Jerry Anderson (center) oversaw logistics for dozens of Super Bowls, including Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans in 2013. (Courtesy Populous)
Jerry Anderson, an architect who became the logistical czar for the world’s biggest sports events, including the Super Bowl, the Final Four, the College Football Playoff championship and the Olympics, died Sept. 23 of brain cancer. He was 64.
Anderson, a founding partner with sports design firm Populous, spearheaded its event division in Denver. It’s a group that has grown to about 50 people traveling the globe to help sports organizations run their events as seamlessly as possible.
As a result, Populous Events has helped shape the experiences of millions of spectators over the years, and it all started with Anderson. He began his career as an architect in Seattle and later worked in San Francisco. It was in the Bay Area that Anderson first began his 33-year relationship with the NFL, starting with Super Bowl XIX in 1985.
The game was held at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, a building that opened in 1921. At the time, the facility basically consisted of “two-by-fours and wooden planks on a hill,” according to Jim Steeg, the NFL’s former vice president of special events and point man for the Super Bowl.
“People today don’t understand what some of these old stadiums looked like back then,” said Steeg, now semiretired and living in North Carolina. “There were no lights, and what amounted to shacks for the visiting teams. We had to build a press box and locker rooms to make it halfway accessible for the teams. We hired (Populous co-founder) Ron Labinski to help us out, and it didn’t take long for him to realize he needed a day-to-day guy.”
That guy was Anderson, who had previously worked with Labinski to design renovations to Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
Anderson found his niche. He went on to become the NFL’s expert consultant for planning the Super Bowl. With the exception of the 1986 game, Anderson and his crew worked every Super Bowl that came after, including this year’s game in Minneapolis. His strong reputation led to filling similar roles for the NCAA Final Four and the CFP title game, among other events.
Jerry Anderson participates in the torch relay for the 2012 Olympics in London. (Courtesy Populous)
Frank Supovitz, who succeeded Steeg at the NFL from 2005 to 2014, says Anderson became a trusted colleague and partner for staging the league’s marquee event, as well as the draft.
In 2005, soon after Supovitz joined the NFL, the league had to make a quick decision. Because of a scheduling conflict with Madison Square Garden, the draft had to be relocated to a small exhibit hall at the Javits Convention Center. It was Anderson who made everything fit at the new venue, Supovitz said.
Over the past five years, the draft has become a logistical monster on its own, traveling to league markets across the country. Two years ago, it drew more than 200,000 fans outdoors in Philadelphia, with Populous Events coordinating all aspects of that event.
“It’s remarkable how much I learned from him about the X’s and O’s of stadium operations and temporary construction for major events, in addition to the politics of diplomacy and people management,” said Supovitz, now president and chief experience officer for Fast Traffic Events & Entertainment, an event consultant.
Anderson consulted with sports facilities and events for more than 15 years before his company, Anderson Consulting Team, merged with HOK Sport (now Populous) in 2002. It was the same year Anderson supervised the design and construction of venues for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. All told, Anderson helped deliver 13 Olympic Games.
In the early days of the NFL’s international expansion, Steeg recalls one year when the power went out during the old American Bowl, a preseason game at Olympic Stadium in Berlin, leaving the crowd in darkness.
“The lights went out with about five minutes in the first half,” Steeg said. “We called the league office in New York and were talking about whether to call the game. Jerry found a solution, to turn every circuit breaker off and then turn them back on one by one. The lights came back on. Remember, this stadium was built in 1936. Jerry saved the day.”
There were other examples of Anderson’s on-the-spot troubleshooting that saved the NFL from some potentially embarrassing situations, including staging issues tied to multiple Super Bowl halftime performances, Steeg said.
Before Super Bowl XXV in 1991, a hurricane blew through Tampa, Fla., the host city, wrecking much of the temporary infrastructure in place. It came during the time of the Gulf War, when the NFL initially increased security with a secured perimeter around the stadium. Together, Steeg and Anderson cleaned up the wreckage and put things back together for the game.
A decade later, for the first Super Bowl after the 9/11 attacks, Anderson was principally involved in upgrading security measures in New Orleans with barricades and fencing, a system that remains the standard for protecting fans today.
“We went through a lot of things together and he had that ability to execute,” Steeg said. “He could push the envelope. Nobody was satisfied with what we did the year before. It was always how do we make things better.”
Anderson was not a typical architect, said Don Renzulli, who worked with Populous Events at both the NFL and at the NHL for the Winter Classic games at outdoor stadiums. Anderson understood the needs of all the constituents involved, whether it was the leagues, teams or the broadcast networks.
As the Super Bowl continued to grow in size, Anderson still found a way to make it all work through his ability to see the big picture, said Renzulli, now executive vice president for On Location Experiences. The things they learned from planning the Super Bowl could be used across the board for Winter Classic and the Olympics, he said.
“I learned a lot in this business from Jerry in terms of setting an example for how these events should be operated in terms of space and flow,” Renzulli said. “Jerry took me under his wing. He’s a visionary in the world of sports and events.”
The same was true for Michael Kelly, who volunteered at the 1995 Super Bowl and went on to be part of the host committees for three Super Bowls in Florida. Kelly is now athletic director at the University of South Florida.
“The humility and thoughtfulness he brought to clients stood out,” Kelly said. “He was a strategic thinker. It’s a big loss to the sports industry and all the different events.”