Venue Q&A: New York Giants’ Don Sperling

By: Rick Price, president, moeBAM! Venue Media Services, and director, SVG Venue Technology Committee

Don Sperling is VP/executive producer of Giants Entertainment, the media, marketing, programming, production, and events arm of the New York Football Giants. He oversees all branding, marketing, television, radio, digital media, social media, publishing, creative services, events, and live game-day stadium production and presentation. He was formerly president of D&L Media, a full-service production, development, programming, and consulting company. Prior to D&L Media, he was SVP/executive producer of NBA Entertainment, NBA TV, and NBA.com and created and developed NBA Inside Stuff, NBC’s long-running weekly sports and entertainment show. SVG asked him about pioneering with the NBA, strengthening the Giants’ legendary bond with fans, and the prospect of Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium.

Don Sperling

Don Sperling

Prior to your role with the New York Giants, you were with NBA Entertainment. Tell me a little bit about your NBAE experience and the NBA Inside Stuff experience. What were some of your special moments there?
I spent 15 years at the NBA. We started with about five people, and we built it to well over 200 people and became the largest distributor of sports programming throughout the world. When I left there in ’98, we had about 240 affiliate countries that were taking in some form of NBA programming, whether games or shoulder programming. It was just the golden era, if you really think about it. We had Bird and Magic, and then Jordan came on the scene; we rode that high all the way through the Dream Team, which was probably the pinnacle of my sports career: traveling and spending that whole summer with the Dream Team and being part of that historic moment. Then, of course, all the learning and prospering under David Stern and the way we all, together, built the NBA into what it is today. It was just a fantastic experience.

Inside Stuff was great. Once we had the partnership with NBC, they wanted to really do more with programming and help us look towards youth and women and spread the NBA’s reach to a different demographic. We created NBA Inside Stuff, which really was the first TV show that meshed sports, music, and pop culture. After that, you saw MTV Sports, and [other] companies started emulating that. We’re very proud that we were sort of the pioneers.

In 2007, you joined the Giants as executive producer and VP.
I had my own company for a while, and then I started to talk to the Giants about looking at their game-day [presentation] and trying to enhance some of it, and it spun into a fulltime job. I came to the Giants in 2007 — really one of the great franchises in all of sports: great ownership; the Maras are a wonderful family.

As the call for the new stadium came, we started building towards that. We got our own training facility, which afforded us the ability to build a state-of-the-art studio, edit rooms, control room in our training facility, and, at the same time, start to develop and create the infrastructure for the new stadium, which we’re really able to exploit to take our game to a different level.

In Giants Stadium, we were limited with what we could do, limited in terms of analog, video boards, cramped spaces, and old equipment. [It was] a wonderful stadium for the fans, but, technology-wise, it was very hard to operate. MetLife Stadium affords us the ability to expand what we do, build the emotional bond between the team, fans, advertisers, and our rightsholders, and create that Giants-branded integration that we love.

As executive producer, what is your philosophy for game presentation?  What do you strive for each game?
What we’re trying to do is build a week-long story every week during the season. It really starts on Monday when you look back. On Tuesday, it’s review, report, update, and keep the fans interested through all the media platforms. The unique part about the Giants is that all the media platforms report under one roof so we’re able to look at television, digital, social media, radio, and game presentation with one view and the same people working all together. We build a storyline through all our platforms all week long and develop it. By Wednesday, you start looking toward the weekend. Whether it’s through a 30-second video, a three-minute video, social media, a tweet, or any kind of activation, we’re telling a story all week, culminating in that game on Sunday.

Obviously, that leads to your next question. What we really look to do is create what we produce in the stadium. From pregame early hours to in-bowl and postgame, we’re trying to create a network look and feel of high quality, but with a home-field advantage. When the network does a game, they’re looking to be equal and neutral to both teams. We’re trying to produce a high-end, high-quality [show] using high-end graphics, [but one that] creates a home-field advantage so our team can ultimately win. That’s the goal in football, obviously in any sport but football especially: there are only eight home games, so every game is crucial.

What are the best methods for creating that home advantage in a generic stadium like MetLife Stadium?
It really starts when people start to come into the stadium: we’re trying to drive a lot of social media and engage a two-way conversation between the fans and the team right from the start. As we get toward the game, we’re playing the music to get the fans excited, we’re putting up pregame shots of the players warming up. Then we create our actual game-day ritual when the players come into the tunnel: we play very dramatic music, they all touch the Giants Pride sign. Then we have our music open, and the players run out onto the field.

