How the NFL Kickoff Game came to be

Jim Steeg

This Wednesday will mark a significant date in the history of the NFL. It was ten years ago, September 5, 2002 that the NFL planned its first Kickoff Game celebration.

Eli Manning
Eli Manning

ICONEli Manning and the defending champion Giants highlight Wednesday night's NFL opener in New York.

It is important to look back to that time to realize the significance of the event. There were a lot of issues that the NFL and New York City were facing at that time. New York City was approaching the emotional first anniversary of 9/11.

The national economy was still struggling; New York City was viewed as a risky place for holding major national events, and the NFL was gradually recovering, along with the rest of the country, in getting re-investment in its product.

The brainchild of then NFL Senior Vice President of Marketing John Collins was the proposed creation of an event to celebrate the beginning of the NFL season, as well as boost the economy in New York City and Washington D.C., in the wake of the 9/11. When Collins first approached me with the idea, as then NFL Senior Vice President of Special Events, I immediately realized what an enormous, complicated, beneficial

The first NFL Kickoff location was to be truly ambitious. There was only one place to make a bold statement…Times Square. Conversations were held to do something that had only previously been done for New Years Eve -- close Times Square for a celebration, and in this case, for a private entity. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his staff initially were hesitant, but Collins’ sales pitch, as well as the NFL’s ability to promote the use of the League’s Special Events staff, renowned for conducting the biggest event in America, the Super Bowl, lended the credibility needed for the Mayor to understand that the event could be pulled off with the class and professionalism reflective of New York City.and far-ranging event it could be. I was instantly sold. Thus, the NFL Kickoff celebration was hatched – a single game, preceded by a concert and other ceremonies. (Since 2004, the defending Super Bowl champion has hosted the game.) The 2002 NFL Kickoff was a critical means to kickstart the sponsorship sales for the NFL, which it did -- it was credited with causing $1.9 billion to be raised in the next fourteen months -- and reaching out to all the NFL fan base. It was also a highly successful live event, drawing an estimated 100,000-plus people.

Looking back at what had to be accomplished in what was a very short period of months, it is almost incredible to comprehend. Just a few were:

• Getting agreement from the Broadway community to allow the event, which included the theatres agreeing to delay openings by 30 minutes.
• Coordinating all the video boards in Times Square to receive one feed.
• Convincing broadcast partners that this was a viable event to broadcast, including ESPN, MTV and VH1.
• Convincing sponsors that there would be a benefit to their investment.
• Convincing talent to be involved. It eventually included Bon Jovi, Enrique Iglesias, Eve, Alicia Keys and the      Broadway cast of Rent.
• Involving all elements of the NFL, which included producing a fashion show to emphasize new product lines.
• Working through all the security issues that would face having an event in New York City. Literally more than ten plus blocks were closed on Broadway and 7th Avenue.
• Getting the conservative New York Giants to embrace the elements, which also included intrusion on their pregame activities.

In thinking back, all this had to come together in fewer than six months.It became a statement on the influence that the NFL could have in moving mountains, and the ability of a talented staff had in involving the League office in ways that previously had only been done for Super Bowls…marketing, events, sponsorship, broadcasting, retail licensing, security, public relations and so many more.

There can always only be one first and this event set a standard. In fact, it had such an impact that the only way the NFL could come close to matching its impact the following year was by hosting “NFL Kickoff Live from the National Mall” in Washington, D.C., featuring Britney Spears, Aerosmith and Mary J. Blige, and a tribute to US military troops active in Iraq and Afghanistan. Aretha Franklin concluded the concert, singing the National Anthem right before kickoff.

Former NFL Senior VP of Special Events Jim Steeg was responsible for changing the Super Bowl from a championship game into the event it is today. He also was the man who turned the NFL Draft from a behind-the-scenes meeting into a televised spectacle.

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