- SI.com took a behind-the-scenes look at the Super Bowl LI media festivities in Houston.
HOUSTON — The taxi dropped me off a block from my hotel Monday morning, unable or unwilling to navigate the new traffic pattern to transport me to the front door. As I rolled my luggage down the sidewalk, the purpose of my trip was unmistakable. The blocked off roads, the gigantic banner of a Lombardi Trophy draped from the building across the street, the light posts adorned with NFL insignias and the plentiful J.J. Watt jerseys in every direction—Houston was ready for a football game.
They’d played 50 Super Bowls without me, but finally I was here for my first one.
Below are some of my notes and thoughts from throughout my week as a Super Bowl media rookie.
My Monday started obscenely early, with a 3:35 a.m. alarm clock in New York, and a 6:30 takeoff from LaGuardia. But I’m not complaining. While many say that Super Bowl Media Day is a pain, and even plan trips to arrive the following day, it’s also a bucket list item and rite of passage. I’m not ashamed to admit I was excited to see the spectacle in person for the first time.
I landed plenty early and picked up my credentials for the week at the George R. Brown Convention Center, an enormous building five city blocks long just a short walk from my hotel. The rest of the surrounding area was consumed by the Super Bowl. I walked by a fenced in area with food trucks, an ice skating rink and countless activities. There was seemingly no reason to leave, which was probably the idea all along.
Media Day itself—sorry, Super Bowl Opening Night—was held in Minute Maid Park, the home of the Houston Astros. Fans sat in the stands around the infield while we walked around on the covered field.
While many reporters were working on targeted story ideas, my plans were more flexible. I was posting fun pictures and clips straight to SI’s social channels and just looking around for anything interesting.
While walking around with my camera open, it also became stunningly clear just how many cameras were out. You have to be careful not to trip, pick your nose or scratch yourself in the wrong spot, because it will be caught on somebody’s camera—possibly over the shoulder of Ladanian Tomlinson or Simone Biles as they’re conducting interviews. Not enough people warn Super Bowl rookies about this.
As you’ve probably seen on TV, players fall into one of two categories: There are the select players set up at podiums and the guys walking around through the media horde on the floor.
The podiums can present challenges if you haven’t staked out a spot early. Tom Brady and Matt Ryan had consistent crowds around them, with many cameras staying put through the whole hour. The scrum can be just as competitive, depending on the player. Jimmy Garoppolo had a podium-level crowd, despite being relegated to the floor. He stood patiently as writer after writer asked him whether he wanted to be a starter, and what team he might play for next year and Jimmy, Jimmy, I know you told the last guy that you haven’t started thinking about next season yet, but have you started thinking about next season yet?
Getting a word in can be tricky because not only are there so many reporters, they also have so many agendas.
There are national reporters whom the players are familiar with. There is Michael Irvin, who is apparently allowed to sidle up next to any wide receiver and take over the press conference for a bit. There are people asking way-too-personal questions for this type of setting where you can’t ease somebody into a personal conversation, and then follow-up questions even if the players aren’t interested.
There are beat writers for teams not in the Super Bowl, who have the unenviable task of finding storylines relevant to the teams they cover. I watched Panthers and Saints reporters ask Falcons players about what they might have learned from those games, while others stood around with a look that said, “I understand you need to ask this, but it really doesn’t help me at all.”
And of course there are questions about shoes, and music, and from reporters in goofy outfits or from people with props trying to engage players in comedy bits they don’t realize they’re a part of.
You can get a fun answer, I’m told, if you ask a fun question. So I figured I’d follow up on one of my favorite prop bets for the Super Bowl: Over or under 2.5 different players throwing a pass. I wrote in my prediction that I was taking the over, hopeful that either Mohamed Sanu or Julian Edelman might get a trick play.
I wedged my way to the front of Sanu’s podium and asked him who was a better QB, him or Edelman. He did not come close to taking the bait. He merely told me that Edelman played QB in college, so probably him. I absorbed some weird looks and scurried off to ask Vic Beasley what it would feel like to sack Tom Brady in a Super Bowl. (It would be good to get the ball back. Got it.)
Overall, Opening Night is a fitting, well… opening night… for the week. The unnecessary grandeur perfectly sums up the vision the NFL has for the game. Fans come to sit in the stands, though it’s hard to understand why. Teams are led out onto the stage for introductions. The night featured televised interviews on the stage conducted by Scott Hanson and Sal Paolantonio. There was even a concert, not just at the end but between team shifts.
I left the ballpark and made my way back to the hotel before the fireworks. Yes, fireworks.
Of course, being that this is a media event, all you need is good Wi-Fi and decent free food to keep the masses happy. For the record, the Wi-Fi was bad but the chicken fingers and cookies were decent.
Overall we can call Monday a success.
I’m not sure what a better term would be for Radio Row, but it has clearly outgrown the nickname from a time it might have literally been a row of people. Radio row is now practically a city block, taking up the equivalent of multiple ballrooms on the third floor of the gigantic convention center.
