On the Gridiron: While SoFi Stadium Remains Empty, Los Angeles Chargers Refine Production Workflows
Fans are enjoying in-stadium visuals, sounds through the HomeTurf app
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.
Prior to the start of the 2020 regular season, NFL fans were given the gift of SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. In one of the many disappointments that have come this year, the Los Angeles Chargers opened their new home (and have continued to play) without any fans in the stands. The in-venue team has turned the situation into a positive by refining production strategy and getting comfortable with the new control room.
“[Our season opener] was surreal,” says Pete Soto, VP, fan experience/executive producer, Bolt Productions, Los Angeles Chargers. “It felt like a rehearsal in a lot of ways, but it still had that same excitement of NFL football. And it’s really no kind of a feeling that can capture that game-day feeling. So it was weird, but it was fun at the same time. It felt good to get it back up on the headset.”
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Anxiously Waiting: SoFi Stadium Opens to Empty Stands
Throughout the team’s 61-year history, the Chargers haven’t experienced a quieter stadium opener than the game vs. the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, Sept. 20. It’s an unfortunate start for a venue poised to host a hefty number of Rams and Chargers games as well as international events like the Opening/Closing Ceremonies of the 2028 Summer Olympics.
Without patrons in the lower and upper bowls, the authentic game-day feeling is hard to replicate, and Soto understood this challenge for a professional of his pedigree. As senior director, game presentation, AMB Sports + Entertainment Group, he helped usher Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta into the NFL fold. He and Los Angeles Chargers VP, Broadcast and Operations, Jason Cothern (who was director, stadium operations, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium), realized that the 2020 opener was unique.
“I told Jason that this was probably the most relaxed opening event I’ve ever had in my career, because our show was way less complex,” says Soto. “We’re 10%-15% where we would be for a regular show.”
In terms of broadcast and in-venue technology, the new control room is supporting both 4K and HDR capabilities. With the schedule lacking preseason games, the team used the down time to learn the new workflows and troubleshoot any issues before fans arrive for the first time.
“Technologically speaking, this control room is phenomenal,” says Soto. “We had some technical issues, but our games have been very smooth. Our show at the stadium is a little bit different nowadays because we do it more in service of the players by giving them the things that they want.”
HomeTurf: Second-Screen Experience Brings In-Stadium Prompts to Fans’ Homes
Although fans aren’t physically in the venue to cheer for their favorite team, the production team is bringing all the fixings and trimmings to living rooms around the country. In an attempt to maintain that bond and connection, the franchise developed HomeTurf presented by Bud Light. Through this app, fans can experience exclusive content that would normally be seen on the 70,000-sq.-ft. double-sided videoboard that is currently the largest in sports.
“We’re really trying to take advantage of it because [the app] takes the in-game show and puts it on your phone or iPad,” say Soto. “[For example], when we score a touchdown, the cannon goes off on your device, so we’re trying to make it an interactive experience.”
In addition to graphics, sounds, and other in-venue elements, HomeTurf is providing opportunities for fans to get in touch with former players and Hall of Famers who made an indelible mark on the organization.
“We had [former Chargers running back] LaDainian Tomlinson in the chat room for the season opener,” Soto adds. “He joined again for the Panthers game during Week 2. For road games, we’re going to have [former tight end] Antonio Gates join us. We’re also giving away some prizes, so it’s a nice companion to have while you’re watching the game on TV.”
The Ones Who Get It Done: Notable Names of Chargers’ Production Team
During Sofi Stadium’s inaugural season, it takes an entire team to put on a successful show. Soto notes that his colleagues in the control room are supplying support and doing their own incredible behind-the-scenes work in difficult circumstances.
“Cothern and his crew at the stadium — [XPression Designer/Programmer] Andrew Shealy, [Production Manager/Motion Designer] Joe Blanco, [IPTV Manager] Brandon Campbell, [Director, Broadcast and Technical Facilities] Calvin Spencer — have been phenomenal,” he says. “My own crew here for game presentation worked tireless hours with me: [Director, Game Presentation,] Sean Tabler, [VP, Fan Experience] Mark Tamar, [Event Specialist, Fan Experience,] Kaitlyn Dychala, and [Coordinator, Fan Experience] Ally Barry.”
With or without fans, the Chargers will charge forward in 2020. And when spectators eventually make their way on their first pilgrimage, the team will be ready to impress the crowd and make new memories for years to come.
“We really didn’t get to have any run-throughs because the one we had scheduled became a social-justice movement, which was a very proud moment for the organization,” Soto says. “The home opener was our first real rehearsal, but it has been amazing to see our team shake off all the constraints that we have in this stadium. I couldn’t have been happier.”
The Chargers travel to New Orleans for tonight’s Monday Night Football contest against the Saints at 8:15 p.m. ET. On Sunday, Oct. 18, the team will return to SoFi Stadium to take on the New York Jets at 4:05 p.m.