On the Gridiron: San Francisco 49ers Production Team Shifts Gears To Engage the Players
Even without fans in the stands, the team presents original material on the videoboards
Many professional sports have opted for a return to play inside a sanitized bubble. Not the NFL. Without skipping a beat, the league is soldiering on with regular-season games in all 30 stadiums across the country. Similar to our At the Ballpark series, On the Gridiron examines the new routines, habits, and production philosophies of in-venue personnel on any given Thursday, Sunday, or Monday.
In January, still two months from the nationwide stoppage of professional sports events, Levi’s Stadium hosted the NFC Championship between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers. As the victorious home team celebrated with fans, it was one of the biggest moments in the venue’s six-year history. Now, at the beginning of the team’s attempt to return to the Super Bowl, the building is empty and completely different from what it was before the pandemic. And the in-venue and production teams are adopting new ways to put their content to good use.
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“The last time we were inside of Levi’s Stadium was the NFC Championship Game, and the energy was unreal,” says Laura Johnson, director, game day presentation and live events, San Francisco 49ers. “Then, to come into the home opener without any fans was a very stark contrast. I don’t think there’s anything that could have prepared us [for that].”
Players Only: Videoboard Material Adds Hometown Flavor
With attendance currently at zero at Levi’s Stadium, the in-venue and production teams have found new approaches to distributing content. Social media is one of the more likely avenues, but the LED displays inside the venue are still firing up team-focused content. The team is the sole audience for these visual elements.
“As we approached our regular-season games,” says Johnson, “it was a different mindset in terms of what we could do to hype up the players. We’re doing our best to provide a sense of normalcy for the guys on the field. We also had to realize that our audience has changed because now it’s the players on the field and what’s going to get them motivated and engaged.”
The team is stacked with personalities, including quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and tight end George Kittle. The crew has been contacting players’ families to create unique and original content that captures players’ attention during breaks in play.
“We worked this offseason with our player-engagement team to reach out to the players’ families to source some videos that could provide some motivation for the team,” Johnson explains. “We had no idea what we were going to get, but we got a beautiful gem with Bruce Kittle in a Luchador mask and dancing around to DMX’s ‘Party Up (Up in Here)’. We played that on the videoboard, and [George Kittle] was pointing out to the guys in the huddle that that was his dad. There was a little bit of risk involved because I didn’t know if that was going to be too distracting, but, overall, we’re playing the music that they want to hear as opposed to more of the mainstream stuff that we would play for the fans in the stands.”
Collaborative Effort: Different Levels of Access for Content Gathering
Besides reaching out to families to generate some content, production-team members are working together for the betterment of the franchise. One prime example was the team’s Media Day prior to the start of the 2020 campaign: Johnson directed the production from her home due to stringent COVID-19 protocols.
“Media Day was a little bit unconventional for us,” she notes, “so we had to get a little creative. I physically couldn’t be onsite because we could have only a certain [number of onsite staffers]. I was there via Zoom, coaching up our players and getting some lines over to them. It worked out really well, and I think the [players] got a good kick out of it and it made them feel a little bit at ease.”
The safety-mandated tiering system within the organization is forcing creative groups to rely on each other when possible. Overall, the main goal is making sure that the steady flow of content that fans have become accustomed to is maintained.
“There’s a certain amount of people who are within certain tiers,” Johnson explains. “Our team photographers and social-media team fall into that category, as well as 49ers Studios with our producer and editors. We’re heavily reliant on the people who can actually be the boots on the ground, and, for those who can’t be, it’s a lot of Zoom calls and virtual meetings. It’s a lot of collaborating and trying to figure out how we can best work together to achieve that common goal.”
Before and After: Digital Offerings Keep Fans Engaged During Pre/Postgame
From the time 49er fans wake up on game day ‘til they hit the hay, they will have access to pre/postgame coverage. With the unfortunate adaptations that have come with this season, this 49ers-centric content is being distributed through digital channels like the team’s mobile app, website, and YouTube channel.
“We used to do a two-minute live stream of our pregame from the field — Keys to the Game with Senior Reporter Keiana Martin — and we’d bring on guests,” says Johnson. “We wanted to take that one step further this year to give fans a lot of that coverage that isn’t seen on a traditional broadcast, like seeing player warmups, since it’s one of the key aspects of coming into the venue early.
“We also wanted to provide some different analysis from different guests,” she continues. “For the home opener, Jerry Rice stopped by the set and kicked off the pregame show. We also had [show] alumni: Dennis Brown, who’s local to the area and on some of our affiliates, came in to cohost the show and provide a player’s perspective, along with J.J. Stokes. Our hope moving forward is to provide that pregame experience for our fans and give them something completely biased to tune into.”
Besides analysis and other traditional offerings, the franchise teamed up with Xcite Interactive and the company’s XEO platform for additional engagement opportunities.
“A couple of other teams are using the XEO platform to do some gaming components,” she adds, “so we wanted to not only provide great content but give fans a chance to interact. [Elements include] trivia and polling or seeing what some of the other fans think about either the matchup or a player going into the game.”
The Ones Who Get It Done: Notable Names of 49ers’ Production Team
49ers game-day production and operations teams are working harder than ever. For Johnson, commitment to excellence beyond the control room. This year particularly, it takes more than one team to pull off a smooth and exciting experience.
“I definitely have to shout-out the entire team,” she says. “[VP, Game Day Production and Broadcast Operations,] Aron Kennedy has been grinding it out in the control room, trying to make sure everything has been ready to go from a technical standpoint. Getting crew into the building is challenging, but [Live Events Manager/Associate Producer] Justin Drum and [Manager, Entertainment and Live Event Operations,] Billy Barnes are helping to get everyone inside. [Manager, Stadium and Motion Graphics,] AJ Murray has a killer graphics package for not only the players in the stadium but, hopefully, our fans when they return at some point. And, lastly, [Mascot Program Manager] Constantine Abramson has been keeping everything up in terms of liveliness and spirit in the stadium.”
Throughout the league, NFL creatives are bouncing ideas off each other as a vital resource for innovation and an outlet for inspiration. In San Francisco, Johnson opines that working together as a united league can make this unique time feel a little less odd.
“Whether it’s Abby [Thelin, director, event presentation] at the New England Patriots, Liz [Coates, game entertainment manager] at the Denver Broncos, or Eric [Long, VP, content and production] at the Philadelphia Eagles, it’s amazing how all of us have come together during this pandemic,” she says. “We’re technically foes on the field, but, off the field, we all try to help each other by sharing documents and knowledge as much as possible. We’re trying to gain as much perspective as possible and want to see each other succeed.”
The 49ers return to the Bay Area for a Sunday Night Football matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, Oct. 4 at 8:20 p.m. ET.