The Buffalo Bulls are off to a 2-0 start to the season after defeating the Miami Dolphins yesterday in this interesting pandemic-altered season. COVID-19 has changed football operations and guest experience in unimaginable ways. Andy Major, Vice President of Operations and Guest Experience with the Buffalo Bills has and continues to work diligently to ensure the best experience possible for fans during the pandemic. From cashless technology to mobile ticketing to mandatory masks, the Bills have placed a huge emphasis on keeping fans safe when they are allowed in the stadium. Even while fans enjoy games from home, Andy Major and his team at the Buffalo Bills have come up with unique, creative experiences to make them feel like they’re sitting in New Era Stadium.
×The interview with Andy Major was conducted via a typed conversation prior to the start of the NFL season. Editing changes were made to make it easier to read while maintaining the voice of the interview.
Tell us about your role as Vice President of Operations and Guest Experience for the Buffalo Bills. What does a typical day look like for you?
My typical days have changed dramatically with the current pandemic situation and this has affected everyone working at the Bills.
I currently serve on a COVID-19 Task Force that has been meeting daily since March.
We continually provide updates about the pandemic, review the stats/numbers related to our County and NY State, and implement best practices, recommendations and mandates from the CDC, WHO, local and state government and the NFL regarding the safe and comfortable return of staff to work and players/coaches.
I also serve on a few other internal committees that are dealing with the physical implementation of masks/PPE, signage, contact tracers, cleaning supplies, sanitizer, airflow, etc., within our offices.
While our offices and Training Camp have slowly begun to open and move forward with a healthy return of employees, coaching staff and players, we have recently morphed our focus into Stadium Preparedness and Return to Games planning.
As the Stadium Preparedness Lead, I am currently working in concert with about ten of our team’s department heads and the NFL to ensure that we are collaborating effectively and collectively implementing the safety procedures required for game days at our stadium – both with or without fans.
One goal is to make things as safe and efficient as possible for the football team to get their work in, stay healthy, and ultimately win games. Our other goal is to provide a safe, clean, comfortable and friendly Fan Experience for Bills fans (even if on a limited basis) with the hope that fans will be permitted by New York State to attend games at some point this season.
Pre-COVID, my typical day was basically answering emails, texts, and phone calls, coordinating staff and departmental meetings, meeting with game day partners to prepare for the season, analyzing statistical data regarding our game day incidents and attendance, preparing year-end seasonal reporting, researching best practices, reviewing sales-related inquiries, and implementing our goals and objectives for the upcoming year.
A large part of your role is enhancing the fan experience. With the COVID-19 pandemic restricting stadium access to fans, how are the Bills positioning themselves this upcoming season to develop a fan experience that is worthwhile both at-home and when fans can return to the stadium?
There is still a lot of unknown about what this season will bring. NY State is currently mandating that there be no spectators at any of our games. However, by sharing with our county and state officials the positive and proactive safety elements and plans that we are going to implement, we are very hopeful that a limited spectator scenario may be permitted.
The Fan Experience will obviously be very different, but there is still not a better or more exciting place to watch a game than live and in person at the stadium.
The Bills will have some new safety elements in place for a potential scenario with a limited number of fans returning to the stadium such as; requiring fans and game day staff to wear PPE (masks), signage encouraging hand washing, mask-wearing, and social distancing of six feet or more, cleaning and hand sanitizer stations, mobile ticketing and cashless technology.
For those fans watching at home and in our no-spectator scenario, our broadcast team and television networks are working hard to provide a fun and unique experience.
We are planning to cover the first few rows of the seating area to help improve the “look” of having empty seats, help our partners/sponsors with signage opportunities to offset other elements of their sponsorship that may be lost due to COVID-19 and we are looking to enhance the broadcast with some unique audio and visual ideas that we have not seen in the past.
In addition, there are some unique Fan Experience plans in the works to help engage with fans during the season – whether we have spectators or not.
Let’s talk about your beginning, you’re VP now, but you started out at the bottom too. In your early years, what did you do to not only gain experience, but gain respect while working with the Orange Bowl Committee, Miami Marlins and Dolphins?
