On the Gridiron: Minnesota Vikings Adjust Content Approach at High-Tech U.S. Bank Stadium
With comprehensive in-stadium safety plan and a robust digital-content effort, Vikings Entertainment Network continues to thrive
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.
[NOTE: The video interview above was conducted following the Vikings’ Week 1 home game vs. the Green Bay Packers.]
The team at Vikings Entertainment Network (VEN) take a lot of pride in what they do, but, when pressured to say, they leave little doubt that they are most proud of the wildly entertaining experience that the team offers fans inside the loud and thrilling U.S. Bank Stadium.
That’s a huge factor in what makes this season so challenging for the video team at the Vikings: shifting the effort from a fan-focused blockbuster stadium show to trying to bring energy to a team playing in front of empty stands. It’s a challenge that the crew has met admirably, through in-stadium efforts and an increased focus on engaging fans via live content on digital and social platforms.
“The production team adapted very well,” says Bryan Harper, VP, content and production, Minnesota Vikings. “We did a fairly good job of communicating, but you’re always going to have things pop up. The tough part was getting used to the environment with no fans, no energy. That all [affects] anyone who has a role in game day. It was, honestly, the weirdest thing ever, but [Director, Production Operations] Allan [Werthheimer] and his team did a great job of preparing. I don’t think we could have been any more prepared than we were for something that was completely an unknown.”
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A Game Day Workflow Redesigned for Safety
As in many NFL stadiums — especially those currently not allowed to host any fans whatsoever — it has been a borderline creepy environment inside cavernous U.S. Bank Stadium in Downtown Minneapolis on game days this season. However, the process for VEN crew members is efficiently scripted and communicated to ensure that everyone can work effectively while maintaining league-mandated (and state-mandated, in certain circumstances) COVID guidelines.
According to Werthheimer, every crew member is given a specific point at which to enter the stadium that they needed to enter through and have their temperature checked. From there, the crew member walks a direct path to their workstation, be it at a camera position or in the control room. In the past, many would stop by the control room on arriving, to check in and say hello to Harper and Werthheimer. Now, however, everyone must go directly to their stations and communicate completely over headset. Also, masks are required inside the stadium.
Inside the control room, the Vikings have added plexiglass barriers between workstations in the control room. Also, each crew member is given a headset in a plastic bag. At the end of the show, they are instructed to leave the headset at their position, and the headsets are collected and sanitized in a UV cabinet and made ready for future use.
The ops team has also added an extra touch for its camera operators. Each camera position is equipped with a kit including gloves, cleaning supplies for the camera, and hand sanitizer. Every member of the crew is required to wear a mask whenever they’re in the building.
On the content side, the VEN team has tried to keep its in-stadium show as normal as possible for the sake of the players and crew. The one caveat is that the 45-minute-long pregame video show is live-streamed to the Vikings’ various digital and social platforms, including the team’s app. Overseen by Entertainment Manager/Associate Producer Darius Smith, that effort has been a success in engaging fans and helping plug valuable sponsor obligations. The show also helps deliver some of the in-game features that fans have come to love, including the sounding of the Gjallarhorn, the team’s cheerleading squad, and its drum line, the SKOL Line.
“We set up that show very much with the look of our videoboard show,” says Werthheimer. “Anyone who has ever been to U.S. Bank Stadium knows we have our main videoboard and, next to it, what we call our ‘wing boards.’ We replicated that in our stream. That L Bar was treated as an LED board, and we took things that we usually do in-stadium and moved them to the stream to make good on all of those sponsorships.”
For the in-game environment, the focus turns entirely to motivating the players and serving the replay needs of the coaching staff. VEN polled its players to tailor a music playlist to their liking and even secretly created celebration videos featuring players’ families, playing them on the big screen after a scoring play.
“We noticed those had a pretty big impact on our players,” says Werthheimer. “It caught their attention; they would look up at the videoboard, and you could tell it struck them. It was pretty cool to see that.”
An Offseason of Experimentation
Much of what the Vikings are doing, from a live-content perspective, this season has built on some offseason successes. The VEN team had had to get creative in its production efforts with the Vikings’ tech-fueled practice facility, the TCO Performance Center, largely shut down in the early weeks of the coronavirus shutdown.
Surrounding the NFL Draft, a virtual party branded “Vikings Happy Hour” was the first notable effort in which the crew tried some things it had never tried before. It proved to be a successful fan activation as well as a valuable first step in an offseason full of new projects.
“Everyone was remote at that point,” notes Werthheimer. “That was probably the biggest technical lift that we pulled off. Once we figured that out, I’d say it was fairly smooth sailing from there. We set the bar on how to do this, and we continue to do it, bringing former players in and sitting down and talking with them. That set us up for success later on.”
Wertheimer also notes that it helped make many on the team comfortable with using consumer-like technologies (Zoom, Microsoft Teams) to produce content while maintaining its customary standard of quality.
“We all knew technology had come a long way,” he says, “but I don’t think we really appreciated until now what we can do with this. When this first hit, we thought, ‘How are we going to be able to do anything?’ But hire people smarter than you. Luckily, we had hired some people who got us to where we are now, and it was a phenomenal job by our team.”
As August approached, with no preseason games or Training Camp to welcome fans to, VEN funneled all of its energy to finding ways to serve fans and bring value to sponsors through live video content. The team was able to get back into its impressive content-creation studios and control rooms, but much of the effort needed to be done with limited crew and minimal access to the team itself.
“It strips [everything] down to the basics,” Harper explains. “When you have all of the technology, you can get crazy with your ideas, but this took us back to the core. No one is going to be able to hear from our players without us. How do we tell their stories, introduce our fans to the rookies and new signings? How do you tell the story of what’s going on in the building with the limited access that you have? We felt the responsibility of how this is the only chance that our fans are going to get a peek at the ‘Purple.’”
When Training Camp arrived, the team produced a daily live show after practice, offering a recap of the day as well as socially distant interviews with players, coaches, and even reporters onsite. They also coordinated with local television (KMSP-TV) and radio (KFAN) partners to produce a 90-minute live broadcast of one of the team’s first full practices. The show hit all channels: TV, radio, and digital/social.
“Going through that process forced us to do some things that were out of our comfort zone [but] could potentially be things we do more down the road,” says Harper. “It was a huge success, so we might kick off training camp every year with that moving forward.”
Acknowledging that some of these efforts will change the future, Harper notes that the team is looking forward to the day they can get back to producing content with the facilities and the access that VEN previously enjoyed. In the meantime, he says, it has been a thrill developing new ways to find success in these wildly challenging circumstances.
“It has been inspiring to watch people have to think differently,” says Harper. “Uncomfortable at first, very frustrating, but, man, once you get past that, getting to that point of ‘How do you get the job done?’ That’s when it’s really cool to see the team come together and pull off some pretty cool things.”