Sports turf managers are notoriously protective of their fields. After all, for those in this industry, the condition of a field is a point of pride, a job performance report sitting out in the open for everyone to see. So there’s a natural desire to personally control every input, every management decision, every blade of grass.
And in most cases, that’s just what happens.
But when the Super Bowl comes to town, the local field manager goes from being in charge to being part of a team. Fortunately, it’s a very knowledgeable and talented team, made up of other sports turf managers who are just as exacting in their work. The NFL has a dedicated team that oversees the preparation of each Super Bowl field, working with the field maintenance staff at each host stadium to ensure that the playing surface for the biggest sporting event in the U.S. is worthy of the occasion.
Stephen Sansonese, field and site grounds manager at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, home of both the New York Giants and New York Jets, experienced the Super Bowl field prep process first hand when his field hosted Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014.
“As a home field manager for the Super Bowl, your job is to work in conjunction with the NFL,” Sansonese explains. “It’s not your field any more, but you’re there to help provide them anything they need… Our job was to make sure that the NFL grounds crew had everything that they needed to get their job done.”
The NFL Super Bowl field prep team is led by NFL field director Ed Mangan and features legendary groundskeeper George Toma, who has worked every single Super Bowl, beginning with the first game in 1967. The team also includes other experienced sports turf managers who manage their own fields all around the country, but come together every year to help perfect the Super Bowl field.
WHEN: Feb. 7, 2016
WHERE: Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California
KEY FIELD CREW: Matthew Greiner, San Francisco 49ers head groundskeeper; Ed Mangan, NFL field director; George Toma, legendary groundskeeper; Stephen Sansonese, field and site grounds manager at MetLife Stadium
OF NOTE: Levi’s Stadium opened in July of 2014. Along with being the home field for the 49ers, it has hosted concerts by the likes of Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, The Grateful Dead and Taylor Swift; a soccer match between European superpowers Manchester United and FC Barcelona; Pac-12 championship football games; an NHL Stadium Series game; and WWE event Wrestlemania. The field is natural grass (Bermuda Bandera), with the sod supplied by West Coast Turf, out of California. The field will be replanted prior to the Super Bowl.
Typically, site visits begin in the fall. “[Mangan] came in and looked at our tarping system and discussed any possible equipment needs,” Sansonese recalls.
Storage considerations are also important, he notes, because when the NFL field crew arrives—typically in early January—they bring two or three tractor trailers full of equipment, supplies and materials with them. From that point on, the NFL group takes charge of the site and manages the field maintenance until the Super Bowl is played. At that point, the local sports turf manager needs to be available to provide whatever assistance is needed, says Sansonese.
Every Super Bowl site, says Sansonese, has its own distinctive differences. For that reason, the local crew that has experience managing that particular field is relied upon for its expertise.
“Our situation was very unique because we were a cold-weather site,” says Sansonese of MetLife Stadium. Snow removal on the field and tarping the field for snow were two maintenance practices that usually aren’t part of the Super Bowl routine, so he and his crew were helped to guide those processes.
While the unusual cold weather setting added some challenges, Sansonese says the NFL follows a standard plan that has been developed to get the field ready or Super Bowl Sunday, no matter the location. While it could be seen as difficult for the manager of that field to follow a different maintenance program than what they might be used to, Sansonese says that hosting a Super Bowl on your field is a great opportunity for sports turf managers.
For one thing, he says, there’s a chance to meet, network with, and learn from many other sports field managers.
Of course, then there’s the game itself.
“I think the best thing is probably game day,” Sansonese says. “You work a whole month for that, and then it’s finally there. All the hard work and time and effort pays off—it’s pretty unbelievable,” he adds.
The experience was equally exciting for his regular field maintenance crew.
“It’s not every day you get to work a Super Bowl!” he says.
“It’s a little different, because there’s another crew there working, but I think everyone had a great experience,”
Sansonese now works as part of Ed Mangan’s crew. He helped to prep the field last year for Super Bowl XLIX in Phoenix and will be working to ready the field at Levi’s Stadium for Super Bowl 50.
“It’s a unique event where a lot of people have to work together,” Sansonese says. “It takes a joint effort from everybody.”