Staying focused amid madness of Super Bowl buildup is job No. 1
As soon as the Patriots and Giants left their locker rooms last Sunday with the conference championship trophies in hand, the madness of the Super Bowl was upon them. And so began the challenge for team execs and the head coaches to remind their players, coaches and staff of what's ahead.
The good news for both Super Bowl teams is their leaders know the drill of the two weeks leading up to the big game. For the three-time champion Patriots, it's their fifth trip in the last 10 years and owner Robert Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady (two-time MVP) have been there for all five. For the Giants, the ownership duo of John Mara and Steve Tisch, head coach Tom Coughlin and game MVP Eli Manning were all there when they beat the Patriots 17-14 in Super Bowl XLII four years ago (and Mara has been with the team for their five Super Bowls).
This Super Bowl experience is of great help with the critical challenge of making sure your team avoids pitfall No. 1 -- not being able to navigate the inevitable distractions uniquely associated with this game.
Belichick, Coughlin and the team leaders want everyone focused on the goal of winning the Lombardi Trophy. So they are preaching to the players to get all of their personal business handled as soon as possible before actual Super Bowl week commences Monday in Indianapolis. For players, coaches and staff, their phones, text messages and emails have been going non-stop with requests from family, friends and long-lost acquaintances for game tickets, hotel rooms, party tickets, dinner reservations, airfare deals, you name it.
I speak from experience. My teams went to two Super Bowls during my NFL front office career -- 1977 with the Vikings in Pasadena and 2000 with the Titans in Atlanta. The experiences were a mix of joy to be there, sorrow to unfortunately lose both times but memorable and frenetic in activity.
I was a rookie PR man with that Vikings team making its fourth Super Bowl appearance in eight years. Coach Bud Grant, quarterback Fran Tarkenton and the Purple People Eaters on defense led the veteran-laden team.
Yet with all that Super Bowl experience, I saw a bunch of players who couldn't get out of the ticket business during the two weeks leading up to the game. In those days, player salaries were nowhere near today's levels, so picking up an extra several thousand dollars by re-selling -- yes scalping -- part of their ticket allotment meant significant money for the players. I'm not saying that's the reason we lost to the Raiders 32-14 (QB Kenny Stabler and receiver/MVP Fred Biletnikoff had a lot more to do with the loss). But the distractions of the ticket business didn't help.
I learned from that experience so when I returned to the Super Bowl as president of the Titans 23 years later, I impressed upon our team the importance of minimizing the distractions and staying focused on the game. Adding to the difficulty in 2000 was the fact there was only one week between the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl as opposed to two weeks in most years. As a staff, we had to prepare at the start of the playoffs for a Super Bowl trip, however unlikely that seemed as a wild-card team.
On the Thursday before the AFC title game in Jacksonville, I held a meeting with our players, coaches and staff and their spouses/significant others to go over our plans if we beat the Jaguars. We laid out the allocation of Super Bowl tickets (15 per player and coach), hotel rooms (two apiece and we'd try to help on additional needs), info about the family plane to Atlanta the Thursday of Super Bowl week and family activities in Atlanta. We gave them the basic schedule for Super Bowl week. We encouraged the wives and girlfriends to immediately get to work on the tickets and travel details for family and friends -- while the players focused on the AFC title game at hand -- so that come Sunday night, they would be have their lists ready if needed.
It seemed like sacrilege to be talking about plans for a Super Bowl when you weren't in the game yet but we had no choice. Fortunately, our coach -- Jeff Fisher -- understood the tight timetable. Everything fell in place once we beat the Jaguars on Sunday. We had our stadium celebration upon arrival back in Nashville (50,000 attended on a cold January night) and then bussed directly to our facility, where we passed out detailed books with the pertinent Super Bowl info and collected the players' room and family plane requests. The team was on a plane to Atlanta the next day.
Since it was the first Super Bowl for the vast majority of our players, I was concerned about how they would handle the family and friends issues and if they could stay out of the ticket business once we hit Atlanta. With our pre-planning, things seemed under control as the team got ready to play one of the most exciting Super Bowls in history, the 23-16 Rams win that came down to the final play (Steve McNair to Kevin Dyson -- tackled one yard short of the game-tying TD).
