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One-on-one: John Sparks, stadium operations assistant division manager, Orlando Venues
John Sparks, Orlando Venues’ newly-appointed stadium operations assistant division manager, on his plans for the renovated Citrus Bowl, the new MLS downtown stadium and complex of multipurpose fields
Prior to being appointed Orlando Venues’ stadium operations assistant division manager in January 2015 for the Orlando Citrus Bowl, the new MLS stadium and complex of multipurpose fields, John Sparks spent 18 years working in venue management operations.
Getting his break at Turner Broadcasting Systems for the CNN Center in Atlanta, Georgia, Sparks was then integrated into the construction/development team at the city’s Philips Arena, serving as director of operations. Sparks’s career then led him to San Antonio, Texas, as vice president and general manager for Spurs Sports and Entertainment, where he oversaw overall operations and event bookings for nine years at the AT&T Center. Following this, Sparks secured a position in Brooklyn, New York with the Barclays Center as senior vice president & general manager for Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment. Most recently, Sparks was managing partner for Sage In Sight, specializing in sports and entertainment facility management and operations.
Sparks also served 20 years in the United States Navy and honorably retired as a master chief petty officer in the field of gas turbine technology, operations and training. He served as a master training specialist, marine gas turbine inspector and as a training and readiness team member for United States Navy Atlantic Fleet.
How has your military experience influenced your career in venue management and operations?
The military provides you with numerous tools that if applied correctly fall right in line with establishing a successful venue and subsequently a successful career. A couple of the most important to me easily transferred to the world of venue management, would be a values-based approach, mixing overall personal ethics and values along with work standards and practices. At sea you work within a values system or code of honor, courage, and commitment. These values are not taken lightly and when effectively used create a well-oiled machine or team that trusts each other, which is hard to beat. That team approach in business is what we all strive to achieve and continually improve upon. One cannot afford to do things incorrectly or in a non-efficient manner; in the military it can create a mission failure or worse, cost someone their life. In the venue community it has the ability to affect safety, the fan experience and overall venue success/profitability.
How does this current position at Orlando Venues compare with previous posts?
Each of my previous posts have provided me unique tools to place in my tool box that can be used to maximize the diversity of this position. In Atlanta, while assigned to Philips Arena, we shared services with other Turner properties - CNNC, Cartoon Network and Turner Field; in San Antonio, we serviced multiple teams [and sports] under one roof - NBA, WNBA, AHL and concerts, all mixed around one of the biggest indoor rodeos in the nation; in Brooklyn, construction within a city of that size is at best an almost impossible undertaking. All said you couple the flexibility of how your available inventory can and should be used, be open minded to client needs, and last but not least, you maximize available shared resources and best business practices.
How will you increase revenue, maximize stadium usage and enhance the overall patron experience across these venues in Orlando?
Increasing revenue, venue usage and the fan experience is all about creating relationships by further development with your partners, utilizing sound business practices and creating opportunities that make sense. The fan experience is about cultural change from within your staff. Our supporting partners, concessions, security, ushers/ticket takers, and housekeeping all play a part in this undertaking. Fortunately, we already have a world class facility in the Amway Center to model after.
Are you working to any timeline?
My timeline feels immediate but that is driven on my own. In actuality it is a process that takes time because it requires input from all the viable parties involved. It is a strategic process by nature. Lessons learned, partner input and patron feedback all play a part in establishing a matrix that can be used as a baseline and then improved upon, so the more data you obtain, compare and incorporate, the faster you grow and improve. I’m hopeful we improve with every event. The old saying applies: you are only as good as your last event.
What tech innovations will you introduce?
Technology within the Citrus Bowl has been one of the most impactful elements of the renovations. Specifically, HD LED video displays, distributed TVs and the addition of an all-encompassing point-of-sale system that will greatly lower transaction time. These elements, wrapped around modernized amenities such as multiple levels of exclusivity, suites, indoor clubs, loge boxes and all inclusive packages, provide patrons with options. Updated concessions, enlarged concourses and improved movement within the venue have made it virtually a new facility.
