Running the carnival

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HOOVER, Ala. --- Next year's edition largely is being finalized in many ways this week.
And 2016? Those dates will be settled in December.
Hosting the ever-growing media days in the heart of Dixie for the nation's preeminent collegiate athletic conglomerate, the Southeastern Conference, requires months of planning, approximately a year-ahead reservation and countless other moving parts.
"I started [daily planning] in May, and then for the last month --- basically from Destin on (after SEC Spring Meetings) --- I work on nothing but this event," said Tammy Wilson, the SEC Director of Communications who this week is wrapping her 18th football media days. "A lot of moving parts, with 14 teams and 14 coaches all with different personalities. We bring in a lot of people to help. We bring between our staff and regular volunteers, there's probably at least 20 out here and then almost 30 students from our (member) schools to help us. It's an undertaking.
"We start talking [for 2015 this week], and we'll probably do 2016 --- probably by December we'll get those dates in our head of what they're going to be and start marking off the calendar for that. There's always something. When it comes to media days, football, there is always something that we're having to work on."
Added SEC Director of Media Relations Craig Pinkerton, "When you're dealing with contracts, you're starting a year out to be able to reserve every room in this hotel, literally. Every meeting space in this hotel we use. And I believe this year we've got 100-percent capacity in the hotel through this event. To get the space, you start planning a year in advance. You start getting with the networks and you really start hitting it in May, hitting it really hard in June and from then on, it's pretty much all you're doing."
That's necessitated by this year credentialing a league-record 1,200-plus people; by the passionate fans of the league who turn the swank Wynfrey Hotel lobby into a scene befitting a spring game; by the occasional stray coach's pet or wayward marketing plan.
"Probably the year that (then-LSU coach Nick) Saban's dog got loose and stepped on my toe, scraped up my toe. It wasn't a small dog. A boxer, that's a pretty sturdy dog. That one was pretty crazy," Wilson told "But this (Johnny) Manziel scene last year was intense. Everybody wanted a piece of him. He couldn't move anywhere without 200 people being around him. So that one was pretty close to the dog, but the dog one I laughed because I said, 'We really have become a dog-and-pony show now that there's a dog running loose in the hotel.' That one was special. I'll never, ever forget that one."
Pinkerton didn't confront any stray animals, though he did see a restaurant with an owl-themed mascot try to usurp the SEC's sponsor partnerships among his most bizarre --- for public consumption - tales.
"I probably can't say publicly. There's a lot of things that happen that don't make it public, and that's a good thing," Pinkerton said of SEC Media Days' theater of the absurd. "Ambush marketing. We had a local Hooters restaurant that did some ambush marketing here and there were a bunch of Hooters waitresses wandering around the lobby, handing out coupons for their restaurant. Since this is our event, we protect our sponsorships. They couldn't be here, so they had to be removed from the building."
This year, according to sources, one guest endured a tear in the crotch of his suit --- and had elected that day to eschew boxers.
It is not merely students who volunteer for the event; Dr. Rob Hardin, a lead professor in the University of Tennessee's acclaimed sports management program, routinely works this and other SEC events to take back those experiences to the classroom.
"It's a great opportunity to interact with media and SID-type folks so I can stay up to date with trends in the industry and bring those experiences back into the classroom," Hardin told "Also, it is interesting to see coaches interact for the first time on a national stage since the end of the previous season. They have had six months' worth of experiences to talk about rather than one week." [rl]
There are three significant changes at this year's media days: it's a four-day event rather than three; the designated TV interview area is now one larger room instead of two smaller ones; and there's no more built-in SEC-themed cross-fit with a digital drive replacing those cumbersome print media guides.
Just as the league tweaks its championship events and other components, it also seeks ways to maximize what now is its seminal event.
"This has actually become bigger than both the (football) championship game and the basketball tournaments, just because it's basically the media department that puts on with all the planning and everything," Wilson explained. "We've got over 1,200 people here, and everybody wants something. Somebody's computer goes down; a light's not working; the sound goes down. Something is always going on.
"The media contingency has probably doubled in the past six years. The type of media, obviously, has changed somewhat. The little things that you have to worry about. Food and transportation and Dr. Pepper fountains and things like that. So that's changed quite a bit, and we're always trying to improve it. So this year we went from two TV rooms to one TV room with a 20-minute stop. We always continue to evolve the best way that we can with the event so everybody gets what they need."
Said Pinkerton, who was a linchpin in Tennessee's sports information department prior to the SEC seizing upon his talents, "Adding membership was a challenge; part of that is adding the extra day this year, which so far is one of the best things we've done. It's eased it for us, but I'm kind of curious to wait and hear back from the media as the event goes on. But it's not as condensed. There's kind of more time, a little bit better pace to everything. So it's a little bit easier to manage. Hopefully for the media, they feel the same thing where it's just not overload for them quite so much. It's a longer time, but it makes it work easier. That's probably been the biggest change. Every year it keeps growing and gets bigger and bigger, so just trying to keep that in check and make it so people have access but are still able to do their jobs. Which is difficult to do, but hopefully we're able to manage that. Things like radio row, last year we spilled out into the mall and had to get special permission from the mall to be out there. This year we decided that was just something we could not do; didn't feel comfortable doing that. We had to cap off radio row, and there are over a dozen radio stations that weren't able to be here that had interest in being here. But we just had to limit it to 30. Things like that. It just keeps on growing, and it's always interesting depending upon the players that you have, whether it's a (Tim) Tebow or a Manziel. Those always add challenges."
To combat those challenges, the SEC secures several plainclothes area police officers who are assigned to every team's contingent. The bigger stars, be it players or coaches, receive additional security detail. Not to mention the use of hidden passageways.
"We have a lot of plainclothes officers throughout the building, some assigned to each team. So there were assignments there and we try to keep them around the coaches and players pretty much the entire time they're here, just in case. But especially there's a lot of attention paid for all teams as they're entering and leaving the building, going through public areas," Pinkerton said. "For both Manziel and Tebow that was on a little bit higher level than most times because of the level of attention they get. There were a lot of back doors that were used to be able to get them from one place to the other. Otherwise, they would not have been able to get through the crowds."
What's the future of the mid-July talkfest that serves as the de facto opening of a football season that doesn't kick off until the very final days of August? Wilson cites the digital media guides as a process five years to fruition. There are potential tweaks to video feeds that are being discussed. The SEC Network, Pinkerton notes, will only continue to evolve.
This year, though, is virtually over. The respite won't be long.
"We'll go in late [Friday morning], but we will go in," Wilson said. "We usually just kind of unpack everything and decompress a little bit. It's a really lazy day. And then Monday, we start all over again. The coaches have the ESPN 'car wash' in Bristol (Conn.) next week, so a few people will go up there for that and the rest of us will just continue on with our jobs. We don't get a whole lot of down time."
Not when an event that wraps up today already is at the forefront of planning for 2015.