With two weeks between the conference championship and Super Bowl, the Patriots and Giants have the luxury of extra time. Their team Super Bowl planning meetings were held last Sunday night or Monday after their victories. However, the front office staff has been busy for the past several weeks working on Super Bowl plans. Both teams sent up a contingent of employees to the Super Bowl planning meetings that the NFL held in Indianapolis on the Monday and Tuesday prior to the conference title games.
All logistics were discussed --practice facility, team and family buses, hotels, meeting rooms, offices for team staff in the hotel, computer and video setup, family activities, security, etc. Staff members are now assigned to each area, including such items as the home parade following the game and distribution of Super Bowl merchandise to members of the organization.
Team execs have been working with their owners to formulate final ticket allocations and make plans for fan travel packages. Now their travel reps are marketing them to season ticket holders who were selected in the team lottery and to others who can get their hands on tickets. This can be a profit center for teams as they seek to cover and exceed any costs that are not reimbursed by the NFL.
It's a whirlwind of activity this week for the Super Bowl teams just as it will be next week. Coaches have been working hard on game plans to be installed in this week's practices before the team even heads to Indy. The teams' advance staff is now in Indy putting all of the logistics in place as they await the team's arrival.
As ticket and hotel lists are being finalized, the players and coaches who need extra tickets for families and friends are hitting up those in the organization who have fewer needs. Team members are trying not to blow their playoff money by paying for anyone other than immediate family members, especially considering the $800 game ticket prices (plus inflated hotel costs with four night minimum stays).
The owners and team execs are fielding requests from local and national politicians, sponsors, celebrities and the like. Allocations are being finalized for premier events such as the NFL Friday Night Party and the NFL's Sunday Pregame Tailgate Party.
Super Bowl week presents challenges to the teams with a schedule that is far different from the norm. Being on the road for an entire week. Press conference for the coach and key players upon arrival in Indy. Super Bowl Media Day Tuesday at Lucas Oil Stadium, where the star players are engulfed and the fringe players are basically ignored and bored. The teams also meet with the massive media contingent at their team hotels on Wednesday and Thursday and have to schedule their team meetings and practices around the media demands set by the League.
In Atlanta with the Titans, our hotel media sessions were held in a tent outside the hotel that was not well heated amid the freezing weather that week. Just another logistical challenge we had to face (in cold weather Indy, these sessions will surely be inside).
Playing the game in a northern city such as Indianapolis presents challenges for the teams to provide entertainment for the families upon arrival. The local Host Committee plans activities for families and visiting fans and the NFL Experience is a fun activity at the Convention Center. The families may get a private tour of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indy 500.
But Indy does not have as much to offer as New Orleans next year or South Florida with its beaches, plus there are weather concerns. In Atlanta, we dealt with an ice storm during Super Bowl week that disrupted fan and family travel, and Indianapolis is obviously a lot further north (but northern cities are better equipped to handle winter weather).
We had events for the families at the Atlanta Zoo and CNN, not quite the attractions of Disneyland and Universal Studios that our families enjoyed in my Vikings Super Bowl trip. The point is to keep the wives, kids, parents and other close relatives occupied and happy so they are not complaining to the players. Try to make it a fun week but remember it's a work week for the team.
Many Super Bowl teams have used a secret hideaway hotel the night before the game just to get away from the fans, families and friends that converge on the team hotels. Our Titans team didn't do this... we just beefed up security at the team hotel and had midnight curfews for the players during the week and an 11 p.m curfew the night before the game.
One of the biggest challenges for team owners and execs is controlling the number of people invited to the team's postgame party. This expensive party for 1,500 plus people must be carefully planned and security must keep the party crashers out. That was a major challenge for us in Atlanta and we had lost the game.
It's impossible to cover everything that can go wrong at a Super Bowl. I gulped when I walked into our Titans postgame party after the crushing, last-second loss and saw the TV replay of the game on several big screens. If I had known that was planned, I certainly would have nixed it in the event of a loss, but it was too late to stop it.
The Patriots and Giants are trying to anticipate such issues while concerning themselves first and foremost with the distraction issue. Both teams have lots of players who did not play in that memorable Super Bowl in Phoenix, so they have to get them in sync quickly. It's easier said than done but expect both teams to maintain their focus and produce an exciting rematch.