Editor's Note: Kyle Belanger, Communications/Sports Journalism faculty instructor at Springfield College, spent the week working Radio Row at the Super Bowl and was good enough to contribute these reflections from a whirlwind week.
Delta Flight 413 departed promptly at 5:20 p.m. with alarming rapidity from Houston’s George Bush Airport on Friday, Feb. 3.
Bound for Atlanta, the aircraft had deboarded less than 35 minutes prior.
As we watched the arriving passengers exit the jetway clad in their Falcons and Patriots Super Bowl gear, two of my partners and I quipped that we’d almost certainly be delayed for our departure. Our time in Houston was completed, and, for me, that meant back to my daily duties on the . Most importantly, though, it meant back to fulltime father duties – these are the things you miss most when you’re lost in a week’s worth of Super Bowl Radio Row hype.
Almost immediately we began to relax our shoulders and take a deep breath. Hell, it might have been the first cleansing breath we’d taken in five days.
Those compatriots, Dave Stevens (formerly of ESPN) and Josh Rimer (formerly of TSN Toronto), along with myself, help to comprise a well-respected team of Super Bowl media professionals who are staples on one of the sports media’s most infamous annual circuits, Radio Row.
Hired by South Hadley native Chris Visser, our job is to arrive on Radio Row each year and quickly learn the layout and personalities of the ever-changing media geography. While many of the faces stay constant from year to year, the locations change drastically.
Without missing a beat, we spring into action, collaborating with our personal roster of NFL stars and Olympic heroes, booking them on radio stations from Seattle to New York and Miami – and even into international sports networks in Vancouver, British Columbia, and into the United Kingdom.
But here we sat in an airport terminal, eager to be home, but certain that our departing flight would be delayed.
Falsely resigned to the new reality, we were once again jolted to action when preboarding somehow started 15 minutes later. Apparently NASCAR pit crews work at Bush.
Looking back, we should have known better. Super Bowl week never caters to our personal plans.
Truth is, much of what goes into a week on Radio Row is about patience, battling fatigue, and preparing for the impending storm. You know the rush is coming – the celebrity appearances, the crush of paying fans looking for a piece of the action, etc. – you just never know when the first domino will topple.
In Houston, truth be told, there was an even more hypnotizing calm throughout the massive George R. Brown Convention Center. That calm was the result of a handful of factors.
To begin, the city of Houston and the Super Bowl committee did a marvelous job preparing for the event. This meant that much of the unnecessary stimuli added to an already-chaotic media scene were completely eliminated. For example, in San Francisco for Super Bowl 50, Radio Row and the NFL’s gift shop shared a false wall. As such, fans were drawn to the sights and sounds of hundreds of radio stations on the air at once.
While excellent for fans and their access to celebrity culture, it turned a casual 15-yard walk with Pro-Football Hall of Famer Rocky Bleier from a casual affair into an Olympic event.
This year, Houston put the fan shop on the first floor and shoved us radio nerds all the way up on the third. It was perfect.
In addition, because the city was such a perfect physical setting for the event, there was a large quadrangle immediately outside the convention center, making a perfect setting for some larger TV outlets to set up their stages.
The end result of all of this: Extra legroom for all the radio and PR pros on Radio Row. And, as a result, an increase in all-around collegiality between media nerds who can sometimes get prickly when packed into tight spaces.
For me, Super Bowl LI was one of deeper commitment to the Public Relations game. Because this is the first of my three Super Bowls that I was not also hosting to my now-defunct WHLL, 1450-AM, CBS Sports Radio show “The Average Joe Show,” I was able to dig in my toes with my primary Super Bowl employer, Antero Sports.
Owned by Visser – yes, older brother of Hall of Famer Lesley – Antero Sports brings scores of celebrities to the Super Bowl as spokespeople for his corporate sponsors. To make the machine run, Visser recruits a team public relations and media folks to work the room, book these celebrities on various radio stations across the nation, then escort those personalities to and from those appearances.
Without getting into too deep detail, imagine trying to eat dinner, wash dishes and start cooking your next meal all at the same time.
That’s the life of a Radio Row PR professional.
By Tuesday afternoon in Houston, the radio tables began to fill and the intensity was building. For me, that meant beginning to schedule the day for my first celebrity pitch-person Mary Lou Retton.
When I first received word I’d be working with the 1984 Olympic Gold medalist I was elated. As someone who has broadcast from Radio Row, myself, I know what it means to be working the room and pitching Retton to producers and hosts who are besieged by football talk. And while a week of football talk might sound like a great time (and it is, for the most part) Wednesday is the time that many hosts are eager for a pallet-cleanser.
And who better than Mary Lou Retton. She was “America’s Sweetheart,” for crying out loud.
As you can imagine, it was easy filling her schedule. In fact, the trick was finding ways to make the schedule work for as many stations as possible in Retton’s allotted time on Radio Row.
One of those resultant segments might have even been one that you heard in Massachusetts. If you were listening to 98.5-FM, The Sports Hub, Wednesday around lunchtime and heard Scott Zolak chatting up Mary Lou Retton, I was lurking just three feet away from the set.
At the instant, though, my job morphs yet again. During segments, it is my job to stand directly next to the show’s producer with two goals: to ensure that my guest isn’t held longer than our allotted time and, perhaps the more importantly, to ensure the hosts provide my guest with the proper product plug.
We give them access to a celebrity. They give us our product plug. The Radio Row world keeps on its axis.
A fairly simple equation, but one that can sometimes be held together with Scotch tape and bubble gum.
Alas, Wednesday in Houston was not simply a day fit for one Olympic Gold medal gymnast.
