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From the man who has been behind-the-scenes at major events like the Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, and Indy 500, Frank Supovitz guides you through the process of making sure you handle inevitable problems as if it’s something you do day in and day out.

When 100 million people watched the lights go out at Super Bowl XLVII, you would have expected our response at the Superdome to have been immediate.  It wasn’t.  It had started months before, when we were planning how to deal with the worst possible outcomes.

Developing contingency plans to protect our businesses, brands, and projects against the most dreadful possibilities requires a vividly dark imagination.  Visualizing success is not enough.  We have to also step back and visualize disasters a long time before they happen.  Only then can you create a truly representative portfolio of contingency plans, and that’s as true for managing a business as it is for staging a sports event.

I was the Senior Vice President of Events for the NFL when, as Armen Keteyian reported on 60 Minutes Sports, “a blowout became a blackout.”  It was up to our team to either get the game going again or manage the unthinkable – a Super Bowl that could not be completed.  What Keteyian also said was that although there was an air of uncertainty among the event management team, there were no signs of panic.  He should know.  He and I were in the middle of an interview at the very moment I most needed a change of underwear.  Within seconds, we forgot about him and the cameras, and set the recovery in motion.

Our team had imagined a lot of potential problems and prepared contingencies to deal with them, but a blackout wasn’t one of them.  That might seem to be a lousy place to start because we hadn’t prepared for everything that could happen.  We did, however, prepare for anything.  We knew long before we arrived at the Superdome that morning that something, somewhere would go wrong at a project as complex as the Super Bowl.  With millions of details to plan for to attend to, something always did.  Most often, they were largely unnoticed blips and blunders.  Occasionally, they were more than a little noticeable.

To inoculate us against the very worst, we held a table-top exercise the week before every Super Bowl I managed.  We hired a facilitator who was familiar with our plans and sealed everyone who would be making game-day decisions in a room for four hours while he poked holes in them, presenting us with detailed scenarios ranging from mild disappointment to full-out disaster.  Our job during the table-top was to work as a team to solve or manage those problems in real time.  In the process, we patched the holes in our planning, developed new contingencies, reinforced our decision-making process, and built trust and confidence among our team members.  Over time, we established a rhythm and common approach to how we solved problems and made decisions as a team.  By Super Bowl XLVII, we had conducted this annual exercise 8 times, so when the lights went out at the Superdome, we returned to the problem-solving drill we had simulated the week before:  what’s the problem, what’s the first thing we have to do, and what’s the path to a solution?  You can watch our response to the opening minutes of the blackout in this CBS Morning News clip:

The symptom was instantaneously obvious in the dark of our control room:  no power.  The cause would a little while longer to figure out.  The first thing to do, however, was to avoid panic by communicating to the 74,000 people in the seats.  We knew to do that because we had rehearsed it as a response that was common to many potential crises.  Were we anxious?  I’d be lying if I said we weren’t.  But, panicked?  No. We were managing our recovery without the paralysis of panic because even though we didn’t have a plan that covered everything, we had one that was good for anything.  Learn more about imagining and planning to avoid disasters, and managing when they happen anyway, in What to Do When Things Go Wrong.

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Frank Supovitz is president of Fast Traffic, an event management and consulting firm serving clients including the Indianapolis 500, South Street Seaport, Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Major League Soccer. He previously managed the events businesses for the National Football League and National Hockey Leagues for a combined 23 years.