Ep. 24: How The Rose Bowl Delivers A Great Fan Experience with George Cunningham

Ep. 24: How The Rose Bowl Delivers A Great Fan Experience with George Cunningham

Updated: Feb 15

In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.


George Cunningham, Chief Operating Officer for The Rose Bowl Stadium, joins Rob Cressy to talk about how the Rose Bowl runs gameday operations and delivers a great experience. With the Rose Bowl being a legacy brand, how do they stay modern and not rest on their laurels? What can the Rose Bowl offer that other venues can’t? What does the feedback loop with the fans look like? What does planning for the Rose Bowl game look like and what are his biggest priorities on gameday? What are his favorite Rose Bowl memories?


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Rob Cressy: (00:04)

Welcome to the Gameday Playbook presented by FanFood, a discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate game day more efficiently. I'm your host Rob Cressy and joining me today is George Cunningham, Chief Operating Officer for the Rose bowl Stadium. George, great to have you on the show.


George C.: (00:30)

Thanks for having me. This this is fun. I haven't done many podcasts before.


Rob Cressy: (00:34)

Well good. This is going to be the best one. So can you give a quick overview on who you are and what you do?


George C.: (00:42)

Yeah, so you hit it on the button, obviously. George Cunningham, COO of the Rose Bowl Stadium, been here for about eight years. Anything that has to do with the day to day operations or event day operations here at the Rose Bowl Stadium runs through me and the staff that I oversee. Believe me, it's not my show. It's definitely the staff that work with me that make this operation run.


Rob Cressy: (01:12)

Well, Wonderful. There's a lot of goodness that we're going to talk about, but I wanted to start with one thing, which is actually a quote on your LinkedIn profile. It says, do what you love, what you do. Do what you love, love what you do. Right. I didn't put, I didn't put that twice. That's where you said do what you love. Love what you do. Apparently I didn't write the word love down twice.


George C.: (01:38)

Yeah. Yeah. So, it's just some that I try to live by everything that I've done in my life. Is it something that I love to do? And if I do, it's not going to be something that's going to become boring or monotonous or, you know, spinning the hamster wheel. Right? You know, I'm dreading to wake up. I'm dreading to come into the office. There's nothing like that, right? My day-to-day is an exciting adventure, right? New problems, new challenges that, that we have to try to fix and overcome.


Rob Cressy: (02:13)

And with that in mind is something that is a very simple mindset and way to live. But the fact of the matter is that isn't always the case for everyone. I would have to imagine that with this mindset, the success that you've had at the Rose bowl stadium, it trickles down to that because you've got a culture of people who love what they do, which means you're likely to get better results.


George C.: (02:38)

Yeah. 100%. I want to surround myself. I want to create an environment that people want to be here, right? So bringing the right people on board that, that you can just feel the enthusiasm in their love for the work that they're being asked to do. Right, and you nailed it on the button. What they do and how they perform ends up impacting everybody that walks through our Gates.


Rob Cressy: (03:06)

How much of it is the stadium itself, the nostalgia, college football, a mixture of everything because not everyone who has what would be conceived as a cool job, that's not always the reality because people then end up having to do the work. So it's not like you're going to play naked laser tag at the Rose Bowl every day.

George C.: (03:30)

Yeah. So the history, the iconic nature of this venue, it's a national historic landmark on its own. Bring people to experience feelings just walking into our facility right now. You have that. And then if you come and you have a horrible game day experience, then that totally throws you a curve ball. So that type, that is the essence of what we're, we're trying to make sure that when people show up here that they have that nostalgia behind them and the feeling. But then also when they leave here, it's what sometimes you want to call the Disney feel, right? You want to leave here and be like, yeah, I was taken care of. They cared about what my experience was like. You know?


