It’s the kickoff to the 2010 NFL season. This is always a favorite time of year for me, as it represents new beginnings. The air becomes cool and crisp, and everything just feels better. This time of year also always reminds me of the beginning of the 2002 NFL season, when I was up to my elbows in the grand opening of Gillette Stadium.
We had started planning for this day years before the 2002 season. It was an absolute whirlwind of activity. We were all working incredible amounts of hours in preparation for the new stadium. I was designing marketing strategy and expanding my staff; we had to be up and running well before the stadium was built to be prepared for the increased volume in all areas. We were upgrading from Foxboro Stadium, which was in relative terms, a glorified high school stadium, to a new, state-of-the-art facility that had more bells, whistles and revenue generating opportunities than anyone in the organization had ever experienced.
The entire organization worked tirelessly. We were planning and working and making decisions on aspects of building a stadium that we never had to think about before. We were fortunate that Jonathan Kraft had singlehandedly closed a naming rights deal with CMGI well before the planned opening of the stadium. My group was actively selling sponsorships both in the old and new buildings. We were simultaneously selling new suites and club seats, planning new events, and beginning to fulfill new stadium deals, while executing the old stadium elements. I am only scratching the surface of the depth and complexity of what was going on; there was way too much flying at us each day. In the midst of it all, along with our COO, Andy Wasynchuk, I negotiated the detailed terms of the naming rights contract with CMGI. We finalized the deal after six months. Then, out of nowhere, the Patriots go to and WIN the Super Bowl. Wild. Just wild times.
There’s a whole lot more to this experience that will take up a chapter in the book, but I think you get the picture – we were crazy busy. Then, of course, more changes come our way over the summer as CMGI is out and Gillette is in as the naming rights sponsor. Whoa! But let’s get back to the kickoff of the 2002 NFL Season and opening night at Gillette Stadium.
The NFL came up with a great concept for the Super Bowl Champions to host the next season’s kickoff and produce a full-on spectacle event with big name acts and all the pomp and circumstance that the opening kickoff of the NFL season deserves. It was an unbelievable opportunity to debut our new stadium and the signature architectural aspect of the building – the lighthouse and bridge. The lighthouse was billed as projecting “a beacon of light to signify the dawn of a new era of Patriots football.” Cool stuff, providing the goose bumps that these events should.
My group also ran all of the in-stadium entertainment. I will spare you all of the details and hoops we had to jump through to nail the program and format to the ceremony – just know that we had it carefully laid out, with every aspect we wanted and had a full collaboration with the NFL. So next, we had to make sure we nailed it. We practiced, practiced, practiced and ran through the program over and over – so it was as routine as breathing. We got it; we were prepared, and ready for opening night.
Kelly Downing, who works for me now at TrinityOne, also worked for me then at the Pats. She’s bright, trustworthy, hardworking and a go-to person when something has to be done right. I assigned Kelly the task of coordinating the illumination of the lighthouse; the most important part of the program and the payoff to a culmination of years of hard work and planning. This was the symbol of our future. She understood the importance, and even though we had practiced innumerable times, her stomach was in knots. The night began with a bang and the program was flawless; everyone in the stands was in awe of the spectacle. Goose bumps all around.
The big moment was minutes away, everyone ready, Kelly on the trigger – then the cue for the reveal… And nothing. No light, no beacon for a new generation of Patriots fans; a totally blown moment. To this day, I don’t know the real reason the lighthouse didn’t illuminate; Kelly did all the right things. However, I’m told that with all the cell phones and equipment being used and so much wireless interference, that the signal to illuminate the lighthouse never fired. We, of course, paused for a brief moment and went right into the next part of the program, ending with full-on fireworks.
The night was a tremendous success, the building was alive and exceptional, yet we were feeling dejected and doubting ourselves because there was no beacon of light.
I talk about practicing life all time. Sometimes, no matter how hard you work, how much you practice, things just don’t go as planned. Don’t let that get you down or deter you from the next challenge in life. Take it as a learning experience and make sure you improve and move forward.
Needless to say – we got over it, did many more great things with the Pats and at Gillette Stadium. We also had the great fortune of hosting two more opening nights to nail it, and that we did. Hey Kelly, you’re the real deal; thank for the decade of hard work, dedication and great memories – many more to come!