Thanks to Comcast and NFL Network, Raymond St. Martin of SilverandBlackPride.com recently had an opportunity to go behind the scenes at the NFL Network studios to meet the NFL RedZone and NFL GameDay cast and see NFL RedZone broadcasted live.
Meeting the Contest Winners: Doug Stickley and Kelly Schweitert
Imagine my surprise when I received an e-mail asking if I'd be available to fly to LA and trail the winner of a Comcast and NFL RedZone contest. The "job" would entail reporting at 9AM PT to the NFL Network studios in Culver City and covering the fan experience that was won by Doug Stickley and his fiancé, Kelly Schweitert . I think I took about two seconds to read the e-mail and respond with a resounding "Yes!" Little did I know that I was about to embark on a journey where I would witness the contest winner's dreams come true while fulfilling one of my own.
I awoke, a bit under the weather, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Universal City, pressed my suit, packed my bags and loaded into a cab on a rainy Sunday. In typical Raymond St. Martin form, I assumed that the address was in one of the confirmation e-mails that I received and after a few checks, it wasn't there. Thank Goodness, my NFL Guide for the day, Maria Murrow, was available by cell and gave me the address before my cabby and I ended up in South Central.
After a brief drive, there we were, entering the security gate for the NFL Network and NFL.com studios. For a Fan-Writer, the term that I prefer to Blogger, this was akin to entering Mecca. On the other side of these walls were Deion Sanders, Rich Eisen, "Mooch" (He later gave me permission to call him that), Faulk, Irvin, Dukes and Sapp. Not to mention the fact that the brains of NFL.com, NFL Network and NFL RedZone are all headquartered here.
When I exited the cab, I was invited, by the security guard, to wait in a café, out of the rain, until Maria and I met up. No sooner had I stepped into the café than the rain stopped and moments later there was Maria greeting me with a beaming and infectious smile. I don't quite know what it is, maybe it is because they are living a dream, but, everyone that I would meet this day was very inviting and friendly. Going into the day, I feared that I would be "Big-Leagued" by the stars and people who knew that I was on their turf. That could not have been further from the truth.
Maria walked me over to the NFL Media building to meet the contest winners. On the way across the parking lot we exchanged pleasantries about how her husband is a Raiders fan and how she lives on the West Side. Little did she know, or maybe she did, my mind was elsewhere. I was doing a mental and physical inventory check: Voice Recorder? Check!...I can use that right? Flip Video? Check!...But I can't use that, right?...Notebook?...Check!...Two Pens?... Check!...Phew... I was ready to roll!!!
Entering the vast foyer, decorated with helmet plaques of every NFL team, yes, I had to point out that a Raider helmet was on top, I was met by three more beaming faces, Vice-President of Marketing and Promotions, Joel Chiodi, and then the two biggest smiles in the room belonging to the winners, Stickley and Schweitert. Doug was donning a Florida State windbreaker, which fits because he is from Tallahassee Florida and met his fiancé while they were both attending FSU.
Throughout the tour I found out how Doug won the trip. He has been down, physically, since having multiple back procedures last March. Part of being down is spending a lot of time on the internet, reclined in a Lazy Boy. Right? Luckily for him, this is exactly where he was when he first saw the promo for this contest. After entering multiple times, he'd found out three weeks earlier that he'd won this "Awesome" trip. Three days and two nights at the Fairmont, airfare, transportation, NFL Network zip-ups, a football signed by the entire on screen staff and most importantly a chance to see how it all works and hopefully get a chance to meet one of his idols, Deion Sanders. I can tell you that it didn't take more than a minute to see that two very appreciative and deserving contestants had won this great opportunity.
Here is a brief description: (If you don't play you can't win!)
"NFL RedZone Sunday Sweep Challenge is a weekly online game where NFL fans can put their football IQ to the ultimate test. Consumers answer seven questions every week based on NFL RedZone Sunday afternoon games. They can win weekly and quarterly NFL prizing and the ultimate prize... a trip to the 2011 NFL Pro Bowl. It's fast and free. Log on to nfl.com/redzonetv and sweep the competition!"
The Tour Begins
Maria started off the tour by taking us through the offices which was a gathering of cubicles decorated in sports themes and then executive offices surrounding them which were piled high with sports memorabilia.
In a corner office at the foot of the entry is where Emmy-winning, Coordinating Producer of Features and Production Design, Brian Lockhart, sets up shop.
Fortunately for Doug, Kelly and myself, Brian was more than happy to invite us into his office and tell us about what he does.
Brian is in charge of conceiving, creating and developing interviews and features for NFL Network and NFL.com. NFL Draft stories, Ray Lewis visiting his son's football game and many more pieces were the feature unit's conception, development and production.
Brian, as many accomplished artists tend to be, was very laid back, yet focused on exactly what he was doing. And according to him, what he does is create the things that are outside of the box and he loves being the one that gets to bounce ideas around all day. By the shiny Emmy on his desk I could tell that he wasn't just blowing smoke, he has the ability to focus within creativity in such a way that it flows out of him. Even when I saw him later in the day, he was more into his head than into hanging around with the "Boys" and watching football. You could see in his eyes that he was creating.
After saying our goodbyes we rounded the corner from Brian's office and into the heart of the NFL.com and NFL Network newsroom.
At first glance it looked like any other newsroom. There were eight flat screens on the wall in the center and a group of about fifteen people were typing away and hammering out all of the great content that we get to read. I didn't speak to any of the writers because I was listening to Joel tell a story about meeting Amy Trask and Nnamdi Asomugha at a NFL Network "Keep Gym in School" community charity event. It was a great story, because, in true Amy Trask fashion, Trask received a black eye while playing a pick-up basketball game and she wore it around like a badge of honor all day. Great story Joel!