Rob Cressy: (04:21)

So how do you continue to push the envelope and not rest on your laurels? So as a, as a legacy brand or one that has been around for awhile that people know of, it would be very symbol to say, listen, we're just going to sort of let this take care of itself in a very more complacent way because not everyone who has amazing brands are willing to be innovative because what worked in the past may not work in the future. We've seen brand after brand who say, we're too big. We're too iconic to fail until all of a sudden it's too late and you're not relevant. So how do you guys continue to push the envelope to make sure that you deliver on your end to make this an incredible experience.


George C.: (05:04)

Yeah. So we obviously spoke to bringing the right people in, right? So it's not just finding people that are sports savvy or sports industry people, it's finding people that are outside that box and coming in and giving us a different perspective of eyes. The environment around us, LA, one of the fastest, obviously growing markets, three NFL stadiums right now, right? Name another city in in America that has three NFL stadium. So the competition around us makes us want, need to be better and need to stay relevant. We're not going to be able to compete with a stadium like SoFi in the, in the new technologies that they're bringing on board. Right. So and, and that's something that we've accepted, but there's, it's the little things. It's paying attention to the minor details. It's making sure that we're one of the cleanest venues.


George C.: (05:53)

What can we attack to stay modern? We're really attacking composting, our sustainability efforts to really divert all our organic waste and and be a different leader in this industry at the stadium level. So when somebody comes into our venue, hopefully down the road here, we have a goal that we're not going to have single serve plastic servings anymore, right? You're not going to get a water bottle. You're going to get something in an aluminum material that's easier to recycle. You're not going to get a straw at our facility. You're going to get an avocado pit recycled straw, right? That's easy to be compostable. So it's those little things that I want people to pay attention to. But also how is the industry changing? Staying up a little bit with our competitors. For example, in AT&T Stadium in Dallas, they have those huge areas outside the stadium where they bring people in and having it an event before you come into the actual event you're attending. So good for us. We have 218 acres of a golf course and we, we build out a massive Fanfest for the Rose bowl game and we did it for the rolling stones. We had a huge food and beverage option before the rolling stones event where you could buy a five course fixed menu thousand people came in, sat down, had a five course meal, were pre-screened, enjoyed their time and then just gradually walked into the venue. So creating a better fan experience and being able to stay par with everybody.


Rob Cressy: (07:19)

And you know what I love about that is going to a game is similar to the feelings of when you go to Las Vegas, when you go to Las Vegas and you're on the airplane, you're not like, oh my God, I'm on an airplane and you're like, Holy smokes, I'm going to Las Vegas and you feel some sort of way, and it's the anticipation of it is the same way as the anticipation of buying a ticket to a game or a concert that you want to have that feeling in so much. Right now, the experience of the event as it's going on is only one part of it because we love tailgating. We love doing things before and I love the mindset of having an event ahead of time because for me, I would love to get into a venue way before the actual event happens because I want to soak up the atmosphere because that's sort of what I'm paying for and that should be not necessarily included in my ticket, but I like having that as an option instead of, oh we're just going to chill at home. Man, let's go to the Rose Bowl because they've got this stuff going on outside of it and not every venue does this. So it's a great opportunity to differentiate.


George C.: (08:29)

Yeah, it's really one of the areas that we're putting our eggs into the basket on this one, right? What can we offer that other venues here in the LA market aren't going to be able to offer or we can offer better? We have one of the most pristine natural parks within 10 miles of downtown LA and it's our golf course, right? We use it for some of the best tailgating experiences for football games ever. Right, and now we are bringing in our concerts, adding the food and beverage events that we have there, we have a vegan festival on the golf course on an annual basis that's out of this world. You know, people are like, Oh, I don't want to go to vegan Fest. Well, you come to it and you leave and you're like, I'd go to that again.


Rob Cressy: (09:19)

That's awesome. From a technology standpoint. So you're like, Hey, the industry is changing. We don't want to rest on our laurels. You're not going to be able to compete on everything. But nonetheless, what's on your mindset right now from a technology standpoint, knowing that we as fans, we live in an always on, an attached society where while we're at the Rose bowl, we're tweeting, we're on Instagram, IG stories, wifi is important to us and the game as much as we would like to think from a purity standpoint is important. It's actually the totality of the experience and the way that technology allows us to better enjoy it.