I took a chance when I was younger, and thought it would be smart to leave my comfort zone of the northeastern United States, and pursue my graduate work at the University of Miami in South Florida where there seemed to be a lot of opportunities to work in sports. UM led to an internship at the Orange Bowl Committee where I gained valuable experience working major college football national championship bowl games.
While at the OBC, I was fortunate to meet my childhood idol Muhammad Ali, without asking to meet him and by humbly declining an opportunity to meet him so that I could continue working.
My boss took notice of my positive attitude and work ethic and pulled me away from work to meet Mr. Ali. It was then that I realized my positive attitude and hard work was noticed, and I had gained the respect of my peers and superiors.
I took this strong work ethic and positive attitude with me to the Marlins, Dolphins and everywhere I have ever been employed.
Every Vice President needs a team they work with to help execute the over-arching strategy of the department – when you form a team, what do you look for?
Besides the normal review of job qualifications and experience, the first thing I look for when interviewing or speaking with someone is their personality and whether they portray the qualities that I think they will need to be successful working with me and with our team.
Like everyone else, we certainly want to hire qualified individuals for their roles, but I specifically look for people with a positive attitude/positive energy, someone who can handle difficult situations, are organized, can multi-task and prioritize their work effectively.
I always ask myself, “Will they get along with and work well with the rest of the team?” Because we have many people in our department, it is vital that we are able to communicate and collaborate effectively, respect each other, and work as a unit.
We are truly like a family away from home with many diverse and different people working together to accomplish the goals and objectives of the department and organization, and I try to foster that family environment every day.
We know the Bills have a huge fan base and are quite marketable – both of which are great assets to the team, but are there any big challenges you face regularly in your role?
We love our fans and feel like they are some of the very best in the NFL. Bills fans are loyal, passionate, friendly, care about their community and team, and our fans are possibly the best traveling fan base in the NFL. We truly have a great opportunity to be the very best fan base in the NFL if we can further eliminate the negative fan behavior that sometimes gets magnified by the media.
Similar to many NFL venues, we certainly face our share of challenges on game days when there are normally 70,000 fans in one location for a long period of time. One of our biggest challenges is fan behavior and the issues that go with the small minority of fans who drink alcohol to excess and behave irresponsibly.
Unfortunately, this small minority can cause a big impact when their actions create harm to themselves or other fans.
You may have seen some of the viral videos that our Security, Sheriff and emergency response teams have had to deal with. Sometimes the seemingly harmless act of a drunk fan breaking a table can also include them breaking their leg, getting a concussion, and/or cutting themselves causing excessive bleeding. Our law enforcement and medical teams are unfortunately needed in these cases, and the behind-the-scenes accidents are something that can easily be avoided with more responsible fan behavior.
The Bills fan base is certainly known for their loyal support of their team in the good and tough times, but they are even more known for being some of the best tailgaters in the NFL. The Bills encourage sensible tailgating and responsible drinking, and we simply want fans to be safe, have fun, and follow the Fan Code of Conduct.
Finally, after almost 30 years of working in sport, do you still love working in this industry, and if so, why?
I absolutely love working in sport, and I especially love Western New York/Buffalo and working with the Bills. I played football my entire life through college and have worked in sports my entire career since — I am a football and sports lover.
We have a great ownership team that encourages all of the things I have spent my professional and personal life trying to emulate; hard work, positive attitude, teamwork, good communication, collaboration and having fun in the midst of it all.
We also have a football team, coach, and GM who are all on the same page with the entire organization working together to achieve one goal: a Super Bowl championship.
I know it sounds cliché, but I am a firm believer that the Buffalo Bills are going to accomplish some amazing things on and off the field and I am excited to be a part of the team to help make it all happen.
Hayley's Final Thoughts
Without a doubt, the Buffalo Bills put an immense amount of effort and passion into improving the overall fan experience. This season in exception to that sentiment, despite the pandemic significantly altering the way the team operations. Even though COVID-19 has presented challenges for the Buffalo Bills, they have worked hard to make sure fans can still enjoy games from home.