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MetLife Stadium (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

How the N.F.L. Pulls Off the Super Bowl Halftime Show

An insider's look at what it takes to make the entertainment spectacle seen by 110 million—one that's as hotly anticipated as the big game itself—go off without a fumble

Sarah Moll still remembers her first Super Bowl: It was in 2007 at Dolphin Stadium in Miami. The N.F.L.’s director of entertainment and TV programming had booked Prince as the halftime act and she needed everything to be perfect. It sure didn’t start that way. While rushing onto the field to build the Purple One’s logo-shaped stage, the halftime crew severed an important data cable used for lighting effects, causing a pretty big scare backstage, seconds before show time. (An alert electrician held both ends of the cable together for the entire show.) Then it was Mother Nature’s turn. With Prince prowling the stage during a rousing performance of his classic “Purple Rain,” it started pouring. But rather than dampen the mood, the wet weather had the opposite effect. The giant searchlights, smoke-filled air and steady rhythm of a blanket of rain gave the show an intoxicating, otherworldly aura. And when it was over, the audience clamored for more.

 

Prince

Prince performs at halftime during Super Bowl XLI between the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears at Dolphins Stadium in Miami on Feb. 4, 2007. (Photo by Steve Grayson/Getty Images)

“It was Florida so we thought the rain would eventually stop, but it never did,” says Moll, remembering the show. “And thank God because it was truly one of the great moments in entertainment history.”

This is the kind of triumph Moll hopes to achieve every Super Bowl Sunday, and to do it she usually has her pick of blockbuster acts. There may be plenty of big stages for musicians, but the Super Bowl — typically the most-watched event of the year — is different (an estimated 110 million will be tuning in this year). The list of past halftime headliners reads like an index of all-time greats: Michael Jackson, Springsteen, U2, McCartney, Madonna, the Stones, Beyonce. Asked about the N.F.L.’s selection process, Moll said: “We just look for artists who are at the top of their game and who will put on the coolest 12 minutes in music, because that’s kind of what the halftime show boils down to.” Moll, who also oversees the NFL Kickoff concert, later added, rather matter-of-factly: “People rarely say no to the Super Bowl.”

 

Bruno Mars

Pop singer Bruno Mars is the main event at this year’s Super Bowl half-time show (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Pop culture’s annual tentpole moment this year belongs to Bruno Mars, who, after just two albums, has emerged as a major music star. The Honolulu-born heartthrob is already a gifted crooner, with a number of catchy pop tunes spanning rock, doo-wop and R&B. Now he has a shot at making history when the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks walk off the field and through the tunnel to their locker rooms midway through Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2. Like a lot of people, Moll says, “I’m excited to see what Bruno brings to the table.”

For the last seven Super Bowls, the show has been the work of essentially the same team, which consists of a half dozen people in Moll’s department who approve all the creative decisions, the N.F.L.’s production company, Touchdown Entertainment, as well as producer Ricky Kirshner and director Hamish Hamilton. Months of planning go into each halftime show. And for Moll, who started as an intern in 1999 with N.F.L. Films, this year’s Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. is extra special. “I’m a Jersey girl,” says Moll. “It’s pretty cool that the game is in my backyard, so to speak. I don’t have to stay in a hotel this year. I can sleep in my apartment.”

Moll recently called during a break in her schedule to give us the X’s and O’s of the Super Bowl halftime show.

 

MetLife Stadium

Aerial view of MetLife Stadium as crews prepare the venue for Super Bowl XLVIII (Photo by LI-Aerial/Getty Images)

FIRST DOWN
“I don’t think we ever stop working on the Super Bowl halftime show, quite frankly. We’re already coming up with ideas for the 2015 Super Bowl in Arizona and 2016 in San Francisco. We start with the artist. Then we engage our partners, our broadcaster Fox and Pepsi, which has sponsored the show for the past two years. But, ultimately, the N.F.L. decides the Super Bowl act, and we have several performers on our radar. Bruno [Mars] is someone we thought about for a while but he really jumped to the top of our list after his performance at the Grammys last year. In the spring and summer, we attended a few of his shows and once we saw Bruno live, and the kind of entertainer that he is, it was an easy decision to have him perform at Super Bowl XLVIII.”

HUDDLE UP
“When it comes to staging the halftime show, every artist is different. For example, with Prince, we knew he wasn’t going to do a traditional press conference. He wanted to perform. So he came out and jammed for 20 minutes in place of taking questions. And Beyonce was very involved. I remember her being on almost every production call. She had definite opinions about how the show was going to go: the lighting, the stage design. Before you can get to the production calls or the press conference, though, you need to book the performer. With Bruno, I called my contact at Atlantic Records who introduced us to his management team, who said absolutely. ‘We’d love to do it!’ The next step was for the show’s producer, Ricky Kirshner, director, Hamish Hamilton, and stage designer, Bruce Rogers, to sit down with Bruno. This is where we get the artist’s creative thoughts and determine the vibe of the show. We talk about the set list, if there are going to be guests…any and everything. We also let the artist know our limitations — we’re trying to get the stage on the field in 8 minutes — and go through the elements of the show. We’re prepared for everything. We have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. Ricky’s group has been doing this for as long as I have and I don’t think anything scares us.”

EXTRA POINT
Earlier this month Mars announced that the Red Hot Chili Peppers will join him on stage during the halftime show. “That was all Bruno. Obviously, we have approval over it. But Bruno came to us and said, ‘Hey, what do you guys think of this?’ We loved it. We think the two genres kind of complement one another. And I know it’s going to give everyone a show to remember.”

TWO-MINUTE WARNING
Producing the Super Bowl halftime show is a formidable undertaking. Several weeks out, the N.F.L. hires the 300 field team members who will assemble and then break down the modular, rolling stage units and other scenic elements for the show in a matter of minutes. “Our team has been on the ground at MetLife since the first week of January. As Super Bowl Sunday nears, we start building the stage. We train the field cast at a nearby high school and, of course, Bruno and the Chili Peppers rehearse the set several times. Everybody has to be ready to execute by game day.”

TOUCHDOWN
“Super Bowl Sunday is probably my favorite part of my job. But I don’t really get to see a lot of the game. (Laughs) If I’m able to watch the game, it probably will be in a corridor somewhere in MetLife Stadium. Usually, once we know the halftime show’s been successful, we take the third quarter to kind of celebrate and congratulate the artist. Then the fourth quarter I’ll find someplace to go and watch the game. But sitting in a seat… No, that doesn’t happen.”

 

Super Bowl By the Numbers

(Illustration: Brandon Brink)

Click here to read more about our ultimate guide to Super Bowl 2014.

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