Is Producing Sports Like Playing Them? 4 Lessons from Super Bowl 51

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

By Alicia East, CrewCloud

The Super Bowl packs enough drama to turn even the most unrepentant non-fan into a super fan for a day. Leading up to the 51st face off, we had the hype, the social media darlings, and the hashtags. Some hoped their team would #RiseUp. Others wondered if theirs would win #OneMore. At the core of all of it was one thing: the story.

When it comes to producing sports, Mark Isherwood says the story is what it’s all about. Ultimately, people show up or tune in at home for the entertainment. With 20 years of experience producing sports, Isherwood knows a few things about the unique world of sports programming. Though you won’t hear him compare the physical feats, there are some ways that producing sports is not totally unlike playing them.

Here are four lessons from Super Bowl 51: 

1. The most important preparation happens before the main event

Behind the scenes at the Super Bowl preparation is intensely intense. People are walking through security details, (hopefully) inflating footballs, and stocking bathroom stalls with toilet paper. Athletes are running and re-running plays until they’re scoring touchdowns in their sleep. Musicians and dancers are rehearsing for their own kind of athletic performance. Everyone is planning every little thing from A to Z to prevent everything from wardrobe malfunctions to concession shortages.

Behind the scenes in sports production, the creative department is furiously designing and polishing graphics and making sure the music and images come together seamlessly. Producers consider which direction the show might go based on what players have been hot and what is happening in the league overall. The on-screen talent studies athletes and brushes up on season stats. If there’s not a solid plan A in place, everything will unravel before the team even has a chance to come up with or execute plan B.

You can’t expect to show up and play a smooth game or run a smooth show without putting in the work beforehand.

2. The most successful people are adaptable 

One of the biggest challenges with producing sports is the fact that it all happens live and unscripted. Just like those playing the game, those producing the stories have to be ready for quick turnarounds and surprising twists.

Producers usually have an idea of how they want to approach a story, but Isherwood says curveballs are guaranteed. You have to be ready for the athlete nobody’s ever heard of to come out of nowhere and make a game-changing play. You have to be ready for the stunning comebacks and historical moments like those that played out in the 51st Super Bowl. The moral of the story here is that you have to be ready for anything.

Those who do best in both sports and sports production are flexible and easily adapt to a multitude of changes.

3. Teamwork and communication are just as important as skill

Tom Brady is a gifted quarterback, but even he knows he can’t win a game alone. You’re not going to get to the NFL without skill, and you’re not going to stay there without teamwork. A team’s cohesion, or lack thereof, always shows up. Some of the most painful mistakes in sports are those that could have been prevented with better communication.

Just like in live sports, when the communication breaks down in live sports production, the viewers at home know. Between the technical preparation, the on-screen talent, the camera people, and the director, the opportunities for communication failures are endless. Cracks in unity or gaps in communication can make or break a show just like they can make or break a game.

The importance of teamwork and communication cannot be overstated.

4. There’s always a story behind the story

Both teams came to Super Bowl 51 with a backstory. For the Falcons, it was about their city's history, about brotherhood, and about underdogs contending for their first Super Bowl win ever. With a record-breaking nine trips to the big game, the Patriots brought their own history to the field. They brought the winningest Super Bowl QB of all time. They also brought Deflategate. For them, it was about their team’s dynasty, their coach’s legacy (even though you won’t hear him say it), and their quarterback’s redemption.

With Lady Gaga promising to bring “a spirit of equality” to halftime in a political and cultural climate rife with contention, those less interested in football anticipated their own idea of the main event. The stage was well set for the story’s climax to play out live in front of over 100 million people.

And it sure did. During the game, we saw it all. We saw Atlanta’s history-making lead followed by New England’s history-making comeback. We saw one team gel powerfully and then fall apart while the other made the shift from being on its heels to being on its toes. We saw hard-hitting commercials tackle sensitive topics like immigration (here’s one, here’s another) and gender equality. It all wove together to make for one epic story. Behind the athletes, the coaches, and the fans were all those sports production people making sure the whole world had a chance to see that epic story play out.

We interviewed two-time Emmy award winning producer Mark Isherwood for this post. After spending nearly 20 years producing sports at KNTV in San Jose and NBC’s KUSA in Denver, Isherwood took his storytelling experience in a new direction and started Freedom House Productions in 2007. Whether he’s overseeing sports stories or corporate commercials, Isherwood stays close to his roots—remembering that it’s always about the story.

About CrewCloud

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