Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Stadium Status: Soldier Field and Wrigley Field

Story and photos by Adam Maher

"It's the fans that need spring training. You gotta get 'em interested. Wake 'em up and let 'em know that their season is coming, the good times are gunna roll." -- Harry Caray

Last month, as I mapped out a four-day, three-night business trip to Chicago that revolved around a National Sports Marketing Network (NSMN) gathering, slated for a Monday night, I meticulously planned day trips to two legendary American sports stadiums: Soldier Field for the Gold Cup Final on Sunday, and Wrigley Field for a Cubs game on Tuesday -- it would be my first experience at both venues.

As a member of the sports branding industry, my intentions were to experience the two classic stadiums for comparison purposes. In this case, I would be experiencing two older, more intimate but less technologically advanced venues as contrasted against the newer, amenity inspired but more stadium-savvy venues this country has to offer. Two weeks removed from watching Yoenis Cespedes beat Bryce Harper in the Home Run Derby from the front row at Citi Field, a state-of-the-art facility built in 2009, and the fact that I'm a regular attendee at MetLife Stadium (both venues have more amenities and comforts than my living room -- aside from lacking Internet capabilities) I felt I had enough recent "new-school" in-stadium experience to base my comparisons on.

With Soldier Field being the second smallest NFL stadium (62,871 seats after multiple renovations) and the oldest NFL stadium (1924), I was in for a Sunday afternoon treat as I headed there for the Gold Cup Championship game, Team USA vs. Team Panama. After a short cab ride, my three friends and I walked over a sky way and peered downward over a handrail at rows of train tracks as several trains were arriving with bells and whistles right on time for the game. We then made our way down a well-manicured thoroughfare which led us into an echo-inspiring tunnel that runs underneath a roadway and out to the facade of where Brian Urlacher spent his Hall of Fame career. The entire walk was like a lucid dream, and brought back a distant memory ... I met Urlacher a block away from my house in Montclair, New Jersey in 2002. I was a teenager and Urlacher was an All-Pro, king-sized linebacker. Standing on a suburban sidewalk in his game day jersey, Brian was taking a break from filming his latest NFL commercial at a local elementary school near my house -- I remember immediately telling my friends to "wait here" so I could sprint home to grab a pair of adidas flip flops for Brian to sign. 

A decade later here I was. I had finally arrived at the doorstep of Urlacher's palace. Unfortunately, the signed flip flops are nowhere to be found.

After passing through the turn style, my crew entered an empty rotunda that could probably double as a small aircraft hangar. It was a massive open-space slab of cement and the floor was painted as a replica football field. Enough space to hit top speed in a sprint (which I'm glad to say I accomplished). After talking with some locals I learned that the stadium itself is built into the side of a man made hill. It sits on the outskirts of downtown Chicago at the end of the Field Colombian Museum and is about a mile away from the southern crown of Lake Michigan. I took the liberty of walking up to the top row of the north side's grandstands during halftime to snag this epic panorama:

Notice Lake Michigan on the horizon. Most stadiums would have this wall covered with advertisements, but for now, you could repel off the north side of Soldier Field if you wanted to.

The empty spaces inside Soldier Field enclosed with tall walls of cement made for a minimalist environment. Large corridors filled with not kiosks but bands of supporters singing songs was a humbling experience. I thought to myself, this is what it's been like for decades. There wasn't a fancy "museum" shop every 20 feet. There was no Shake Shack or Burger King around every corner. And there weren't advertisements being shelled in my face at a million miles per hour. Also, the security let you head down to the front row to take pictures. Try doing that at a new stadium.

The actual soccer game itself, with its 3:00 pm start time, moved pretty fast, thanks in part to minimal goals and fouls. The USMNT won 1 - 0 on a second half blooper goal with what I was calling their B+ lineup (no Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann was suspended, etc.) But the overall "in-game" experience was one of the best I've ever had. 

As I watched (and celebrated to the full extent of the verb) Landon Donovan's game-winning goal get stolen by Brek Shae in the 69th minute, the classic environment inspired me to consider the "in-game" fan experience vs. the "on-the-couch" fan experience. In an old, intimate stadium like Soldier, on a 70 degree day or in a 10 degree tundra I'll be happy to set my fantasy lineup, turn off my phone and take in the game at the stadium as opposed to my tablet-filled living room. Having said that, I definitely felt closer to the action at Soldier Field than I've ever felt at any MetLife Stadium game -- granted, I was fifth row at the epic Jets vs. Patriots Thanksgiving blowout "butt fumble classic" last year.