After a quick walk through the rest of the building we went across the parking lot to where all of the action is.
NFL Network Studios: The NFL RedZone
After passing the cafe there is a trail of doors that require security cards and passwords to enter. Each of these doors leads to one magical room after another.
Maria started off our tour by introducing us to the sound editors and then letting Doug pose with the mic that Rich Eisen uses for voice over work. Doug had an incredulous smile on his face, as if to say, "Am I really doing this?" Kelly, Maria and I all echoed, "Yes you are Doug!"
If you are not familiar with NFL RedZone, then let me clue you in a bit. Every Sunday from 1PM ET until the final play of the afternoon game, Comcast and the NFL have partnered to show you live content of every scoring play and major play in each game. It is truly A-Mazing! Since the NFL owns the content, they can cut into any game at any point and you hear the announcers from that game, as if you've just changed the channel yourself. I, personally, only watch the Raider game each week and NFL RedZone channel. This way I get to watch all of the Raider action while keeping an eye on my fantasy team and the rest of the AFC West.
The layout of the NFL RedZone studio is a labyrinth of sorts. Around the corner from the sound studio is the control center where Coordinating Producer - Kent Camera, Director - JD Hansen, Producer - Jon Kaplan, Technical Director - John Karpie and a host of about 12 others work feverishly to provide the proper layout and place the correct content on the screen that all of us who have Comcast witness on the NFL RedZone every Sunday.
Kent Camera was a very inviting host, he instructed all of us, Maria included, in the art of producing the show. They are constantly choosing between about 60 different shots. Some are live and others are being played back. When a big play happens, Kent calls down to the "Elvis" producers, Nigel Jones and Larry Campbell, who then, if they haven't already, access the shot from one of many DVRs all being run through their "Elvis" machines and relay it back to be cued up for us to enjoy at home. ( A quick google search revealed NOTHING about this "Elvis Machine") (( But, it does exist)) (((Trust me, I have pictures)))
While all of this technical and visual choreography is going on, there is actually a LIVE HUMAN BEING, although those of us who sat through the NFL RedZone LIVE would argue that the man is part robot, Scott Hanson, who is making sense of all of the game changing/scoring plays and, "MOSTLY", seamlessly providing clear play by play on the complete other end of the building. That is where we headed next.
Now, before I give Scott "The Beast" Hanson all of the credit, I do have to point out that he has two spotters who are scrubbing the Internet tirelessly in an effort to provide accurate details about each play and a little background on each player who made it. For example, when speaking of Brian St. Pierre, Scott pointed out that one week earlier St. Pierre had been a stay-at-home dad. That was most definitely an Elliott Harrison find.
Elliott Harrison, or "The Savant", as he is affectionately known in the studio, can name any team from any year who made the Playoffs and what the outcome was. He really is that good. "The Kid" in the room is Spotter - Bryan Larrivee. For the life of me, I still don't know exactly what a "Spotter" does that a "Researcher" doesn't. I guess it is just a hierarchy thing and some day Bryan will also be able to tell us the score of the "Holy Roller" game and who had the most yards, but until then, he will still be the "Spotter".
I have to say that once the lights went on it was a well orchestrated MACHINE.
Scott Hanson gave his two minutes of prepared dialogue, then we all waited for some action!
There were, "The Beast", "The Savant", "The Kid", the contest winners and me, the fly on the wall, all huddled around nine screens waiting for a big play or for someone to get into the red zone. It is funny, when you are rooting for action you begin rooting for every team and that is something that I will take away from this, when you root for FOOTBALL, you root for a good game, or as NFL Media publicist, Brenna Webb, said, "I always root for the team that is behind" in response to my question about who her favorite team was. I am a Raider fan, but as the day wore on, I became more of a FOOTBALL fan. Thank you Brenna!
In between scoring plays, big turnovers and long run-backs Scott was telling us his life story. He was talking about living in Tampa, running on the beach, how he wears running shoes on the set and then we'd hear Kent's voice in his ear, a finger would go up, he'd make a call about a play, pause for a second and then pick up right where he left off with us. At one point no one knew who'd fumbled for Baltimore, Kent cued the play and while Elliott and Bryan furiously worked the computers and waited for NFL GameCast to refresh, Scott did show one bead of sweat, he was human after all, and quite literally a split-second before the play appeared on TV someone shouted out, "Ray Rice, Ray Rice Fumbled", Scott made the call, then turned and continued his dialogue with us without missing a beat. Scott Hanson truly is one of a kind.
I never knew exactly what it took to put on the NFL RedZone Show every Sunday or just how difficult it would be to host the show. I didn't know that it took roughly forty people over twelve hours to make the magic happen and how much energy, intensity and focus it takes to keep a dialogue going for over six hours.
As Doug and Kelly both said, "This is just awesome, I can't believe that we get to have an experience that nobody can pay any amount of money for". "Tell everyone that people do win these trips, this time it was us, next time it could be them". Well Doug and Kelly, we all won and I think that the NFL has a real winner on it's hands with the NFL RedZone and all of the incredible staff that they have on hand. This was a once in a lifetime experience and I personally thank all involved.
I hope that this insight gives you a better look at what happens every Sunday at the NFL Network studios in Culver City and I look forward to sharing Part II with you about what it was like to watch football with and interview some of the personalities that we watch on NFL Network every week.