On the Gridiron: Carolina Panthers’ Mike Bonner Settles Into New Role Amid Interesting Circumstances
Previously at Notre Dame, Bonner is in his first season at Carolina
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.
Throughout an NFL offseason, players put signatures on pieces of papers, swap jerseys, and continue their athletic careers in totally different cities. At Carolina, there has been a big change on the field, and, off the field, there has been a key signing to bolster in-venue operations. Previously with the University of Notre Dame, Director/Executive Producer, Game Presentation, Mike Bonner is learning on-the-fly and getting comfortable in his new role during this abnormal season.
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“I started with the Panthers in late January,” he says. “I was getting to know the new staff and how things operate when COVID-19 hit [the U.S.] and we were told to work from home. We didn’t know how long that was going to last. At that time, home for me was still in South Bend, since my wife and children were back in Indiana finishing out the school year. We did a lot of team meetings and scenario planning before getting into remote production.”
Working Remotely: Offseason Productions Include NFL Draft Show, Media Day Photoshoot
There are a lot of things to learn on any new job. With the COVID-19 pandemic preventing in-person communication, getting up-to-speed on an organization’s philosophy can be particularly difficult. Bonner began his first year with the Panthers from his home, so this new journey had a unique starting point.
One of the major production efforts that he participated in from home was the NFL schedule release. Bonner was in South Bend for this one-hour show, and, just like the way live events throw unexpected curveballs, working-from-home posted its own share of obstacles.
“I actually lost my Wi-Fi at one point,” he recalls. “I had to run over to my neighbors and sit on their back porch.
“We [virtually] brought in guests from other teams,” he continues, “like the Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu [of the Houston Texans], who joined [Panthers running back] Christian McCaffrey for a one-on-one conversation. [Tight end] Cameron Brate from the Buccaneers also joined with [defensive tackle] Kawann Short. There was a cool synergy to have someone from the Panthers and someone from the opponent.”
Another example, the team’s annual Media Day, was also done from an offsite location. Instead of Indiana, Bonner was visiting family in New Jersey and found it pretty cool to produce an event from his childhood home.
“During those two days, I talked virtually to our players and directed them,” he says. “I did one [shoot] from my old bedroom and the other one from my sister’s house. We had a couple of camera operators that were able to be there, but we had a bunch of producers and directors that were also working remotely.”
Despite a heavy load of offsite operations, there was a chance for the staff to be together during a four-hour live-streamed show for this year’s virtual NFL Draft. For this initiative, the team’s on-air talent worked from their respective homes: Kristen Balboni and former quarterback Jake Delhomme in Louisiana interviewed such guests as The Avett Brothers; Charlotte, NC, Mayor Vi Lyles; and NBA superstar Stephen Curry. While they reported from home, Bonner made one of his first visits to the control room.
“All of the guests were able to join us virtually, but [our team] utilized the control room,” he says. “It was a very cool experience, but we’re learning so much and continuing to think out of the box during these crazy times.”
Practice Like You Play: Team Goes Full Bore on In-Venue Elements for Televised Scrimmage
As the regular season neared, the staff sought some much needed production reps. After first-year head coach Matt Rhule decided to practice and conduct player workouts inside Bank of America Stadium, the crew had an opportunity to work through a simulated game-day script.
“We were very fortunate to have a practice with a two-hour broadcast, for which we worked with our friends at [Tupelo Honey],” says Bonner. “It aired locally and for 12 other affiliates, but it was a great opportunity to run through a dress rehearsal.”
Because the team requested a full game-day experience, Bonner and company experimented with the new crowd-noise system, ran player features and music, and virtually integrated fans watching from home. From a technological perspective, the crew deployed the usual slate of game cameras, generating real-time replays displayed on the videoboards.
Even now in the regular season, there are still some elements that can’t be run without fans in the stands.
“We ran our in-game show,” Bonner notes. “It was weird because it’s hard to do a Flex Cam when you don’t have any fans in the building. We did do a really cool feature with a security guard, John Coleman, who has been an employee for over 25 years, but, because of COVID-19, it’s not the safest environment for him. We put him on the videoboard where he was waving from his home, and our players were able to see him.”
John Coleman’s magnetic smile lit up our stadium lobby for 25 years.
Now it’ll bear his name.
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) September 3, 2020
Cheering From Home: Digital Content Targets Fans, Corporate Sponsors
Prior to the announcement that fans would be allowed into the stadium for the Panthers’ Week 4 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals, the in-venue team came up with multiple ways to serve the Panthers faithful watching from home. Throughout the NFL, digital and mobile apps have become the main connecting point while venues are closed.
“Since our first game was played with no fans, we went big on the hour-long pregame show,” Bonner explained after the team’s first home game. “There are pregame shows that you can watch on Fox or CBS, but they just give you a glimpse into a stadium. It was a great opportunity to show our fans what they were missing.”
As for sponsored content, the production team is using this digital space and all of its possible avenues to give exposure to its corporate partners. Not only was the pregame show an opportunity, but the team is also using its social-media platforms to add supplemental value:
The Big Bo Box has all the fixin’s for gameday!
Let’s get ya ready #BringMeBojanglesHomeEdition style!
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) September 12, 2020
“It was great to be able to give back to our sponsors since there were a lot of eyeballs on the pregame show,” Bonner notes. “We plan on doing it before every home game because, if it’s a limited capacity, there’s still a lot of fans that aren’t getting in, and we want to make sure that we’re delivering that to them.”
The Carolina Panthers will host the Arizona Cardinals in Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC, on Sunday, Oct. 4 at 1 p.m. ET.