For all the big names and huge personalities that grab the headlines leading up to the Super Bowl, oftentimes important storylines revolve around lesser-known agents of the game who hold unheralded but impactful roles.
27-year old Canisius College graduate Stephen Sansonese is one such person.
As the field and site grounds manager at MetLife Stadium, Sansonese is charged with preparing the field and ensuring a safe playing surface. For the first ever cold-weather Super Bowl, weather was a pressing concern, but turned out to be a non-factor.
“Weather is the one thing you cannot control. You can try to be as proactive about it as you can but you cannot control it,” says the Hamburg, New York native. “You kind of just have to go with the flow of things and take the storm on as you get it.”
With so much unknown leading up to the Super Bowl, Sansonese leaned on the training he received while enrolled in the Masters of Sports Administration program at Canisius College.
“Canisius allowed me to work so closely in the athletic department with the actual members of the department that I felt like I was part of it. When you are 20 years old and working directly with Division 1 head coaches and doing something to help out their program, that is really fulfilling.”
To find out more about what it’s like working in sports facility management, preparing for the biggest sports event of the year and the path from small college to helping run the highest grossing stadium in the world, here’s more with Stephen Sansonese:
MetLife is synthetic turf, so some people might assume there isn’t much you have to do, but I have a feeling there is a lot that goes into it – take us through your normal work routine and explain to people just how much work managing a field takes.
Sansonese: I get that a lot.
There is an assumption that there is not much to do with synthetic turf. It’s much different than taking care of a natural grass field, but it is no less intense. In preparation for a game during the week we have to:
- Change our removable end zones. This is done in two days that take ten hours each.
- We have to roll up one of the end zones systems and transport it to its storage location, and then bring back the other endzone system and roll it in. The heaviest of the rolls weigh 7200 lbs.
- We have to roll them in with a lull (specialized forklift) and then fit them perfectly with a another forklift that has nine attachments.
- After all this is done we have to fill seams in the end zones for safety.
- Then we have to groom the field
- aerate the field
- sweep with a magnet
- take a infill / g-max test
- and add fabric softener as needed
That is just for the game field and does not include when we have to work with multiple community events, commercial shoots, etc that use the field. Then there are other events that we have such as concerts, monster trucks, international soccer and more, and they each have their individual requirements.
The most important thing for all of us to succeed is effective communication with all of the groups that are involved so that nobody is running into each other.
Lets take a step back and discuss how you got to this point of your sports career working at MetLife, the highest grossing stadium in the world. You have an undergrad degree in education, how in the world did you end up in sports facility management?
Sansonese: My freshman year at Canisius I started working in the athletic department because my mother made me get a work study job.
I figured that athletics was a area that I was interested in, and if I were going to get a job that I should get it in something that I like working with. I was originally just in the position to work a part time job and make some money during college. But as I kept working in the department and continuing my “education” so to speak in college athletics, I realized that this is something that I may want to do in my future.
What made the opportunity so special was that Canisius allowed me to work so closely in the athletic department with the actual members of the group that I felt like I was part of it. When I was a Junior I was running the equipment room on Wednesday nights, working all sporting events, and then doing side jobs around the building.
Since work study is capped at a certain amount, I would just continue working for free basically because of the ability to work hands on with college athletics at a division 1 level.
The people at Canisius made it so enjoyable to work there.
What do you think are the main things you learned while enrolled at Canisius that have led to your success?
Sansonese: There are 5 things that I would say that I use everyday that allow for me to be successful that came from Canisius:
- Communication is Essential – Communication on every level is essential to work in this industry. Mainly because everything you do in any area that you work in, impacts someone else. If you have active communication open with all parties involved it will make your job so much easier. In my current role as Field and Site Grounds Manager, I have to communicate with my crew on a daily basis, my bosses, other members of the operations department, security, etc. What I try to do is always think, ‘how is what I’m doing, going to affect other people in this building’. If there is some affect my work will have I will communicate with them. If you do not have great communication skills, messages will be lost in translation and your job will not be done as effectively.
- Listen First – Speak Second – This is something that goes full circle. I will use this when I have meetings with my bosses about how my department is doing. They will ask me questions and I will listen to their question and formulate a response before I just speak. Also this technique works when I’m reporting to my crew. If they have a problem or there is a issue I will listen to their issue or problem and then speak. If you do it the other way, speak before listen, things will not work out.
- Accountability – Accountability from yourself and your staff is essential. You have a job to do and it is your responsibility to carry out that job. Be accountable for it. I learned this as a Graduate Assistant at Canisius and I took it to my first post-graduate job at Siena College. This was something that the staff at Siena had trouble with at first because nobody had made them accountable for such actions. But as time went on and they realized that if they were accountable for certain things, those things would not get done if it were not for them. It is a easy concept but needs to be preached.
- Be Proactive AND Reactive – You have to be proactive for everything that you face in this line of work. If you plan accordingly things will obviously have a much better chance of getting done correctly. Preperation is essential, we have numerous meetings before a event to be prepared for certain scenarios. As your responsibilities increase in a department so does your preparation. This is something you have to learn very early on to be prepared for everything. But on the other side of things you also have to be reactive. At the last moment things always pop up and we have to react to those situations. If you do not have to ability to react accordingly there will be a problem.
- All people are different ADJUST TO THEM DO NOT HAVE THEM ADJUST TO YOU – When managing and working with people you will realize that all people are different. Some people need appreciation, some people work slower than others, some people are calculative, some people work on the fly, and the examples can go on and on and on. As a a manager you have to realize if these people have a strong work ethic and are genuinely good people you need to work with their different personalities. If you make them only work for the personality that you have then you will have a lot harder time getting your job done. Your job as a manager is to get the most out of your crew, if you are able to realize that all people are different and adjust to their differences than you will do great.
After graduating you were hired to manage the sports facilities at Siena College – getting a first job out of college can be tough – why do you think you were hired?
Sansonese: Well when I was looking for jobs, I was specifically targeting jobs that I knew I would have a connection with.
Siena is almost the same thing as Canisius just in another city. It is a small catholic college, with about the same enrollment. The biggest thing was that it was in the same conference as Canisius. I knew that all of the coaches and administrators that I worked with at Canisius probably had a connection to Siena.
I had members of the staff at Canisius reach out to the staff at Siena before my interview to speak on my behalf. They were the ones that got me in the door, and then I went on the interview with all of information and experiences that I had from Canisius and used that to get the job.
Siena College has 3,200 students. MetLife stadium holds 82,566 people – how did you jump from a small school athletic department right to one of the highest grossing stadiums in the world? That’s like finishing third grade and then starting Harvard Law!
Sansonese: I would have to say right place and right time. There is no clear cut answer for it.
What I can say is that Siena did a great job at preparing me to work on a higher level. I learned how to manage and take care of all types of fields and facilities there. I also was given opportunities at Siena to continue my education in the field through different professional development seminars and classes.
All of this allowed me to go on a interview with the stadium and be lucky enough to be given a opportunity to work there. Again I will say that right place and right time has a lot to do with it.