Tell that to Michael Kelly, who’s spent the last 18 months living, eating, and breathing the biggest game in football. When January 28 comes, he’ll get either the credit or the blame.
When Michael Kelly throws a party, everyone wants to come.
If you’re among the lucky few who get in the door, you’ll have the time of your life. You could find yourself giving hugs and high-fives to total strangers. You’ll almost certainly yell your head off. You may even shed a few tears.
You may remember his last shindig. It was a little gathering called the Final Four, held in St. Petersburg, Florida, in March of 1999. It ended with Connecticut beating Duke for the NCAA men’s basketball championship. The Tropicana Dome held 41,000 screaming fans. Millions more watched at home.
But when the final buzzer sounded, it meant more than just the end of the game. It meant Kelly was out of a job. So while others were celebrating a win or grieving a loss, Kelly was wondering: What’s next?
In short, he needed a job. That’s why, on June 1, 1999, Michael Kelly, all of 29 years old, marched into Tampa Bay’s Task Force office and asked to be put in charge of the Super Bowl.
How much any one person really runs the Super Bowl is debatable. As Kelly will attest, it takes a massive network of people. Tampa’s Super Bowl XXXV Task Force has nine full-time employees, each of whom works on a piece of the pie, from keeping a list of hotel rooms as far away as Orlando to making sure the league’s bigwigs get where they need to go. Then there are the more than 5,000 volunteers who will do everything from serve on planning committees to greet visitors at the airport.
The NFL has its own people on the case, too. The league’s special events office monitors every detail. Its staff balloons from 16 people to about 250 — including 200 NFL employees from other departments — as the big game nears.
But every city that hosts a Super Bowl puts someone in the hot seat, and that person serves two masters. On one side is the executive committee of the Super Bowl Task Force, the distilled voice of the area’s business and civic organizations, most of which have given lots of money to the effort. They expect a return on their investment. “What they want is for us to make sure that people have a great time here and want to come back,” says Kelly, “whether it’s for a game, for a convention, or just for a vacation on their own.”
On the other side is the NFL, whose goal is simple: It wants a flawless jewel of a game.
So when Kelly appeared in the office of Jack Wilson, chairman of the Tampa Bay Super Bowl XXXV Task Force, that June day, Wilson had a few questions of his own. For one, how would Kelly raise the $4 million needed to put on the Super Bowl? How would he set up the staff? How would he establish committees? How would he recruit volunteers? Train them? How would he build rapport with the business community?
Kelly must have had the right answers. With only one chance to get it right, Wilson and his fellow Task Force members placed their hopes in his hands. He was on the job by July 1, just three months after the Final Four. Even then, the deadline was looming.
“We knew we had 18 months left,” remembers Kelly. “The job was to put all of our goals on paper and try to make as many of them come true as possible.”
Organization. Results. That was what the Super Bowl committee said it wanted. Kelly knew what they really wanted was perfection.
A person in Kelly’s position has to make two trips.
The first is to NFL headquarters in New York.
Kelly and Wilson made this pilgrimage in mid-July of 1999 to meet with Jim Steeg, the NFL’s vice president of special events and a veteran of many Super Bowls. After meeting with Steeg, Kelly and Wilson set up shop in an NFL conference room that might as well have had a revolving door. In quick succession, the league sent in its experts on everything from transportation to fan housing.
By the end of the day, Kelly knew the magnitude of what he had gotten himself into. It didn’t change his mind, or his plan. “You list all of the things you have to get done,” he says, “and start clicking them off.”
The second trip is perhaps more important. It’s a visit to the Super Bowl itself.
For Kelly and the members of Tampa’s Super Bowl Task Force, that meant going to Atlanta. “We took about 50 people,” he says. “We had someone at every event, shadowing their people in every area, from security to stadium operations.”
The group camped out in the Super Bowl media center. Many of the same reporters cover the game year after year, and it wasn’t too early to start selling them on the sunny side of the Tampa Bay area. From the hull of a pirate ship, they handed out press packets. They displayed a sand sculpture of the Super Bowl logo and a model of Ybor City, a popular eating, drinking, and recreational area in Tampa.
“We tried to give people an idea of what they could look forward to seeing when they came here,” says Kelly.
Take a look at Kelly’s day planner, and you’ll see entry after entry for the last 18 months. Each weekday is full from morning until night. What’s it full of?
In addition to a regular Monday morning staff meeting, Kelly’s 18-month schedule began with dozens of meetings with sponsors and potential sponsors, people who could help the Task Force come up with the $2 million in private money it needed to match the $2 million in local public funds.
As the cash rolled in and the game grew closer, the meetings focused on recruiting volunteers, and then on training them.
Several times a week, Kelly — or sometimes Wilson — spoke to local business and civic groups. They would outline the benefits of hosting the Super Bowl and help people figure out how they could profit from the experience.
“I’ve given dozens of speeches,” says Wilson. “Michael has given hundreds.”
On a typical Friday in early fall, Kelly was juggling like a circus performer. He was making sure that a catalog of decorations had been printed and distributed, so that area businesses could dress themselves in Super Bowl colors. He was checking the gift list for sponsors and committee members, deciding which Task Force committee members would make speeches that he couldn’t make himself, and examining a curriculum plan distrib-uted to schools so students could find out more about how a Super Bowl is created.
Even the weekends on Kelly’s calendar aren’t blank. He uses Saturdays to regroup. Kelly and his fellow Task Force members check off the goals accomplished in the last week and move the others to next week’s schedule.
With any luck, everyone might get a little rest on Sunday. Maybe even watch some football. But if there’s anything left that has to be done ... well, time is always running short. And the job calls for perfection.
“It’s what I strive for,” says Kelly. “I believe in keeping your head down and getting the job done.”
THE FOURTH QUARTER
At the end of April, almost two years after he started, Kelly will be out of a job.
When the big game ends the night of January 28, the Task Force will begin to wind down. There will be bills to pay, thank-you notes to write, reports to compile. A party for the volunteers. And then, finally, it will end.
Kelly may take a little time off. After all, he hasn’t had a vacation since before the 1999 Final Four.
Then it will be time to launch another job search. He isn’t sure what it will be. He’s made contacts and friends in just about every industry, but he doesn’t know which ones may open doors.
Will he ambush another task force and ask for the job of staging another huge event? Probably not. Kelly’s pretty sure his next job won’t have an expiration date. “A little stability would be good,” he says. “I think I’m ready for some security.”
THE GAME PLAN
Running operations as big as the Super Bowl can be complicated, but Michael Kelly tackles them with a simple, four-part approach.
SURROUND YOURSELF WITH GOOD PEOPLE
“It’s important to have people you not only get along with, but who are capable of handling their projects,”
GET EVERYONE INVOLVED
“It’s not enough to have good people if you don’t use them,” says Kelly. “I try to keep a good handle on things, but I also trust the people around me, who are giving so much of their time and effort, to do a good job. With something this big, you can’t do it on your own.”
MAKE IT FUN
“Especially for something like this, where so many people are volunteering their time, you have to keep morale up,” he says. “We have to realize that this is all about fun. Everyone who is coming here is coming to have a good time. And if we’re not having a good time, they’re probably not going to, either.”
MAP OUT A FIRM PLAN - BUT KEEP IT FLEXIBLE
“It’s one thing to set up a strategic plan in business and have a chance to readjust the next year,” Kelly notes. “But when there is no next year, you’ve got to get it right the first time. That means you have to respond to changes. They’re going to happen. —