My Tuesday afternoon trip to Wrigley Field was nothing short of spectacular, and probably edged out my experience at Soldier Field by a few inches. MLB's second oldest ballpark (1914), Wrigley seats about 41,000 (only 800 fewer than Citi Field, but 9,000 fewer than Yankee Stadium). As a first time visitor to Wrigley, it would be an injustice if I truly attempted in a serious manner to describe what it's like to take in a game at Wrigley. I would fail miserably, stumbling through descriptors like a Yasiel Puig trying to take the SATs in English. Perhaps years later I will give it the old Harvard try.

I will say that there is a lack of jumbo tron and there are no in-your-face billboards -- two characteristics that are nice to see from a fan's perspective, but downright nauseating from a sports marketer's perspective. In comparison to Citi Field's billboards, Wrigley's capability for activation is a laughing stock, but rumors swirling that Wrigley is in for a big renovation with more activation opportunities in mind is cause for hope.

The in-stadium experience at Wrigley is most commonly compared to Fenway. I've never been to Fenway so I'm left stuck to compare it against Citi Field and Yankee Stadium. First off, the food is very good. I don't think I've ever had a better tasting hot dog all my life. The beer isn't as expensive and the lines are surprisingly short for an old ballpark. 

The free-to-roam environment made it very easy to take in the game from different angles. You could literally walk the upper deck from foul pole to foul pole without blocking a single person's view, all the while enjoying a perfect view of the game yourself. This is hardly the case at any new-age stadium I've ever been to. Additionally, if there were open seats down low, the security guards were happy to let you walk down and watch the game. Reminiscent of the olden days when fans used to sit on the outfield walls, happy to be stuck "on the fence."

Even by myself I knew I'd truly enjoy every moment at Wrigley -- and I did, thanks in part to the Cubs and Brewers throwing down a remarkable game. Down 2 - 0 in the fifth inning thanks to a pair of on-the-road homers, the Cubs rallied with five runs off five hits to take a momentous lead. It all folded when the Cubs went to their bullpen. Cubs slinger James Russell got shelled and gave the Brewers a four-run rally of their own. Control of the game was back in Milwaukee's hands as we entered the bottom of the ninth inning. With two outs and a man on first, Anthony Rizzo I believe, and the Cubs down 6-5, into the batters box walked right-handed hitter Welington Castillo. I sat watching anxiously from the front row down the third base line in the outfield section as Castillo ripped a high, swooping hit my direction, the crowd rising as it curved about 40 feet over my head, and much to my, and more so the hometown fans' chagrin, five feet left of the left-field foul pole. I was five feet away from seeing a walk-off home run at my first trip to Wrigley! Unfortunately Welington popped out two pitches later, and I started for the exit before the ball was caught.

One major problem we are facing as an industry with today's new-age venues is that a truly less intimate environment to watch the game than what we have in Soldier and Wrigley is becoming the standard. Stadiums are being built to be larger than life (not necessarily in capacity), and when you compare Soldier Field to MetLife, and Wrigley Field to Yankee Stadium or Citi Field, it's obvious to me that fans are literally watching the game from a farther vantage point. This is not the sole reason why, but I believe this problem has caused stadium marketing teams to become more dependent on creating new in-stadium features that instead of creating a different and better experience than watching the game in your living room, the stadium is trying to mimic that living room experience, thus taking away from a good old fashioned bag o' peanuts, beer and some cheers, which is exactly what I experienced in Chicago. The in-stadium experiences that landmark stadiums like Soldier Field and Wrigley Field create have the potential to turn any millennium's phone away from their face for an hour or two. I am scared that building indoor cafeteria's (Citi Field) and having multiple bars at the game (Yankee) take away from that "at-the-game" experience. Hopefully Wrigley and Soldier are able to maintain their rustic and historic scenery, while increasing their revenue through newly added activations and campaigns!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Painting Walls with Donald Driver

I get promotional emails inviting my presence for sports celebrity-endorsed product launches all the time, but from book signings to wine send-offs, I usually ask for a sample or signed book in the mail and never show up. It's cool that I get invited to these events, but most of the time the product launches are for things that I'm not interested in -- or more importantly, there's no opportunity to make money for me.

