Hosting the Democratic National Convention

Photos by Ross Kurcab, CSFM.

The crowd continues to move into the stadium, and many of the media personnel are in place.

Denver was alive with action during the Democratic National Convention, with special events spread across the city, as well as the official program at the Pepsi Center. INVESCO Field at Mile High was part of that action. Giant tents of the American Presidential Experience traveling museum were featured in the parking lot around the stadium for eight days, with a Willie Nelson concert on August 25.

The decision to move the convention to the stadium for Barack Obama’s August 28 acceptance speech was made shortly after July 4. INVESCO Field at Mile High would provide the atmosphere and the crowd space they wanted for this event. The logistics were incredibly complex, and many doubted it could be done successfully, but the entire stadium staff was united in our determination to make it happen.

The build

The DNC organizers had assembled a team of the best show production and design professionals to handle the staging. They had worked Super Bowls and shows with mass media coverage, and were professional and responsive to our issues.

This event was much like a concert setup for our staff, but on a much larger scale. This was a one-time setup, basically a design-as-you-build-it project for the production staff. The morning of August 23 began what would be five 20-hour days of building. The roadways off the field and stage area, media platforms and roadways on the field would be covered for six to seven days.

The stage spread along one sideline and extended into the field. The main media stand faced the stage, extending into the field from the other sideline. Each of the major networks had their own media stand and tower, with their own platform out in the end zone.

Stage footers are round metal posts that support the stage surface. A section of Enkamat is placed on the grass with one or two pieces of plywood on top of it to spread the weight load. We usually have 400 to 500 stage footers for concerts; the convention staging took 2,300 in all.

Cameras are everywhere as work on the stage continues.

The initial design was a circular speaking platform with step-up tiers that we called “the birthday cake.” It was to have a 12-foot diameter on the field surface, but the extensive security was an issue. The Secret Service personnel ran background checks on every stadium employee, and inspected every item and piece of equipment that came into the stadium. They required a much wider buffer zone with metal barriers all around the area where Obama would be speaking. That extended the overall stage diameter to 60 feet. All of that was setup on top of Terraplas with a dark blue carpet over it.

With nearly 14,000 media personnel covering the event, it took miles of cabling to hook up all the connections. About 12,000 media personnel, delegates and dignitaries would gather on top of the Terraplas flooring covering the field in front of the stage.

Obviously, turf management under these conditions is filled with challenges, and the summer heat didn’t help. With no access to our irrigation system for a week, we hooked up two hoses to hand-water the exposed turf areas twice during that time. It took four of us a good half  day each time. We mowed where we could mow, fertilized as needed and closely monitored for disease stress, treating as required.

Rehearsal and the real thing

Preparations are usually finished late on Wednesday for a Thursday night concert. The interval was considerably longer for this event. The DNC wanted to stage a full dress rehearsal, and the Secret Service wanted 48 hours to sweep the stadium prior to the main event. Everyone was required to leave the stadium so this could take place.

Our vice president of stadium operations, Mac Freeman, invited the full-time staff of 30 to attend the Wednesday night rehearsal, meet the candidate and pose for a group picture with him.

Some of the big machinery moves in. Note the “No Foot Traffic on the Grass” sign and the roped off area.
Hours of work remain for the teardown crew before the turf team gets the field back.

Though Obama was not scheduled to speak until 8:30 p.m. on August 28, all staff members working any part of the event were required to enter the stadium by 8:30 that morning. The Secret Service had built a concrete barrier around the stadium with high fencing extending above it, all channeling to two entry points. Each person was required to walk through a metal detector and undergo a bag search and pat down.

The cleanup and teardown crews usually start work as soon as the event ends, but the Secret Service required them to wait until the candidates and all of the attendees had left the stadium. Therefore, it was a full 24 hours after Obama’s speech before our turf crew had access to the field.

Moving on

After that, we had two weeks until the San Diego Chargers’ opener on September 14, the first of four home games in five weeks. While everyone else took Labor Day off, our turf team was back on the field for a 13-hour renovation marathon. With the GrassMaster system, we don’t sod our way out of problems, we seed through them ,and we had to get that seed down.

We verticut; solid-core aerified; seeded heavily into the badly damaged areas, including the sidelines; overseeded; and topdressed. Because of the short timetable, we used a straight perennial ryegrass blend for faster development. That changes our standard management practices until the end of the season, as we’ll be gearing everything to the younger grass. For example, irrigation cycles are shorter and at more frequent intervals.

We’ll continue to solid core throughout the season. Most of our compaction is within the top inch of the profile, which usually only impedes infiltration. Punching holes allows the water to drain through. We’ll verticut and overseed as often as we can. Verticutting also opens up the soil and helps minimize the organic buildup on the field surface. When we topdress, we’ll continue to do it lightly, with just enough sand to cut any slickness from organic buildup. All these intervals, along with fertilization and disease control, will be based on the needs of the young grass.

The DNC event gave us a great opportunity to be a part of history. We saw more famous people over the course of that event than most people see in a lifetime. One of the best parts of the entire experience for me was the fantastic attitude and performance of my turf team. We took it as a challenge that would help us learn and grow professionally.

Work continues on the field and throughout the stadium.
Miles of cable lay coiled beneath the stage. As the teardown crew wraps up its work, a huge footprint of
the staging remains on the field.

Ross Kurcab, CSFM, is turf manager for the Denver Broncos managing INVESCO Field at Mile High. He was the first individual to earn the certified sports field manager (CSFM) designation.