Scott Cunningham, Vice President of Fan Experience at the Atlanta Braves, is responsible for organizing presentations and entertainment for all of the team’s home games and events! As a huge fan of the allure of a sport event myself, I was excited to have the chance to interview Scott to learn about all of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes to make the fan experience entertaining, exciting and fun. I was super happy to interview Scott, as he is one of the main figures behind the Braves’ fan experience transition and transformation from Turner Field to SunTrust Park in 2017. I’ve seen Scott describe the feel of the new stadium from a fan’s perspective as the creation of a neighborhood with stuck a stadium in it. Fan experience is more than just how fans feel about the game. It’s their overall perspective and is what keeps them coming back for me. Because of the work of Scott Cunningham and his team, Braves fans come to the stadium and experience more than just a game! So, join me as I ask Scott Cunningham more about his role and learn more about what goes on behind the scenes when it comes to creating incredible fan experiences in Atlanta for Braves fans.
Tell us about your role as the VP of Fan Experience for the Atlanta Braves.
As VP of Fan Experience, I’m responsible for the fan experience as it relates to event presentation and entertainment for all Atlanta Braves’ home games and organizational events. I executive produce the game day experience at SunTrust Park in the Battery Atlanta and all other organizational events outside of game days. As a member of the Atlanta Braves marketing group, I’m involved in the development of annual marketing & branding campaigns (creative, focus groups, commercial production, etc) for the club. I also work closely with corporate partnerships to incorporate sponsors into a fan-centric game presentation.
My specific areas of responsibility include game presentation, entertainment, special events, audio and video production, and broadcasting. I oversee a full-time staff of 16 managers, coordinators, & trainees with a game-day staff of about 100.
As a member of the Senior Leadership Team that opened SunTrust Park at The Battery Atlanta. I was responsible for the acquisition /installation/implementation of stadium LED boards, stadium sound system, A/V control room integration, LED sports lighting, broadcast cabling, and the kid’s activity area (Sandlot).
I started with the team with Senior Director of Game Entertainment of the Braves and as my role grew, my title eventually changed to VP of Fan Experience.
What does a typical day look like for you (offseason vs. spring training vs. regular season)?
One of the things I love about my job is: there’s no such thing as a “typical day”. There are seasons to the job though. The “offseason” is spent in a lot of meetings, planning for the upcoming season. We work on marketing campaigns, in-game graphic looks, in-game inventory (features and games), plan out the promotional calendar, work on theme nights, postgame concerts, pregame events, etc. All of this while supporting any offseason events (ie. Christmas tree lightings, NYE parties, special stadium events, Chop Fest, hall of fame inductions, etc).
A lot of time is spent on planning in the “offseason” so that once the season begins, we can move into “execution mode” that only requires coordination and actual execution of the game days and events.
I consider spring training to be a part of the “offseason” planning process as we use it to acquire player content to support the regular season.
When was the point you realized that you were meant to do this career?
I grew up on military bases all over the US and Europe as an Air Force brat … so I didn’t grow up with a home town favorite sports team. After moving all over the US, I left the states for Europe (Spain, Germany & England) when I was 12 and returned when I was 21. I played all the sports, baseball, basketball, football, soccer, and wrestling but didn’t watch a lot of sports on TV. When we lived in Dayton, OH my dad would take us to Cincinnati Reds games when they were known as the Big Red Machine. Outside of that, the extent of me watching pro sports was relegated to the Super Bowl and World Series each year.
I came into the sport industry from the outside. I was a TV Producer / Director working for a TV station that happened to own the broadcast rights to the Florida Marlins and Miami Heat. I worked my way up from getting cokes for camerapeople in college to traveling with the Marlins and Heat as the broadcast producer and broadcasting the games back to South Florida. I would probably still be doing this job if the station I worked for wasn’t bought out by another company that didn’t want to keep the broadcast rights to the 2 teams.
While this was happening, the Florida Panthers Hockey Club was relatively new to the market. They wanted someone to produce a broadcast-quality show for their in-arena game presentation and asked me if I would be interested. This was in the late 90s … a time where most pro sports teams didn’t invest in their game presentation like they do today … so I became the Director of Game Presentation for the Florida Panthers.