I've probably ignored 15-20 of these types of emails in the past. Until last week when I was asked to spend time with Green Bay Packers, future NFL Hall of Famer, Dancing with the Stars champion, one of my favorite wide receivers of all time, Donald Driver, to help him promote the launch of his new Wagner Flexio paint spray gun.

Yes. I know. This is probably the most random shit ever, which is why it's so amazing.

It all went down this morning on the 7th floor of the Museum of Art and Design (MAD) in Columbus Circle, and I've got to say, it was a blast. The highlight of my day was when Donald and I raced to see if I could paint an entire wall faster with the Flexio spray gun than he could paint a wall half the size of my wall with a regular paint roller -- I took the liberty to hush the crowd and paint Donald's #80 with the gun right before the race began. Needless to say, Donald liked what he saw:


After the paint-off, I had a chance to ask Donald a few questions. Nothing heavy, just some good old fashioned sportzbroz stuff.

ME: Who is a better QB, Aaron Rodgers or Brett Favre?

DONALD: Whoooo! Tough question. But I'm gunna have to go with Brett Favre.

ME: Besides you, who are the best five wide receivers of all time?

DONALD: Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Cris Carter, Lynn Swann, Sterling Sharpe.

ME: That's five --

DONALD:  -- Oh, shit.

ME: You could say a couple more if you want.

DONALD: There's a whole list of them, but I'll end it with Don Hutson.

ME: Who is the best wide receiver in today's game?

DONALD: I would have to say Calvin Johnson.

ME: If you could, would you coach in the NFL?


ME: Talk about the Donald Driver Foundation.

DONALD: We started back in 2000. What we did is help families transition from homeless shelters to apartments or houses. We currently have 75 families that we have already transitioned. We also have a scholarship program that gives a $1,000 scholarship to any kid that's going to a two or four year college. And we also have a computer scholarship that's also given to one of our kids that's coming from a homeless shelter. Last but not least is what we call Blessing with a Backpack. We use funding to feed kids on federal lunch on weekends. It's only $80 to feed a child for an entire school year. So we feed over 3,000 kids throughout Wisconsin, Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana.

ME: How did winning Dancing with the Stars compare to winning the Super Bowl?

DONALD: It felt the same. They put so much into Dancing with the Stars, and they put so much into the Super Bowl -- and you got 35 million people watching you every Monday night. Both were truly a blessing.

ME: Have you ever got a challenging phone call from Hines Ward (the only other NFL wide receiver to win a Super Bowl and win a season of Dancing with the Stars)?

DONALD: No I haven't gotten a challenge from Hines --

ME: -- Maybe you and Hines can have a dance-off at half time at the Super Bowl one year?

DONALD: Hines versus Donald? That'd be a good show. Maybe if the Packers play the Steelers in the Super Bowl we'll have to do it.

Many thanks to Donald and Ketchum Sports for inviting me to come see the Flexio! It was an absolute pleasure and honor.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Stanley Cup Finals Preview

The Stanley Cup Final.

This shortened season approaches its climactic ending with two cities left standing. Boston. Chicago. This is the first time 2 Original Six teams have met in the Finals since 1979. Hockey purists will recognize the brilliance of this matchup. Boston comes in after a sweep of the top-ranked Penguins, allowing just two goals in that series. Chicago comes in after beating a defensively tough Los Angeles team that had only allowed 1.5 goals per game these playoffs before heading to Chicago. The question heading into this series is can the Blackhawks crack the bulletproof glass that has been the Boston Bruins defense?

The contest stands as 12-10 in favor of Danny. For the finals its 2 points to pick the winner, +2 if you get the games right. And Bonus point for picking the Conn Smythe.


One thing that makes this matchup increasingly difficult to analyze is the fact that these teams did not meet during the regular season. There was in fact no cross-conference games at all this year, so it is impossible to judge which conference comes in stronger. Hence, the only thing that is for certain is that Gary Bettman will feel the wrath of hockey fan's hell, regardless of which city he is in when he strolls out on the ice to present the Cup.