As to how all this relates to the new construction of the Orlando Soccer club’s MLS stadium, these amenities as well as some of the best and most current MLS facility designs have been utilized. Specifically these include multiple seating options ranging from upscale suites and party porches/plazas to supporter zones and typical seating areas. The design incorporates up-to-date technology throughout, as well as freedom of movement, all seen in some of the more recent facilities and Houston and San Jose in particular.
What are the biggest challenges, not only in managing so many different venues at once, but also in identifying and meeting the specific needs of each venue?
First, the physical structures pose two unique challenges. Although the Citrus Bowl underwent a huge renovation and is virtually a new building, there are areas and systems where old meets new and at those intersections you need to apply upkeep and maintenance plans in non-traditional means.
The new MLS stadium is a different subject. I’m less stressed with the construction, because the detailed design elements have been well thought out by design team members who are seasoned in this type of build. That said, I take very little lightly - focus throughout will be key. So if bricks and sticks yield two unique outlooks – maybe not completely opposite but both requiring individualized methodology operationally – I believe the greater challenge is on the human capital side of the equation.
In the Citrus Bowl you are rebuilding and improving culture utilizing new systems and technology coupled with a better environment to thrive within. The fan is expecting more, it’s not the way we have always done things, and it is a new world with greater demands so culture will need to change rapidly to support the fans expectations as well as the venue.
With MLS I believe we are starting with a clean slate and there will be a fresh service model matched to the customer base which is different than Amway or the Citrus Bowl.
Training is the first key to overcoming challenges but also with our shared service resource approach from venue to venue a common core of policies and procedures will be the glue that holds it together. That said, when one shifts from venue to venue the challenge is to understand the fan expectations as well. Three venues, multiple levels of various sports with unique service expectations within each – flexibility will be the key. (A smile and a thank you go a long way).
The Orlando Citrus Bowl opened in December 2014 and isn’t scheduled for 100% completion until April 2015. What work is left to do and how are things going so far?
The venue is virtually complete and all major systems function at a safe level of operation. We are at a point where the contractor is finishing up change orders, conducting advanced programing on systems and providing owner/operator training. The progress is very good. This project involved an enormous scope in a 10-month window so all involved are tired, but still extremely driven to finish as designed. The design/construction team has been one of the best and they have taken a great deal of pride in the work they have completed and rightfully so. The progress to date is going strong and the finishing touches will be completed on schedule.
The upper deck of the Citrus Bowl, added in 1990, survived the reconstruction. Did retaining this feature increase the difficulty of the project or make it easier?
To some degree both. Less scope, construction time, and fewer bricks and sticks to deal with on one hand, while on the other hand, marrying the old to new has had its own unique challenges and required more thought and engineering to be accomplished.
Will the new MLS stadium’s proposed standing rail section become a reality?
I believe that this feature will become a reality barring any huge design obstacles, which we do not foresee. I believe the design we are specifically introducing will be the first of its kind. I also think it will become a huge supporter amenity; it will bring out the spirit of the game and create a supporter section that will define home field advantage. Personally, I’m not sure it would take off in other sports, as this is unique to the soccer fan in my opinion.
Finally, what legacy are you looking to leave Orlando?
I’m at a point in my career that, when I leave the business, I will not be going far. Orlando is now home. That said, I want to leave venues that represent Orlando, its culture and its fans. I want to be able to know that I tried daily to meet or exceed the fans expectations. Unhappy or poorly-represented patrons don’t buy tickets or support your events and that creates an unsuccessful environment. Hometown pride is key, I want people to look at our venues and tell people that it is the best sporting venue to watch a specific sport that they have ever been in. You see it in other cities and venues, like Madison Square Garden in New York, Fenway Park in Boston and Lambeau Field in Green Bay. I want our venues to be held in that regard.
March 27, 2015