Each outlet is assigned its own area, which felt like both a workspace and a sort of status symbol. Along the outside of the room, television shows have set up entire studio sets with anchor desks, monitors and signage. These are the shows that tape with the rest of radio behind the anchors, so that every time I walked around aimlessly I was probably in the background of Jim Rome’s show or Doug Gottlieb’s.
Within the center of the room, there is a fenced-off section with actual rows where each outlet has assigned tables. Groups shooting video tend to be on the outside of this inner circle, so they have space to set up and shoot. Others on the inside have radio headsets at desks or around tables.
The mood around radio row seemed surprisingly subdued. It was only Tuesday, but people were already talking about how boring the week was. The only two headlines to come out of Media Day were Tom Brady claiming he was unaware of what’s happening in the world and Martellus Bennett saying he wouldn’t visit the White House if the Patriots win—and neither of those comments were very surprising.
But the shows—heavy emphasis on plural—must go on. There are millions of hours of airtime and thousands of guests to book, and the time has to be spent talking about something.
While I spent much of the day in the radio row room, I also definitely familiarized myself with the all-important media lounge, which was really just an alcove out of the giant hallway to radio row that offers free meals three times a day. There were many tables in the lounge area to consume free food, or sit and work in slightly quieter conditions. There was also a pool table and two rows of movie theater style seats facing a TV turned to ESPN all week. Between meals there are unlimited bags of pretzels and a constantly churning popcorn machine.
Tuesday ended with my first Super Bowl party, the official media party—or “nerd prom” as one of my coworkers likes to call it. You always hear about the Super Bowl party scene, but I think that more commonly refers to the types of parties where Snoop Dogg performs. (I didn’t get an invite to that one.)
I took a bus over with a few coworkers to the media party, a lovely affair at a science museum that offered oysters, whiskey tasting and lots more free food and drinks.
The people-watching here was not as exciting as Media Day, a mix of journalists and some Houston locals who seemed important for reasons I was unaware of. I knew almost nobody there, so I didn’t stay very long. But I did get a free tote bag on my way out.
We all knew going in that Wednesday’s headliner was Roger Goodell’s annual press conference. The event had some added intrigue this year, after mysteriously getting moved from its normal Friday spot up to Wednesday. There was media chatter about the reasoning. Did he move it up to announce bad news when fewer reporters might be around? Did he move it up to announce good news that he didn’t want buried on a Friday? Can news get buried during Super Bowl week? The chatter was inconclusive.
I stood in the back and watched the commissioner take question after question, but you don’t gain a ton of insight from attending a Goodell press conference in person that can’t be weaned from seeing it on TV.
This one had a bit of an adversarial tone, thanks mostly to the high number of Boston reporters he called on. You’ve probably heard about Deflategate from the last two Super Bowls and roughly, oh, every day since.
But again, much like Media Day, there wasn’t much surprising news. Goodell refused to engage in any conversation on politics, he defended recent team relocations and Thursday Night Football, and he assured us things aren’t awkward with the Patriots.
Aside from that bit of excitement, my Wednesday felt much like my Tuesday. I spent most of my week at our radio row set-up to help coordinate SI’s live videos for Facebook and Twitter. It’s interesting to arrive at the Super Bowl and see how many different ways there are to spend the week.
Many, like me, spend the majority of the week tucked into radio row. Others take daily shuttles to the team hotels for press conferences and media availability. Others feel like ghosts who you never see, sort of lurking around the periphery of Super Bowl week, trying to pull people aside or work the phones for true one-on-one exclusive access. And finally others seem to have more time to experience the location and post pictures of different barbecue spots every day on Twitter. It was about this time in the week that I realized I was doing things very wrong. Note to self: Get one of those jobs where you can eat fancy tacos and local barbecue every day.
By Thursday things really picked up at radio row, which was suddenly overflowing with athletes. Players were hawking themselves, their sponsors or their events, and A-listers like Drew Brees, Antonio Brown, Brandon Marshall, Jim Kelly and Drew Rosenhaus were everywhere.
In the past, people have made it seem to me like part of the fun of radio row is having access to all these football celebrities. Maybe that’s still true, but what stood out to me was how overscheduled everyone was. The bigger names seemed to have every minute of their days blocked off, surrounded by agents, PR people, handlers and whole crews of people. Many of them had appointments with SI, but often at times like 11:15 or 3:20. They’d arrive, do their scheduled bit, and get ushered off to the next one in a long list. I spoke to one friend with way more connections than me, and he told me about how he requested access to a player and was given time as the player walked between sets of two previously booked television spots, then finished the interview as he walked from the second TV spot to yet another.
So it’s not like I could just grab Drew Brees and ask him for 10 minutes. There were probably five different people who would have intervened before it came to that.