Chicago continues to be led by Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, although Patrick Kane showed his revival in the Los Angeles series. If they can just start to get that from Jonathan Toews it will go a long way. What he has lacked, Chicago have made up for in the form of Bryan Bickell, whose 8 playoff goals are closing in on his regular season total of 9. Not getting lost in the mix has been the play of Corey Crawford, whose 1.74 GAA is on par with that of his counterpart in this series, Tuuka Rask.

If Boston are to win this series they will have to limit the amount of time spent in the defensive zone. Tuuka Rask has had to be great, as the team in front of him has allowed 33 shots per game in the playoffs. With the talented scorers on Chicago's roster, that kind of record may not stand up well. Chicago has allowed just 28 shots per game, while giving up a similar amount of goals.

Boston will need to employ an aggressive forecheck from the likes of David Krejci and Rich Peverly, who will skate more now with the loss of Gregory Campbell. They will also need their D-men to hold down their blue line and maintain possession in the offensive zone. They can do it, but it will be tough.

Chicago will be tougher for Boston to score against than Pittsburgh proved to be. Chicago was able to crack a rigid Los Angeles defense. They also maintain home ice advantage, which has been so important in these playoffs. They get the nod.

Chicago in 7

Patrick Sharp for the Conn Smythe

The finals have come down to two teams that both truly deserve to be here. Chicago was a dominant team in the regular season, but had to fight back from 3-1 down to a tough Detroit team. And its hard to imagine that the Bruins were at one point 2 goals down and a minute and a half away from a 1st round exit. 

Heading into this series, both teams are hot. I guess you have to be to get this far. Both made quick work of tough conference finals opponents and are playing with loads of confidence.

Its very very tough to pick either side in this one. There one side that is guaranteed to win though, is the NHL. Talk about an ideal finals for league revenues.

On the ice however, it gets tricky. In net, the Bruins have an advantage. Tukka Rask is playing like he wants to earn a Cup Ring as a starter, not as a backup, as he was during the previous Boston cup win. He gave up 2 goals during the four game sweep against Pittsburgh, and has only given up 12 goals in his previous 9 games, going back to the New York series.

Corey Crawford is no slouch either. He dueled against elite goaltender Jonathan Quick and came out on top. But in goaltending, I have to give the edge to Boston here. Rask shows no signs of letting up.

Offensively, both teams have been very strong. For Chicago, Patrick Kane was the star that sent them to the finals, beating quick more times than a taxi driver. A hattrick in a series clincher. Talk about clutch. Marian Hossa is also playing at a high level. Jonathan Toews is going to be zeroed in on by a tough Boston D, and he needs to step up.

For Boston, its been about David Kreijci. What a playoffs this guy has had. 21 points in 16 games. Every successful playoff team needs someone to play like this. Luckily for him, he is not alone. Milan Lucic has been a bruiser, and a scorer, as has Brad Marchand. Chicago has the more powerful guns, but Boston can more than hold their own.

When it comes to depth, both teams have it. Maybe a guy like Bryan Bickell benefits from the team he plays on, but there is no doubt he has stepped up big time in this post season. The Hawks will need him, and key role guys like Andrew Shaw to keep playing at a high level. For the Bruins, depth on Defense proved vital in getting them into the second round. Torey Krug cooled off after his hot 2nd round debut but he is still reliable. Contributions from 4th line guys like Dan Paille have been essential. Gregory Campbell exemplified what playoff hockey is about, killing a penalty with a broken leg that will cost him the rest of the year.

For the Bruins to win, they are going to have to keep up their rough and tough play they showed against Pittsburgh, although I doubt Chicago will whine as much as the Penguins. They win games when they keep the other team off the scoresheet, and they have shown they can do that to even the most elite offenses.

For Chicago, they will have to match Boston's confidence and intensity. Jonathan Toews needs to break out big time, and the depth will need to match up.

My Prediction. Well, tis a tough one to pick indeed. I have the utmost confidence that it will go to a deciding game 7. With that said, I think Tukka Rask steals it for Boston. Bruins in 7.

Conn Smythe Pick- Tukka Rask, win or lose