From Staffer to Gaffer

This is the first of a multi-part series called ‘From Staffer to Gaffer’.  The premise is pretty simple: the sports industry is very dynamic and fast-paced, so it’s no surprise why people often wonder what it’s like to work in this business.  But lost amidst the wins and losses, goals and saves, triumphs and failures are a number of people that work behind the scenes to ensure that you - the fan - can focus solely on the action before you.  It is these people and their jobs that I endeavor to bring to you.  I am going to spend the 2008 season in various event-related roles to give you a glimpse behind the scenes of a professional sports organization.  So without further ado…

Hosting an event in a different city is an enormously challenging venture.  What made the May 13th Whitecaps vs. Galaxy match so successful had a lot to do with the work of people from the Edmonton Eskimos, Commonwealth Stadium, the Edmonton Sun, and several radio and television promotional partners.  So when we arrived in Edmonton on Monday morning, I was relieved to find that there were no major emergencies to attend to.  After checking in and paying a brief visit to Commonwealth Stadium, we were headed back to the airport to bear witness to Mr. Beckham’s first few steps on Edmonton soil.  An assortment of media crew and ardent fans awaited his exit out of customs - I would estimate about 100 people in all.  I was probably the most envied person in the building because I could roam inside the stanchioned-off area, unfettered by security or police personnel.  Well, I suppose the customs officer had a more envied job, as he/she could hold and detain David for as long as they please!

When the bent-footed one finally came through the doors, I filmed the entrance, and tried to stay out of the way.  The fans in attendance screamed and yelled and cheered and applauded, all clamoring to touch him, talk to him or get something signed (usually all three).  He stopped for a few autographs before making his way onto the bus.  The event – all ninety seconds of it – went off without a hitch.  After he had left, I discovered that celebrity can temporarily rub off on people, as those that were lucky enough to get an autograph or handshake were now surrounded by media, sure to be a top story on that evening’s newscast.  Even those with nothing to show for their efforts were sharing stories with other onlookers, commenting on whether he may have made the briefest of eye contact, among other things.  If this is what Beckham meant when he said he wanted to bring soccer to North America, well then he had done a fantastic job.

Next up: a VIP Meet & Greet with the Los Angeles Galaxy.  This event was restricted to contest winners, partners, sponsors, and anyone else who managed to stumble upon this opportunity to meet the Galaxy up close and personal.  The players were sitting in a horseshoe formation behind tables, Sharpies in hand.  And I say Sharpies purposely, as a recent endorsement deal has ensured that Mr. Beckham will only sign autographs with the well-known marker.  Yes, nothing is off-limits in the world of endorsements.

I didn’t really have a role in this event, although I certainly felt busy.  I spent the early part of the evening near the door, so I could answer questions and generally look official.  Once everyone was in the room, I mainly tried to stay out of the way (note – you’ll see this ‘staying out of the way’ be a common theme through my various roles).

Game day couldn’t have arrived sooner.  After buying a new shirt at my favourite Edmonton clothing store, Henry Singer, I ventured off to the stadium (yes, I’m hoping they send me a shirt for that shameless plug.  I prefer a 16.5” neck).

My first four hours at Commonwealth were spent in critter-like fashion.  Because I don’t often have a specifically defined role, I usually find myself assisting others.  So these hours consisted of the following tasks: find an air compressor, hold two tickets for a contest winner, help settle an issue between stadium staff and a radio station onsite; check in with merchandise team; confirm restaurant for post-game team and staff meal; ensure on-field soccer clinic has everything they need; meet with photographer and outline overall direction; assist Sport Chek in assembling gift bags for clinic participants; upload photo of Admir Salihovic to our webmaster; and I’m sure many more that I have since forgotten.

 That might not sound like it would encompass 4 hours, but somehow it did.  Maybe it had to do with the endless walking up and down 40 flights of stairs.  By 6pm I was hungry, thirsty and my legs hurt.  Not that I’m complaining, I’m just saying.  So I took about twenty minutes to just stand on the sideline and soak it all in.  It was around this time, when I was gazing at the players warming up, the media assembling around the field and the fans filtering in, that the enormity of the event hit.  This is a big deal!  

I didn’t have much time to remain in this state of bliss, as I was quickly summoned with my first task.  From here on in, the sideline was to be my domain and I was to assist the television and radio teams with securing interviews.  More than anything, I was hoping I just wouldn’t look foolish in front of 37,000 people!

My first task seemed simple enough.  Bob Lenarduzzi and Galaxy Assistant General Manager Tom Payne were to shake hands and exchange gifts on the field at 6:40pm and then I was to escort Bob to the Global TV crew for a live pre-match interview.  I am happy to say I executed this flawlessly, and I have to attribute this masterful walking ability to all that traversing of the stadium earlier in the day.

Now back to the TV and radio crew.  TV wanted Ante Jazic at halftime for an interview.  He already knew this was happening so it’s not like I had to be particularly deft or cunning or anything.  But radio was slightly more challenging.  Similar to local Team 1040 broadcasts, they wanted a quick hit with Teitur at the 30 minute mark, and then player interviews at halftime, the 75 minute mark and then immediately after the game.

Things got interesting for that first interview request.  The Whitecaps started the game the aggressor and had caught the Galaxy by surprise, jumping to an early 1-0 lead.  By 25 minutes in, the tide was starting to shift and the Galaxy was on the attack.  It seemed they were ready to even the score at any moment.  By the 30 minute mark, Teitur, who had started the match fairly quiet and reserved, was now pacing the sideline yelling orders left and right.  I waited for a break in the action and asked if he could do a radio interview.  Now in the few months that I’ve come to know Teitur, I have learned that he is a very kind and generous individual.  True to his nature, he accepted the request, but I could tell looking at him that his head was into the action on the field.  I stopped him and said ‘hey, we can do this later.  How about we wait a few minutes?’  He seemed relieved and quickly refocused on the match before him.  I told the radio team we had to wait a few minutes and they adjusted accordingly.  Sure enough, when the action had settled down, I asked Teitur again and he was more than happy to do it.

The halftime interviews went smoothly (TV got Jazic, radio went with goal scorer Addlery) and for the 75 minute mark, we decided to go with Serge Djekanovic, who had played very well in goal in the first half.  For the end of the match, radio wanted Nick Webb for an interview, so upon the final whistle, I went onto the pitch to grab him.  Of course this is the time that combatants are shaking hands and congratulating each other on a spirited match, so I had to kind of stand there for a few minutes in the midst of it all.  Definitely felt a little out of place, so I just tried to stand out of the way until Nick was ready.

Overall, an incredibly rewarding evening.  I was able to watch a thrilling match from the best seats in the house.  The event was very well run, and I performed my duties admirably.  If staying out of the way and being invisible was a skill, well then call me Casper!  I have no idea what the next game-day job is in store for me, but it will be pretty difficult to top this.