But with so many players repeating the same quotes for station after station, the fun part is finding the unique access everyone really craves. Which leads us to Thursday night.
A few of us from SI were invited to attend the NFLPA’s VIP party, and given one-on-one access to a great list of players in a green room at the party.
While many of the athletes who came through our radio row set were asked newsy questions—politics was an unavoidable topic this week—we knew in advance this wouldn’t be the right environment for that. Since we had athletes next to the bar on their way into a party, we just shot some fun videos, playing “Would you rather?” hypotheticals with guys like Carson Wentz, Eddie Lacy, Michael Vick, Brandon Marshall, Doug Baldwin, Joe Thomas and John Urschel.
Thomas, the 6’7’’ 300+ pound lineman, complimented my eye contact during the interview, offered to take part in a staring contest and then recoiled and called me intimidating. This will be the obvious highlight of my week, no matter what happens at the game on Sunday.
After a few hours of shooting, we were invited to come upstairs and check out the party. (Read: Eat and drink.)
Something seems to change when the sun goes down at the Super Bowl, where suddenly all anyone can talk about is the parties. Every conversation turns to what the plans are for that night, who you know with connections to what party and how many people you can get in. I, of course, have zero connections. But I’m extremely open to the idea of somebody getting me into an extravagant party.
People are trying to talk their way into the EA Sports party, an ESPN party and others that I’m hearing rumors about. I barely know how to begin, but then all of a sudden I’m at the NFLPA party. There are duck crepes and dumplings and sushi. I pick out the perfect piece of shrimp tempura, pass the tongs along to a very large NFL player I don’t recognize and life is good.
It definitely dawned on me that I didn’t really belong there, and yet I had been invited upstairs and that’s all it takes to be told that strangely I do. Everyone at the Super Bowl seems to be trying to talk their way into just one level above where they should be allowed during a week-long affair of athlete, reporter and sponsor comingling.
I’m in the party and nobody appears to be kicking me out. Let’s check out the dessert table.
By the end of the week, radio row is open to fans. It’s hard to decide if that’s more or less strange than letting fans come to Media Day. But after a few days of people checking credentials at the door, there is now a flood of people surrounding the fenced-in media area.
Within those boundaries, it was more of the same. The athletes, the PR people, the minute-by-minute schedules.
I took a breather and spent some time on the first floor at the NFL Experience, also in the convention center. The bottom floor was a wide open space even larger than radio row upstairs, with all sorts of exhibits showing off the history of the league and interactive games where fans could catch, throw and kick footballs, or embarrass themselves trying.
Jerseys of nearly every team were represented in the crowd, with plenty representing the Super Bowl foes, but Texans fans also came out in strong numbers. And if you’re not wearing a J.J. Watt No. 99, you are in the minority. One thing I learned spending five days enveloped by Texans fans is that there just aren’t a ton of options for jerseys. Within each crowd, you were guaranteed to see a few DeAndre Hopkins jerseys, but the now-retired Arian Foster might have been third most popular. There were some stray Jadeveon Clowneys and Brian Cushings, and Andre Johnson joined Foster as a popular (and deserving) former star. But beyond that, the pickings are a little slim.
I spent the week looking, and I honestly don’t think I saw a single Brock Osweiler jersey or shirsey the entire week.
Late in the day I went downstairs and witnessed football history, as Adam Vinatieri set a Guinness World Record for most field goals made in a minute. It was all very official, with the GWR rep there to oversee and even Pat McAfee on hand to do the holding.
The former Colts punter briefly came out of retirement to don neon gloves, an American flag bandana and an America is the GOAT t-shirt as Vinatieri booted ball after ball through the uprights.
I returned upstairs around 4:30 for my daily supply of free food and sat down at a now empty SI table with a plate of crawfish and shrimp. Around me, many of the TV sets had been taken down and packed away.
On the other side of the wall, a throng of fans gawked at Larry Fitzgerald, screaming for autographs. He kept walking, and then passed directly behind me, suddenly creating the largest crowd of strangers that has ever watched me try to open a crawfish.
A few minutes later, I heard another commotion even louder than Fitz’s and knew it could only be one thing—Gronk.
The Patriots’ most lovable rockstar had been absent from Media Day, but suddenly fans got eyeballs on him at an exhibit set up by Ameritrade in the corner of the room.
Fans lined up many rows deep even though they were too far to get a good picture or hear the full interview.
Just as I was planning to pack my stuff up after a hectic week at radio row, it was a welcome sight.
After a week of long hours, time spent complaining about Wi-Fi and obsessing over free food and party invitations, it could be easy to feel jaded about the Super Bowl media experience. This was a week where the storylines felt kind of blah, athletes were asked about politics as much as Xs and Os, and many of us were distracted and wondering how important sports are in the grand scheme of things anyway.
But to see how many fans totally lost it at the chance to be in the same room as Gronk was a humbling reminder of just how lucky I am to do this for a living.
Bring on Super Bowl weekend.