George C.: (10:00)

Yeah. So what we're looking into, and we have some great partners with within our cellular networks that we've, we were one of the first venues to create one of the most robust iDAS and oDAS cellular networks that is able to meet the bandwidth that we have when we have 70, 80, 90,000 people attending our event. So, you know, we can fit just under 90,000 people in our stadium. Well, when our stadium is sold out for the Rose Bowl game, we have more, more around like 130,000 people down here because everybody that's in the tailgate areas, Fanfest, all the events outside. So being able to meet that bandwidth, we've made a conscious effort not to invest into public wifi right now because the LT blowup with the five G networks and everything coming down the way that we feel that being able to work with our cellular providers, the four major carriers out there that, that we can end up creating a great 5G network across our footprint, the golf course, the stadium, and be able to have that great experience for the fan technology-wise on the back end.


George C.: (11:11)

We're really investing heavily obviously into the private net network LTE and wifi to be able to create some self-serve kiosks. We're a little behind the time in that area, but we're obviously going around the nation. You're starting to see a lot of that technology come out and having people to be able to order things in advance and just show up at as someplace at our concession stand and then pick it up. Right. So it's your door dash at the stadium. Right.


Rob Cressy: (11:40)

Well, yeah, I love that because it's coming down to convenience and what can you do to make the experience more convenient, more memorable, more everything for the fan because you have an to build both a long-term customer, but someone who's going to be loyal from sharing word of mouth. If you go to the Rose Bowl stadium, there is a 100% chance. I am telling people about it. I'm showing photos and videos of it. So now you guys have a big opportunity, but also both on the positive and negative sides. If it's positive, boom, the Rose Bowl was amazing and that's what I expect out of the Rose bowl. But if it's not amazing, you also have to be aware that someone else is going to be megaphoning that out.


George C.: (12:27)

Yeah, exactly. So to your point on megaphoning it out, we do have our challenges, right? We're, we're on the cusp of our Centennial. So, right on just underneath a hundred years old, this stadium wasn't built with the current challenges we have. The ride-share experience that you come to our venue for a concert is a challenging one. But you know, if I go across the nation and if you have 60 to 70,000 people leave one place all at one time I can't name a place that you are going to get out of there under an hour. Right? So, we have a goal that we try to achieve on meeting those challenges of getting people out of here in a set certain time and giving a better experience. The lasting impressions, the negative feedbacks, social media is one of the biggest ways that we're able to communicate back and forth with our fans, our spectators. You know, five years ago when the social media, seven years ago, whatever, when the social media started to pick up it was like, okay, let's see what people are saying about us and then we'll fix it the next event. Now it's, we get a negative feedback. We're instantaneously going out and trying to try to manage that event, that problem, that challenge, and resolve it instantaneously. Instead of saying, Oh, we'll get it on the next one. Right? So it's getting, getting people to actually communicate with us.

Rob Cressy: (13:56)

What does that feedback loop look like? Is it just social listening? Is it a actually at point of purchase? Because I just try and think about my own consumption of feedback for larger venues because oftentimes I'm going to be putting something out into the world. I mean, if it's on social, I'm going to say, here's my negative experience. I'm team positive vibes, so I'm not as likely to be sharing something negative on social. But then I'm like, all right, well, where is the opportunity for me to give candid feedback? And I look in the airport and they've got sort of these little touch buttons that say, Hey, how was the cleanliness of our service? And is it a step in the right direction? Yes. But red button green button isn't really telling you everything. Where if you had the ability to have an instant pipeline to someone or were there on feedback where all of a sudden you're incentivizing someone to say, listen, we want your candid feedback. And oh, by the way, a lot of what you see from digital, maybe that's a good example. A lot of digital stuff will say, hey, take this survey, you'll get this. Of course I don't do those because those are sort of annoying popups. But I think when you have the correct relationship with the fan and you do so in a correct way, but what could that look like for you?


