Tips From The Pros
as a head turf manager in professional football. He graduated from Colorado State University’s Turfgrass Management program
and now operates and owns Championship Sports Turf Systems.
Below the Cleats – 2008 DNC – “No One Said There Would be Confetti!”
By June2008, the US presidential election year was heating up. Both parties already had their presumptive nominees and were planning their respective national conventions where Senator John McCain (R)-AZ and Senator Barack Obama (D)-IL would be formally nominated. In late August, the Democratic Party Convention would be in Denver, CO. at The Pepsi Center arena. A week later, the Republican Party convention would be held in St. Paul, MN. At the Excel Energy Center.
Word came out that the DNC was going to move the last evening’s events, the nominee’s acceptance speech, to INVESCO Field at Mile High. The August 28 event date was just 72 hours before we hosted the annual Rocky Mountain Showdown, a nationally televised in-state rivalry college football game between Colorado State and the University of Colorado. This added event right before football season would be a concert type set-up of the worst kind, if you are the field manager.
At major stadiums with natural grass surfaces, concerts are a major challenge but they are almost always part of a stadium tour. The design, build and strike have been dialed in and even practiced several times before the tour starts. Big tours with many dates have two or more stages leapfrogging their way across the country. With a few phone calls to fellow field managers hosting the same show, you can pretty much map out a successful field plan. The 2008 DNC, on the other hand, was what is called a “one-off” show. There was no tour, no chance to dial in a project plan in a way that protects the surface, no fellow field managers to call that had already experienced a tour stop on their field. There was no time in the schedule for field recovery before the college football game.
A week before the event, I told the turf team we would have to work late after the Friday night Broncos pre-season game hosting the Green Bay Packers. After our normal post-game field clean-up of about 90 minutes, we had to get everything off the field; goal posts, field tarps, team benches and everything else had to come off the floor of the stadium before we finished that night. The convention show was scheduled to start moving things onto the field area in the next morning. Somewhere around midnight, a turf team member found a small container on the field with a powder inside. He set it back down and came to tell me in my office. Soon enough the whole turf team was gathered by the HAZMAT team that was called in and had to sit out on the field and await tests results before they would let us finish off what was already a 16 hour day. Fortunately, it tested out to be nothing to worry about.
The long build.
Most stadium tour concerts take about 3-4 days to build the field out and only a day or so to strike (tear down). This show would be an 8 day build with a one day strike, leaving the field team only 50 hours to prepare the field for football by the time we got it back Friday afternoon. We needed to paint the football field with trim-out end zone team logos and sponsor logos on Saturday to allow for drying time before kickoff Sunday evening. Once you paint your game field, there’s no more repair work, you can touch up appearances here and there, do a game day mow and that’s about it. So realistically, we had a 24 hour field repair window, much of that night hours. Driving home at 2 am after that Packers pre-season game, the math wasn’t adding up to me. All we could really do was the old “Clean it and green it” program and hope for the best. We had better be vigilant about preventing as much field damage as we could during the 8 days of DNC or face a national sports embarrassment a few days later.
With little time for repair, the key was to minimize damage during every minute the 16-hour build days.
The original field design had most of the stage and other show elements out in the sideline areas, leaving the playing field for guest seating that does not carry anywhere near the risk of damage that under the stage and other heavy elements. This is only due to the great advances in stadium flooring technology in recent years. The speaker’s stage, that came to be known as “the birthday cake” by the staging crews, was originally going to create a small footprint out on the main field, or that was the original plan.
The “design-as-you-build” project wore on in the August heat. Every element seemed to grow in size and move out more onto the main field. The main speakers stage, aka “the birthday cake” went from a small 12-ft footprint to around 75-ft in just a few days during the build-out. Never do a one-off show if you can avoid it.
Show day is the eye of the hurricane for the field crew. The build is done, the stage is set. The field staff is there to baby-sit the playing surface and put out little fires. A few hours to enjoy a little bit of the show perhaps before the reality of the next few days sets in.
Generally, the production teams and staging teams work all night after an event to tear things down. The field staff gets the field back sometime the next day in most cases. The patron flooring comes up quickly after the chairs are removed. With advanced flooring systems these days, and damage to the grass under these areas is cosmetic at most. It’s the big stage and other elements and sometimes the roadway areas used in their construction where you’ll see the most field damage and those areas take more time to clear after the show. It’s a nervous time for the field manager. The roadways used for construction and all the staging and tower footers have been trafficked with forklifts and cranes and covered with very heavy things on top for several days, maybe a week or more. Until the flooring teams start peeling up these roadways and removing the last of the other elements, you don’t know how well or bad the playing surface came out of the event.
Post-event confetti cannons are the bane of the major stadium field manager, especially after a concert-type of event. There is no good way to get it out of the grass entirely in my experiences. You can blow a good chunk of it off with a strong blower but some sticks into the grass canopy. Under the post-show roadways, confetti gets smashed into the ground and it’s almost impossible to remove without damaging the grass. If it’s plastic and not paper confetti, it never seems to go away.
The flip to football.
Running a large magnet, along with a detailed visual inspection is the first step for the field staff. The surface has basically been an industrial construction site for a week or more and there are usually a lot of screws, bolts, nuts and batteries laying around that not only pose a potential hazard for players, but also tend to result in flat tires on field maintenance equipment. Right behind the magnet, all the lighter trash and debris is blown off the field to the side where we can remove it later; the field window is so tight the work has to start right away.
Many parts of the field will be drought stressed because irrigation gets quite limited as the show build week progresses with all the expensive equipment and electronics on the field. A good irrigation is needed right away, giving the grass a needed drink but allowing time for it to dry back down a bit for the upcoming game. It’s a fine line.
We doubled-mowed our “Denver 10” mowing pattern for football. A good strong mowing pattern can sometimes “mask” discolored, stressed turf areas.
A bio-friendly green paint is used on high-profile grass fields sometimes to mask damage and this was one of those times. The severely damaged grass, like under the stage footers for example, would be hand painted green more heavily to start but this often makes these areas stand out even more because it is almost impossible to paint grass green and match tints with the natural thing. Inevitably, we end up painting the whole field green just to best match tints and make damaged areas stand out less from the stands and on TV.
By Saturday night, the field was ready for football. It wasn’t pretty but it was playable and free of obvious player hazards. Somehow we made it. I have no idea what we would have done if we had any of the significant August monsoonal rains we tend to get.
Game day, we made it!
Sunday night kickoff came and the field played like a champion. By the end of the first quarter I collapsed with relief in my office, watching the game on TV and weather radar on my computer. Working at a major stadium you quickly learn that there are several kinds of tired. The “We did it, we actually pulled it off!” kind of tired is the best. There was some light rain in the second quarter. The field was surely surface-compacted after the DNC show and I doubted it would drain well, but fortunately it was only a spit. Other than Woody Paige saying the field looked like a cow pasture in The Denver Post the next day, the field wasn’t an issue in the game and that’s always the field manager’s goal in these kinds of weeks. Fair or not, the playing field is one of the faces of the organization and team on a nationally televised game. The pressure is in knowing that there is a highly professional team of stadium management and an army of workers that had worked just as hard and long this week on the DNC event and the 72 hour flip to football. Their challenges were just as daunting if not greater and the last thing the field manager wants to do is let the whole stadium team down as well as the athletes, teams guests and fans.
Four years later, the Carolina Panthers faced the same challenge of hosting the final night of the DNC at their stadium. Tom Vaughan, the Panthers venerable field manager and I talked a lot that spring 2012 to help him manage the event and flip. At the last minute, the event was moved back indoors for a threat of rain.
Posted August 18, 2021