On the Gridiron: Without Raucous Crowds, New Orleans Saints Adapt to a Quiet Mercedes-Benz Superdome
An NFL policy on fake crowd noise is masking the venue’s best-known feature
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 will examine the new routines, habits, and production philosophies of in-venue personnel on any given Thursday, Sunday, or Monday.
In The Big Easy, both citizens and tourists live by the motto Laissez les bon temps rouler ( “Let the good times roll”). The hometown New Orleans Saints are currently 1-0, but, despite the good vibes, these are unusual times for the in-venue production crew. Normally a weekly meeting place on game day, Mercedes-Benz Superdome is devoid of fans and the excitement that makes this venue famous.
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“It’s completely different than what we’re used to because it felt like a normal day in Downtown New Orleans. For Saints game days, it’s anything but that,” says Kyle Campbell, director, game day experience, New Orleans Saints. “It was weird [without] horns honking, people yelling, and flags flying.”
Under the Dome: NFL Policy Caps In-Stadium Crowd Noise
Although the league has followed the lead of Major League Baseball, crowd sound is complex in the NFL. On the broadcasts, the network’s production team is using dynamic crowd noise supplied by NFL Films to sweeten each game with team-specific chants, cheers, and more. The network can raise or lower that audio track, but, within the stadium, the in-venue team is required to adhere to a strict rule that forces teams to keep the ambient crowd noise to 70 dB for the duration of the game, which ultimately guides the audio portfolio for each team’s production.
Normally one of the toughest places to play for any visiting team (the highest decibel level reached, 128, was in a 2019 Divisional Round game vs. Philadelphia), savvy Saints fans crank up the volume when the defense is on the field and speak in hushed tones when the offense is at work. Unfortunately, the level mandated by the league has made drowning out the opposing offense’s play call a non-factor.
“Our fans are amazing and know the game,” Campbell points out. “If it’s a big third down, they know that they can poke the bear a little bit and go crazy, but, when Drew Brees walks past the white lines, it’s quiet. [With the fabricated sound,] the ambient crowd noise needs to stay at the same level the entire game, and we can’t fluctuate it from our standpoint.”
To handle this added production element, the organization looked to hire an individual who was familiar with the stadium’s regular run of show and atmosphere.
“It was important for us to identify someone to help run that dynamic audio that knows what a game in the Superdome feels like,” says Campbell. “We miss that home-field advantage, but we’re trying to get creative, within the rules, to make sure that we are creating an advantage for our team.”
This newly hired audio mixer is already adding some authenticity and texture to these broadcasts. In addition to positive reactions, teams are opting to include negative reactions to resemble disgruntled home fans.
“There was an interesting moment during our game on Sunday,” Campbell adds. “[Saints cornerback] Marshon Lattimore and [Buccaneers wide receiver] Mike Evans, who have been going at it for a couple of years now, went at it again, and our crowd-noise operator played some boos, which made it feel like a real game.”
Shift in Strategy: How a Show Might Change With Returning Fans
Whereas the MLB made the decision to bar fans from all participating ballparks, it is different for the NFL: state and local governments make the call on whether to allow fans through the turnstiles. Kansas City and Jacksonville have been the anomaly so far this season. The State of Louisiana and New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell are not allowing fans to attend the first two home games (the 2020 home opener vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Sept. 13, and the matchup vs. the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, Sept. 27).
Many unknowns remain about the coronavirus; the pandemic’s trajectory is still unpredictable. Although this uncertainty has caused stadium doors to be closed to the public, there’s a chance that smaller audiences could return later in the season if the situation improves. Going from fans to no fans and then back to fans is something that no in-venue staff has ever dealt with. Campbell has prepared for any scenario.
“We’re anxiously waiting for the day that fans can come back, because my job is to essentially throw a party for 73,000 people,” he says. “I prepared the whole offseason for what we were going to do with fans because I knew that it was going to be easier to take [elements] away. So getting ready for Week 1 was a little bit easier. Hopefully, we can play it week-by-week and get people in here.”
The Ones Who Get It Done: Notable Names of Saints’ Production Team
Less than two miles from the hustle and bustle of the French Quarter, Mercedes-Benz Superdome, like the city of New Orleans, is famous for large gatherings and a strong sense of community. Although it’s a challenge to get used to empty stands and a quiet concourse, the franchise is personifying class and professionalism in the face of hard times on multiple fronts.
“I don’t know if the operations team at the stadium, both ASM Global and our internal team, have slept for the last three weeks,” says Campbell, “but their hard work has been incredible. Our production team has done a tremendous job creating content and repurposing cameras that we used to have on the field or in the stands to help us shoot the game. Our digital team has really picked it up, and our game entertainment team of VP, Brand Strategy, Jen Martindale; Game Presentation Associate Alex Schweppe; and me have been in constant communication.”
As a member of the greater NFL family, other individuals and friends from outside the organization have helped in the creative and logistical process as well.
“We’ve talked so much as game-presentation directors across the league,” Campbell says. “From being on group chats with Jacksonville, Carolina, and Atlanta to talking with Allan [Wertheimer, director, production operations] in Minnesota, LJ [Laura Johnson, director, game day production and live events] in San Francisco, Eric [Long, VP, content and production] in Philly, and Jackie [Maldonado, director of marketing] in Houston, I’m asking, ‘Hey, are you guys doing this?’ or ‘What do you guys think about this?’ and saying, ‘Just a heads up that this didn’t work that great for us this week.’ They’ve been the biggest sounding board for us.”
After the Saints host the Green Bay Packers Sunday, Sept. 27 at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC, the in-venue team will be back in Mercedes-Benz Superdome for a Monday Night Football matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers on Oct. 12 at 8:15 p.m.