famous speech. Well…very famous among Cortland graduates, called, "Cleaning The Shitters”. He was a minor league baseball guy.  Basically the theme is that you just have to do whatever needs to get done and some days that includes cleaning the shitters. I've never personally cleaned a bathroom in my career, but I've done some shitty things and you just have to do whatever it takes. 

Who should I interview next and what should I ask them?
Oh wow. So many.

Someone like Jerry Anderson or Todd Barnes from Populous would be great. They've produced 31 Super Bowls. 

My question to them would be: Is it all worth it? Is it all worth it for a football game? Which is all that we're doing and what I remind myself of whenever I start to get stressed out: "It's just a football game."

Well Katie, I think that would be a great question for a number of different folks.

Parting Wisdom?
First: You have to love what you do. I mean why wouldn't you?

Second: I'd say to never be content. If you are content, great, but you have to make yourself marketable and you have to diversify your portfolio of yourself. You have to make sure that you're always learning and you can fit yourself into different teams.

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