George C.: (15:16)

Yeah, so it's, it's everything you listed there. It's all the above. So it's obviously we have, we have social influencers that come to our events to influence the positive experience that we have. We have two people that are designated that are totally just sole assigned to watching our social feeds on event day. Anything negative. If it's something really negative, it gets shot up to me and I want to find out about it, right? So obviously if it's a threat or anything like that, we handle it in a different way. But if it's a negative experience of somebody having the toilet papers out, the hand sanitizers out, the food and beverage provider didn't get my Coke right. We filter those through and we dissect them and we end up distributing them to the right people to manage them.


George C.: (16:03)

So on the feedback side of things for large events like this Rosewell game, we will end up piping something out within a week of the event, sending out an email to all the the data that we've collected, the emails that we've collected from people that are attending the event and asking them for feedback. And yeah, we do end up saying, Hey, thanks for attending the game. We do have a little gift that we'd like to give you if you do end up filling this out, right? Or whether it's tickets to another event coming up or whether it's something else. We do want to incentivize people to give us a feedback.


Rob Cressy: (16:38)

So let's look at this year's Rose Bowl, Wisconsin vs. Oregon. Take us a little bit into the planning of something like this, like how much goes on ahead of time and how much actually matters that it's Wisconsin versus Oregon.


George C.: (16:54)

So the planning is pretty much nonstop. So a couple of months after January one this year obviously we'll have a debrief. Then we talk about the positive and negatives, right? So it's not just us here at the stadium, we have our partners that tournament of roses who actually put on the game. They're the affiliates that put the game together, but us as the stadium, we're the venue manager and we really assist them on my main priority, one of my main concerns on event day is crowd management and crowd flow. I wanna make sure that the crowds experience coming to and from the Rose bowl is one of the best ones they've had. Right? There's so many other things that go into making this event happen and there's awesome teams that we have in place.


George C.: (17:41)

The deep dive into the planning of the event really starts three, four months out from January one. Right now. It's constant, nonstop for us. In the operations world emails, meetings, there's a whole other separate division that runs the parade and that planning is run by volunteers, which is unfathomable today in today's society, right? To have over 800 volunteers that put on the parade. And then you have some key volunteers that step up and oversee certain committees. So on the game side, there's a division in the tournament of roses that has a designated staff and we collaborate with them and then we obviously the public entities, the police, the fire, everybody in it, food and beverage lives a lot on who's attending, right? So we have two good teams that love to eat and drink.


George C.: (18:39)

So that's a good sign for us. Wisconsin comes, they love their pork. They love their brots. So does Oregon though. It's funny. We've met with the food and beverage manager with Oregon and one of their top selling products is their bratwurst at their venue. So that's a good sign. Making unique drinks, making food, food challenge battles. For the event premium seating wise, our ticket sales, it does, it does matter on who attends. Right? So we're, we're doing good on our sales right now. If someone like a Minnesota would've come, would those sales spiked a little bit more? Absolutely. They haven't been here in quite a while. But, that doesn't mean we're not welcoming Wisconsin and we're extravagant about having them here.


Rob Cressy: (19:29)

Row the boat baby. Love me some PJ Fleck, coach of Minnesota. So let's talk about some great Rosebowl moments. And for me, I think the one that stands out to me the most, which is one of the greatest moments in college football history, was Texas versus USC, the Vince Young game. Vince Young versus Matt Lienart where Vince Young leads Texas back to beat the USC team, which at the time was a juggernaut. Were you there or what insight can you give me about that game or moment?

