As the sun slid down on a recent game day, Ryan Cardinal and Mike Huiras of the Vikings made like superheroes in the TCF Bank Stadium tunnel, adding layers of clothes to go outside and quickly doffing them when they came back in.
They don’t play on the field. Instead, they aim their video cameras and microphones at players as they emerge, recording bits of pregame chatter.
Cardinal and Huiras capture this footage for the Vikings entertainment network — the team’s mushrooming media operation that’s designed to bring fans closer to the players.
“This is guaranteed good audio,” Cardinal said, referring to the upbeat mood leading to kickoff. “They’re not losing by 20 points.”
The new U.S. Bank Stadium, opening in seven months, will enable the Vikings to take their off-the-field game to another level. The stadium includes production space with cutting-edge equipment for social media mavens and digital entertainment teams, allowing them to send even more exclusive content to fans inside and outside the $1.1 billion building.
Rapid advancements in digital technology and consumer habits have allowed sports franchises around the world to become media outlets in their own right. The Twins, Timberwolves and Wild show self-produced videos and interviews during games, giving fans access to players in a forum that the team controls. Teams everywhere are using social media to connect with fans as often and intimately as they can.
But no other team in the Twin Cities pushes out content with the immediacy and variety that the Vikings do. Postgame locker room footage, something that decades ago was reserved for Super Bowl games, is now routinely delivered to the team’s website, free for fans to consume whenever and wherever they wish.
Cardinal, manager of Vikings digital marketing and media, and Huiras, a producer and editor, are among a handful of team employees who hang in the background with video cameras, smartphones and boom microphones. They capture the scene — sometimes editing colorful language — and then quickly pump it out via various social media to bring fans down to the field with them.
Since last weekend’s victory over the Green Bay Packers, the focus has turned to Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks at TCF Bank Stadium. On Wednesday, the team posted unedited video of a news conference with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and coach Mike Zimmer. Other features included five story lines to watch, including the frigid weather forecast for the game and the return of Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch.
“We needed to position ourselves to fulfill user expectations,” said Bryan Harper, the team’s vice president for content and production.
The social media game
Ten years ago, the team’s media operation amounted to updating the website. But owner Mark Wilf said that from the day the family acquired the team in 2005, they wanted to develop a network to satisfy fans’ insatiable interest in all things purple.
Planning began in 2006 with three staff members, two more staffers were soon added, and the network was officially launched in 2009. The network, which has its studio and production area at the team’s Winter Park headquarters, now has 18 full-time employees with more coming aboard before the new stadium opens.
According to statistics from the team, the Vikings are consistently in the top three of the NFL’s 32 teams for video views and in the top five for photos. They had been in the middle of the pack for stories, but now rank in the top 10.
The number of the Vikings’ Twitter followers has grown 17 percent since the start of the season, surpassing 500,000. The team has 1.9 million Facebook fans, putting them 17th in the NFL.
Social media has created a round-the-clock pulse for all teams, according to Brian Cheek, business development director at Portland, Ore.-based Postano, which designs social media platforms for teams and events.
“It’s the breaking down of the established network,” he said. “ ‘I want to see this and I want to see it on my time’ — that’s what fans are telling the world.”
For pro sports teams, however, the payoff for their new media efforts remains the same.
“An engaged fan will spend more money on that brand and that’s the ultimate goal,” Cheek said.
The fan experience
Kevin Warren, the Vikings’ chief operating officer, said that only 4 percent of fans see the team play live in the stadium and that even fewer get into the locker room or Winter Park. So the goal is to bring them there by capturing as much as possible in cyberspace, including Zimmer’s post-victory speeches.
Both Warren and Wilf say the goal is to supplement rather than supplant traditional media with the homemade content.
“What I think is great about it is that it gives a perspective on the team that is more than just the game,” Wilf said. “The fans want it. We’re always looking at the fan experience and now it’s 365/24/7.”
Wilf said the sort of access they’re pursuing was a topic when they interviewed prospective coaches before hiring Zimmer. “We wanted to understand their philosophy on interacting with fans,” Wilf said of the candidates.
With increased access, team officials said, fans get a better sense of players’ personalities and the team’s chemistry, features they may not find elsewhere.
One of the most popular Vikings’ productions is Brian Robison’s “96 Questions,” in which he wanders the locker room asking teammates the same question. Examples: Your favorite guilty-pleasure song? Who would be the worst best man at your wedding? Who would make the best Mall Santa?
Another feature pairs two teammates for a timed word game with friends. One provides clues and tries to get the other to guess the word.
Early on Monday mornings, the production crew gets busy in the studio at Winter Park, a large windowless closet carved out of space between the weight room and the treadmills. Both the space and the technology will improve at U.S. Bank Stadium and, eventually, the team’s new headquarters in Eagan.
There’s no end to the work of staying ahead in the social media game, Warren said. “When you’re doing things when you need to do them, you’re already too late,” he said.
Down in the tunnel before the game, Cardinal and Huiras were running their familiar pregame drill. The centers come out first; nobody films them. “They don’t say much and there’s only two of them,” Cardinal said.
But when the two quarterbacks arrive, that’s video gold. Teddy Bridgewater and veteran backup Shaun Hill pause at the mouth of the tunnel and bow their heads together. Bridgewater listens as Hill pumps up the young quarterback, telling him to stay aggressive, trust his teammates to do their jobs, play hard “all day long.”
The few fans with nearby seats in the end zone hang their arms over the railing, calling out “Teddy!” before the two quarterbacks turn to sprint onto the field.