As the game starts, we’re creating a lot of video prompts: get up, get loud, third down. We’re trying to get the fans really loud — not when we have the ball, of course, but when we’re on defense. We’re trying to create an atmosphere [that makes it] hard for the opposing team to concentrate and hear what they’re doing. We’re revving up the stadium, we’re revving up the team, the players, the fans; we’re trying to create this emotional bond all throughout the game.

What is the single greatest challenge you’ve witnessed in fan experience and fan engagement over your career?
I think the biggest challenge is to give the fans the information that they get from sitting on the couch through their mobile devices. You can sit at home watch a 60-in. screen, have your iPad or your phone, and get all your fantasy stats. We’re trying to create that in the stadium, too.

We have four boards. We use two of the boards at a time for fantasy stats, updates, out-of-town scores, scoring drives, stats; we’re trying to create in the stadium the same comforts and also the same technology and tools that they get at home.

That’s the challenge, and our commissioner is a big proponent in that. He understands that a lot of teams around the league are challenged to fill the stadium because it’s very easy to sit at home and watch a game that’s incredibly produced by great networks and also keep track of your fantasy team on your mobile phone. We’re getting the fans inside through technology, through the WiFi, through special replays: fans can choose which replays they want to watch. We’re trying to give the fans incentive and some extra tools to keep that experience a rich and enjoyable one.

You guys are in a unique position in not having to, at least at this point, be concerned about your ticket sales, when that’s exactly the challenge and the goal, I would think, for every venue regardless of the level of the sport?
But we’re not arrogant enough to take that for granted. We’re constantly trying to create rituals and routines and things that the fans can really embrace — pregame activities that they can do, things they can do in the tailgate area, throughout the game, at halftime, at timeouts. We’re constantly looking [out] for our season-ticket holders because they are loyal; they’ve been there a long time. For any new fans that are coming in, [we try to] make sure [they have] a great game-day experience.

What do you see coming in the next five years?
In the next five years, I think the phone is going to be their wallet. [Fans] are going to sit with their mobile phone and order everything they need, have food delivered to them. It’s going to be a visual device, it’s going to be everything. I think that mobile is going to be an integral part of the stadium experience, even though it’s well on its way now but even more so. People won’t even have to leave their seats.

Will any of that change the game?
I don’t think it changes the game. I think it actually makes it easier for the fan. It’s going to be ease of service for fans attending the game because everything’s going to be electronic and they’re going to be able to access anything they want from the touch of their mobile device. Hopefully, that’ll make things easier and also [add] more incentive to attend every game.

Do you think we’ll ever get to a point where we are with NASCAR, where I can choose to listen to or follow a particular driver during a game?
I don’t think it’s the same thing, because [NASCAR] is a very isolated sport. Football is a team sport. There are so few games, [and] it takes so much focus and so much concentration. It also depends on your team’s philosophy and your coaching staff. There may be some stuff that teams do on the bench; there may be more audio from the ref. Players are already wired, and the networks are trying to get more access. Audio will probably get better, so you’ll hear more, but I don’t think players’ communicating to fans during the course of the game is something that’s going to permeate football. The games are too critical.

Tell us about preparing to host Super Bowl XLVIII.
We had our first meeting yesterday. Fox came in with their whole group: their game people, their pregame people, their postgame people. The host committee was there, the NFL was there. It’s really the NFL’s show. The NFL comes in and takes over; they work with the host committee, the networks, and with us. In this sense, we’re really [more like] very, very knowledgeable consultants because we’re the ones who know the stadium the best, so they’re relying on us for our knowhow. We’ll work very closely with the broadcast, but we’re really high-powered consultants.

Will there be any technology or infrastructure changes?
There are always improvements. The WiFi capacity is going to get increased; the connectivity will be double- and triple-checked; there’ll probably be a lot more boxes in stalls for the cameras and types of things that Fox wants. I think most of it is happening outside the stadium.

What is your purpose in serving on the SVG Venue Technology Committee, and what would you like to accomplish as part of this committee?
I think we can serve as a database for people all over our industry. We can be a great resource, a guiding hand. That, first and foremost, is a great responsibility, and I’m proud to be in on that.

The other thing is creating guides and white papers on things like connectivity at stadiums, which I have a personal interest in. Technically, I’m not the one who can sit there and design the infrastructure of how a stadium is connected and built, but, as a producer, I know where and how and why I want connectivity and how to use it. The combination of being able to take all the people from all the various parts of the production industry and putting their minds together and thinking all these things through — that for me is a particular interest. Especially with all the new stadiums that are being built, let’s get in there right at the beginning and help out everyone, so every place you go to — whether you’re an away team or a home team — it’s a good experience.