George C.: (20:05)

Yeah. So you're catching me before my time, bud. So I was not in I was not present for that game, but obviously I've heard a lot about it and obviously seen many photos and heard people's stories just like you saying the same thing. So there are so many, right? Two of my favorites, one is has nothing to do with sports is U2 2009. The vertigo tour where they had a 360 stage to see 97,000 people in our stadium for a show and all, every single one of those people was rooting and cheering in there for the exact same experience. And to see that unveil and the show that they put on, I'm talking about it right now and I still get goosebumps, right? So it's, it's those types of memories last a lifetime. And that's what's unique about sports entertainment.


George C.: (21:05)

You say, oh, I'll just stay home and watch it on TV. I get a better experience. I have my fridge here, I have my food here but in this day of people saying, well, social gatherings aren't a big thing anymore. People are all on their iPhones doing this, doing that. I think people are still thriving for that social experiment and that social gathering. So you come together on something like what we're going to have on January one and the concerts we've had and the other events get those experiences, it's nothing you can reenact or recreate, right? You can't get that feeling on your couch at home.


Rob Cressy: (21:46)

You know when it comes down to me, one word, energy, if you've ever been to a game of note, there's a buzz, there's a buzz that is outside. There is a buzz as you're walking to the stadium. For me, my friends and I every year do an RV road trip or we go to a different SEC stadium because I live in Chicago, my friends are in Ohio and we don't get a lot of exposure to college football because of this we're like, we want to just go and tailgate and stuff. When you can feel the buzz and certainly you know the buzz because you're the Rose Bowl and the games that are there in that energy before the game, during the National Anthem, during the kickoff, that's something that you can't replicate and it's even better when you're on the good side of that, whether you're the home team and then your team scores first and the shared experience in the way that it's surreal because you look at how you're surrounded by 90,000 other people and you're like, this is an absolutely incredible thing that I'll remember forever. And sure you can watch games and talk about, yeah, that was an amazing game to watch. But the ones that you attended, that is a whole other energy level.


George C.: (23:10)

Yeah. You nailed it on the button. Right. So, U2 and then the other one that really lasts in my mind is the Auburn playoff game that we had here several years ago. Last seconds of the game and it's going back and forth and just to see 87, 88,000 people all standing up on the edge of their seats. Right. Typically you have people starting to drizzle out of the stadium and the third and the fourth quarter, not one person left that night. Right? And they all stayed till the very end. Those types of experiences last a lifetime and we hope to be able to keep creating those types of experiences here at the Rose Bowl. Right? So, and that, and that's why I love what I do and I want everybody around us that works here at this venue that wants to love what they're doing, right. Wants to be here. You know, I surround myself with people that speak to my weaknesses and make us stronger in other areas, right? So I'm not gonna bring somebody on board that is the carbon copy of what I do and what my strengths are. I need somebody who is who's going to speak to areas that I'm not fully educated on and can keep us knowledge and keep us up to date in those areas.


Rob Cressy: (24:29)

George, I really enjoyed this conversation. I'm a big fan of the Rose Bowl and I have so many positive memories and experiences about it. As a sports fan, I'm also very much looking forward to watching the game. Wisconsin versus Oregon, two teams that are perennially very good teams. And I think this is a game where either one of these can win. Where can everybody connect with you?


George C.: (24:57)

On game day?


Rob Cressy: (24:58)

Well, no, in general, someone's listening to this. Like, man George was awesome. Yeah, I follow him or the Rose Bowl on social media.


George C.: (25:06)

Check me out on social media. Obviously Twitter look me up @GWC78. Facebook, I definitely post a lot of stuff about our events coming up when we get close to them, information about our events coming up. But there's a lot of personal stuff that I do post on there too. So if you want to hear about my personal life, feel free to follow me and you'll hear about all my five and a half year old and my three year old kids growing up in there. Then what they're teaching me in my life.


Rob Cressy: (25:39)

I love that. And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode number one, what is the best experience you have had outside of a stadium or number two, what is your favorite Rose Bowl moment ever? You can hit up FanFood on Twitter at @FanFoodOnDemand, on Instagram, @fanfoodapp or on LinkedIn. And as always, you can hit me up on all social media platforms @RobCressy


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