On the Gridiron: After Busy Offseason, Denver Broncos Welcome Limited Fans Back to Empower Field at Mile High in Week 3
Production team aims for same in-venue experience as with customarily sold-out events
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.
1969 — the year of the moon landing, Woodstock, Easy Rider, and the last time the Denver Broncos failed to sell out a home game. And, although the NFL record for most consecutive sellouts in a single city will officially carry on this season, only 5,700 fans will be permitted inside Empower Field at Mile High this Sunday. The scene may be unrecognizable compared with the raucous, stadium-shaking tone created by sellout crowds for five decades, but the Broncos’ Event Production team remains just as committed to delivering a top-flight experience for fans.
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“Whether there’s 5,000 or 76,000 fans, we want to create the hype, the pump videos, and those types of things to give the fans that are there the full experience,” says Denver Broncos Senior Director, Event Presentation and Production, Russ Jenisch.
After a handful of players’ family and friends attended the Broncos’ Week 1 Monday-night opener against the Titans, the team will welcome 5,700 fans (7.5% of capacity) into the stadium for its second home game this weekend. It won’t be a packed house, but Jenisch and company will stick to the three-pillar philosophy customary for game-day productions and expects plenty of fan-focused content this week.
“I have always believed we have three audiences we need to satisfy on game days: the fans, football, and sponsorship,” says Jenisch. “We didn’t do a whole lot on the creative side on our Monday-night [opener], but we’ll change that when Tampa Bay comes [this week].”
The Offseason: Finding Nightly Content During the Lockdown
In 2018, the team began producing a half-hour show for KTVD Denver each weeknight, along with a weekly Broncos Beat show. To produce this content, the Broncos launched a new production studio at the team’s UCHealth Training Center last year. However, when the pandemic shut down not only the studio but also the majority of team activities, Jenisch and his staff were forced to get creative.
“We had to come up with a half hour of content every single night with a very small staff to do that,” says Jenisch. “Everybody was working from home, and we couldn’t use our studio anymore. There were really a lot of challenges with that. The big thing about the pandemic was, there was no content from the training facility, there were no OTAs, there was just no activity going on. We were tasked with the responsibility of creating unique content during that period, which was another challenge.”
To produce the show each night, producers and editors worked from home, and the team relied heavily on Zoom in producing content. The weekly Broncos Beat show, previously produced out of the Training Center studio, was compiled via Zoom with writers from both Denver and outside markets offering perspectives on the offseason. In addition, the team live-streamed a Broncos-specific show during the NFL Draft, largely using Zoom with Jenisch directing from his home.
“Zoom became a big part of what we did. Because of Zoom, we were able to bring in [to Broncos Beat] people with a more national perspective,” says Jenisch. “We expanded the reach of those who follow the NFL and the Broncos.
“The NFL also had a tier system [for pandemic protocol],” he continues, “with players being Tier 1, support staff Tier 2, and other staff members Tier 3; and you can’t commingle. Access to players and coaches was really limited and still is. But we have been able to work with [Broncos] PR to get some of the players and coaches to participate [in interviews].”
Training Camp: Bringing the Experience to the Fans
Broncos Training Camp is a major event in Denver, regularly drawing packed crowds each preseason. However, with fans barred from this year’s proceedings due to the pandemic, the Broncos’ video team looked to bring fans the onsite experience virtually. The Broncos rolled out a stage in the parking lot of the Training Center, which served as home to a daily one-hour live-streamed show featuring fan-favorite and recent Hall of Fame electee Steve Atwater interviewing Broncos legends like Peyton Manning, Rod Smith, Karl Mecklenburg, and Alfred Williams.
“We wanted the show not to just be talking heads but to actually bring Training Camp to the fans so we can bring them [content] that they couldn’t normally see,” says Jenisch. “[The guests] told some great stories, and we had a great view of Training Camp behind them.”
The Broncos used both of its control rooms — at the UCHealth Training Center and at the stadium — to further spread out crew during these Training Camp productions. At the Training Center, Jenisch was directing, a TD was switching, and an A1 was mixing audio, and replay and graphics operators were located remotely at Empower Field at Mile High.
The Training Camp show ended up averaging 96,000 views a day and generated more than 5 million impressions over 17 days.
“The ability to use both facilities to [produce] that show was a big win for us,” says Jenisch. “I think how we approached it was really successful and the content we brought to fans probably wouldn’t have been considered in the ‘normal’ world.”
Back in the Mile High Groove: Week 1 Production Focuses on Football
With only 500 friends and family in the stands for the home opener in Week 1, Jenisch and his team put the focus squarely on serving the Broncos’ in-game operations, especially replays. Although the event-production team had no preseason games to prepare for the Week 1 home opener, they were able to conduct run-throughs during two Broncos practices in the prior week. This allowed the crew to test out the four new Evertz DreamCatcher replay systems that had been installed in advance of the first regular-season game.
“Our commitment to football means our replays better be spot on and we better be able to help the team in that way if ever we can,” says Jenisch. “We found that we had success with [the DreamCatcher], and that was one of the good things that came out of [Week 1]: our replay stepped up and did a nice job.”
The team also created an hour-long live pregame show that started 75 minutes before kickoff on the Broncos app, website, and YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. The show featured several game-day traditions that Broncos fans have come to know well: the stampede, the parade of colors, horse mascot Thunder running the length of the field.
“Some of that sponsorship content that would be normally in the bowl got moved to the pregame show so that we can get some eyeballs for our sponsors,” says Jenisch. “That was really successful for us.”
The team in the control room regularly displayed sponsor logos on the videoboards as networks were going to or coming out of commercial breaks to provide them with more exposure during these beauty shots.
Whether it’s in-game content for the videoboard this weekend or streaming content for fans at home, Jenisch is proud of how his team has carried on through the challenges of 2020 and excited to welcome fans back into the stands this weekend.
“We have a hardworking crew who have put a lot of great content together. And those Training Camp shows and pregame shows are a pretty big lift,” says Jenisch. “It’s funny: we are working more as broadcasters now, even though the team was built to be in the stadium. But I think that we’ve done well, and I’m excited.”