That would have been far too pedestrian.
Because as soon as Retton and I stuck the landing at her car, I hightailed it to the Club Quarters Hotel. That was where I grabbed the rental car and a few companions – including pal Bonnie-Jill Laflin, who you may know as cohost of this year’s Puppy Bowl – and headed to Delmar Stadium for the Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team’s clash with the NFL Texas Alumni.
There are charity benefit events that I like.
And there are ones that are can’t-miss.
I never miss the chance to work with the WWAFT during Super Bowl week.
After this year’s game, though, I’m not sure if it could get any better.
Held at the newly-renovated Delmar Stadium on a breezy and clear Texas evening, the Houston WWAFT showdown included a scheduled appearance by 2016 Team USA Gold medalist Simone Biles.
While it’s not uncommon for major celebrities to volunteer their time to appear and play in the game, an appearance by Biles in her hometown is a major event and requires a serious security detail. In this case, that detail was a team of six dedicated retired and current military and law enforcement officers assigned exclusively to the Biles family.
And, fortunately for me, that group also needed a representative from the Wounded Warriors Amputee Football organization to be with them all night long.
As soon as I arrived to Delmar with Laflin, Rimer and Brian Fritz (formerly of Yahoo! Sports), I was called to the sideline by the security detail for an intense pregame huddle.
After standing in a closed circle, nodding and ingesting as much security lingo as possible, it was time to meet the arriving car at its discreet arrival location. Only when we were briskly walking through cavernous empty halls that I realized just how big of a star Biles is.
Alas, my next three hours included serving as co-pilot for the 4-foot-9 dynamo, as she navigated her way through adoring (and sometimes overzealous) fans, coordinating with her Inside Edition mentor journalist, and assisting her in meeting some of the Wounded Warriors.
It. Was. Overwhelming.
Accompanied by her mother, father and publicist, Biles was the perfect combination of American teenager and meteoric celebrity. I was most struck by how perfectly steady she remained while literally thousands of fans each sought their Simone moment.
“Just let me know when you’ve had enough, OK?” I said to her. “You tell me when, and we can shut off the people and had to your seats.”
In that moment, I was struck by how many of the fans had completely abandoned treating her like a person. The “hellos” and “thank yous” were increasingly scarce. It was a small detail, but it bothered me enough to offer her an out.
“Really?,” she asked, unsure if I was serious.
“Just give me a look,” I assured her.
And that’s precisely what we did. After 45 minutes of continuous selfies and autographs, she gave me a quick look and off we went.
Well, that’s only partly true.
First I had to alert our security team with an attempt at sounded like I knew what I was doing.
“Gentlemen, we’re ready to move,” I offered in my most security-sounding voice. (Trust me, I know how weird this sounds. But that’s what happened. And it was cool.)
Of course, none of this speaks to the magnitude and awesomeness of the game itself.
While I also enjoy the event as a chance to catch up with friends on both teams that I see just once a year, it’s also a perfect chance to gain some perspective. Sure, celebs and NFL players line up to play in the event. This year’s lot included Biles, Retton, Laflin, Mike Vick, Ryan Leaf, Dante Pastorini, Jen Welter, Rocky Bleier, Dave Voboro, among many others.
But these names aren’t the superstars of the night.
Not by a long shot.
The stars of the night are the Wounded Warriors. Athletes in top physical shape, who also happen to be combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have undergone amputations.
And nobody goes half speed. Not the NFL players. And sure as hell not the Wounded Warriors.
Thanks, in part, to Omar Hernandez’s interception of Vick, the WWAF team ran its record to 17-0 over the NFL alumni with a 42-14 victory.
By the time the stadium emptied, and our Tex-Mex feast concluded, it was plenty after 11 p.m., putting the wraps on a 16-hour workday.
Tired yet? I hope not, because we’ve still got two days of work left.
The good news is that Thursday and Friday on Radio Row are what I consider typical high-stress medium-crisis days. It’s not easy, but it is predictably insane. For me, this year meant working with two-time Super Bowl champion Neil Smith. Booking and wrangling. Chatting and booking. Wrangling and wrangling. Booking and booking. Chatting and booking.
You get the idea.
There are brush fires, for certain. For instance, Smith is a player who seems to know and love all of the guys he played with. And I think he played with everyone in the city of Houston. So each time we’d attempt to cross the convention center floor, a walk that would take an anonymous figure two minutes, we were in for a commute of 8 to 10 minutes.
But it’s circumstances like these that require the experienced Radio Row wrangler to anticipate. As a result, I spent an awful lot of my time on Thursday and Friday asking producers if they could end their segments a few minutes early.
For me, the trick is to befriend the producers ahead of time, smile, apologize and make a bad joke. It seems to work.
I haven’t been punched in the nose yet.
It isn’t until around noontime on Friday when the reality set in of a mission completed. That’s about the time our final guest left the floor, and radio stations began to pack up and disappear.
Truth is, the majority of the media hit the airport Friday evening and Saturday morning. Only a representative few stick around to see the Patriots and Falcons actually settle things on the field.
After all, most of those media members have media jobs they need to report for on Monday morning.
As for me, before I teach a single Monday morning class at Springfield College, I’ve got a far more important job to resume.
Specifically, I’m most pumped about clocking back in as full-time dad to my family. Because if there’s one thing I am reminded by a week away from my crew – regardless of how prestigious and fun the work may appear from the outside – nothing can compare to the rigorous and rewarding workplace demands I feel when Milo (6) or Calder (4) demand my attention on the Lego table.
Before any of that happens, though, I’ve got some airline peanuts to eat and a tray table to secure.
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