Legends Behind the Lens: Pat Sullivan
The former NFL GM became one of sports television production's most impactful builders
The story of American sports television is engrained in the history of this nation, rising on the achievements of countless incredible men and women who never once appeared on our screens. During this pause in live sports, SVG is proud to present a celebration of this great industry. Legends Behind the Lens is a look at how we got here seen through the people who willed it to be. Each weekday, we will share with you the story of a person whose impact on the sports-television industry is indelible.
Legends Behind the Lens is presented in association with the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the SVG Sports Broadcasting Fund. In these trying times — with so many video-production professionals out of work — we hope that you will consider (if you are able) donating to the Sports Broadcasting Fund. Do so by visiting sportsbroadcastfund.org.
By Ken Kerschbaumer
When it comes to careers in the sports industry, it is safe to say that few people have worked in as many aspects of the business as Pat Sullivan, president and founder of Game Creek Video, a company that, over the past 20 years, has become one of the industry’s leading production-services providers and innovators.
To begin with, his father, Billy, was the founder of the New England Patriots (then the Boston Patriots), and Sullivan was a ballboy for the first team. After graduating from Boston College in 1976, he actually reported for work at Schaefer Stadium without his father’s even knowing he was going to work there.
“I showed up at the stadium manager’s office, and the manager handed me a broom and rake and told me to go clean up the stadium,” recalls Sullivan. “And, when my dad asked me what he was having me do, I said I was cleaning the stadium, the offices, and learning how to run the sewage plant.”
In 1979, after spending two years managing the stadium, Sullivan became the team’s assistant general manager and, in 1983, was promoted to GM, a role he held for seven years during which the Patriots made it to Super Bowl XX.
“It was a great experience,” he recalls. “We had some really special people.”
In 1990, Sullivan left his post as Patriots GM and began looking for something new to do, knowing only that he really did not enjoy working for other people. It was then that he got his first taste of the remote-production business when Dick Dean, owner of NCP, approached him about financially backing construction of a truck to be used by MSG for New York Yankees baseball coverage. The 10-year contract was unprecedented in the sports-TV business and set a template for future TV carriage deals.
Sullivan, however, was not quite sold on remote production as a career path and spent a year at the Christian Science Monitor Channel working as on-air talent. But, while there, he had a chance to work alongside the likes of Dave Mazza (now with NBC Sports) and Paul Puccio (now with CBS).
“I was working with really brilliant people and found myself gravitating towards the technical side,” he says. “I was fascinated by what they were doing.”
The real opportunity occurred in 1993 when he acquired two production units from Sure Shot as well as a small team to get Game Creek Video up and running.
“It was really a matter of building a team of people that had credibility in their fields,” he explains. “Then we went aggressively after engineering with people like Paul Bonar, Mike Copeland, and Jason Taubman.”
“In the remote technology business, if you want to think of the innovator, Pat Sullivan comes to mind.” – former CBS Sports executive Ken Aagaard
From the very beginning of Game Creek Video’s existence, Sullivan has placed a great deal of value on having a strong team, a philosophy he inherited from his father.
“When I started, my dad said to surround myself with really smart people, and I have been fortunate enough to do that in some key spots,” he says. “It’s not just engineering. It’s also about having the right people to drive the trucks, the administration of the company, and making sure we have credibility with bank partners.”
Game Creek Video’s growth over the years has been highlighted by several key moments, according to Sullivan.
First was the construction of Intrepid in 2000, a unit capable of handling big shows and tapped by ESPN to handle the network’s final year of NASCAR coverage.
“That same year, the YES Network came down the pike and they gave us the contract, which was a huge win,” says Sullivan.
Fox Sports EVP, Operations, Ed Delaney was with the YES Network at the time and forged a strong relationship with both Sullivan and Game Creek Video’s team over the years.
“Game Creek has been the mobile-facility provider for the YES Network since its launch in 2002,” Delaney says. “Pat underpromised and overdelivered from day one, providing superior facilities that transitioned YES to HD.”
The 2007 All-Star Game in San Francisco also proved a major moment in the growth of Game Creek Video. Its Southern Cross production unit was on hand for MLB International’s host-feed production, and the unit’s massive routing-switcher core came in handy when a 30-minute pregame element featuring the 50 greatest players of all time was produced out of Southern Cross.
“We assured them that we could pull it off. The MLB guys got out a half hour before air, and, at the push of a button, the monitor wall switched over for the pregame show,” recalls Sullivan. “And then, after the pregame, a button was pushed, and the reverse happened. Everyone went ‘Wow,’ as they had never seen anything like that.”
Jerry Steinberg, former SVP of field operations for Fox Sports and fellow Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame inductee, recalls seeing Game Creek’s Southern Cross working for MLB International at the World Series.
“[Then-Fox Sports Chairman] David Hill said, ‘Why don’t we have this truck?’” says Steinberg. “Over a period of years, we got to know Pat and use Game Creek on different things but nothing big.”
That soon changed. Fox Sports tapped Game Creek to provide a production unit (named FX) that would be at the core of major events, such as the Daytona 500 and three Super Bowls.
“FX is still doing NASCAR and is still relevant, which is a testament to Pat and the group he has put together,” says Steinberg. “He surrounds himself with really smart people and lets them do their business.”
Game Creek’s most recent major build for Fox Sports is the Encore production unit. It made its debut at the U.S. Open golf championship in June and is now producing top NFL games.
“What makes Pat such a great leader is how inclusive he is in the process,” adds Delaney. “Once the deal is consummated, Pat and his team work tirelessly to deliver the best product that they can, working hand in hand with our team.”
Steinberg echoes Delaney’s comments, adding that Sullivan also understands that the best deals are where client and provider make out equally.
“He also always realized that the guys who work in the trucks are the first-line sales people, so he has engineers that can communicate with more than a circuit board,” says Steinberg. “Besides being smart, his employees can communicate on a person-to-person level.”
And then there is the constant desire to drive technology forward and work with the clients to advance the industry. The Encore unit, for example, has an IP-based routing infrastructure that was a major leap of faith when it was on the drawing board.
“Our philosophy at Fox was that you had to be able to take chances to do great TV, and we needed a partner who was on the same page,” notes Steinberg. “When the FX trucks rolled out, they were connected by fiber, and it took the rest of the industry four years to catch up.”
During the 2010s, Game Creek Video multiplied in size, picking up regional business from networks like NESN, SNY, and ROOT Houston. Additionally, renewed rights contracts offered an opportunity to build new and more-capable production units.
“My very first year, I was at a rightsholder event in Palm Springs,” Sullivan recalls. “Unitel President Dick Clouser asked me what I was doing in the business, said that it was nothing like the NFL and that these guys would chew us up and spit us out. But the exact opposite occurred. The NFL is extremely Machiavellian, and there are a lot of behind-the-scenes games and cloak-and-dagger guys. When Game Creek lost our Liberty truck in a fire, the first calls I received were from competitors asking what they can do to help.”
The video in this profile was originally produced in 2015. For more on the life and career of this industry legend, visit their profile at the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.