It was “baptism by fire”! I absolutely fell in love with game presentation and learned everything I could about sport marketing and the new industry I was in so I would continue to grow in my new found career.
The sport event management side of the industry gets stereotyped for attracting detail-oriented individuals. Talk about this stereotype and if you’d characterize yourself this way.
Most people in event management fall on one of two sides of the industry:
The operational (detail-oriented) side and the creative side. I’m a firm believer that to be successful in game presentation for a professional sports team, you need to be both.
You can not make it if you are not detail-oriented … it’s a huge part of pulling off complex events at this level! And you won’t go far if you don’t have the creative ability to think up new and interesting ideas on how to entertain.
Being both left and right-brained allows you to be more efficient if you are able to come up with a really creative idea and already know how to really execute it … or not.
Managing sport events almost always comes with challenges given the unpredictable nature of sport (especially baseball with weather). Talk about how you overcome these challenges and have learned not to be hard on yourself for stuff that’s probably beyond your control.
You can never over-plan when it comes to managing sporting events. As a matter of fact, if you want to be successful, it’s imperative to be prepared for everything you might think can happen. Come up with Plans B, C and D to every Plan A. Think of any variable that might occur and have a solution ready for when it does. In baseball, Plan B is always the rain contingency plan … but we need to have backups to anything that could happen during a Plan B, which leads to Plan C. Get it?
Over the year, I’ve learned to prepare for everything you can control and be ready to react to things you don’t. For example, I don’t worry about the weather or team performance … I put those in God’s hands and execute what I can control as it’s dealt out. Worrying about what you don’t control can only produce a negative effect on you, your team and your show. Focus on what you can control and execute it well. It leads to a much more enjoyable career.
What advice would you give to prospective sport professionals looking to work in sport at a similar level to yourself but just starting off in their career?
I read somewhere that you should keep evolving and recreating yourself. Read. Explore. Discover. Learning new things and expanding your mind will add versatility to your life. There is truth to this in your career as well. Work ethic is important in this industry. Being honest and having and a ‘fall on the sword’ mentality will make you a valuable asset to any team. Integrity is an important word … live it. Have a passion for what you do.
More concrete advice for those aspiring to work in Sports: Get in with a team at any level and work your way up. College graduates should seriously consider internships and Trainee programs. It’s a sacrifice but these are the pools of people pro sports teams hire from.
What would you include on a list of your top three biggest accomplishments (or moments) working in sport?
1 Closing Of Turner Field & Opening Of SunTrust Park & Battery Atlanta
One of my biggest moments was closing down Turner Field and opening up SunTrust Park and The Battery Atlanta.
The final year at Turner Field was filled with special events and ceremonies throughout the year. The final game was a very special one with the pre and post-game extravaganzas.
Opening Day 2017 at SunTrust Park was a culmination of 3 years of working what seemed like 3 full-time jobs at the same time. I was lucky to play a significant role in the development of the stadium and surrounding area as it related to the fan experience.
2 Creating Blooper
Creating “Blopper” is definitely up there, a new professional sports mascot and mascot program for the Atlanta Braves
Although there were a couple “game-day hire” characters throughout the years, the Atlanta Braves never had a true mascot program. After petitioning executive management for 13 years, I was finally given the green light to design a mascot and program and “Blooper” became a reality. The amount of work involved in this was a true test, but I’m thrilled in what we accomplished and excited to see how it develops.
3 Inducting Braves Legends into the Braves Hall of Fame and producing their Number Retirement ceremonies.
Inducting Braves Legends into the Braves Hall of Fame and producing their number retirement ceremonies are part of a collection of my greatest moments.
Over a five year period of time, I was able to produce Hall of Fame inductions and jersey number retirements for five of the most prolific legends of the Atlanta Braves. Each year we inducted and retired each of these legends and the ceremonies were spectacular:
⭐ 2009 – Greg Maddox
⭐ 2010 – Tom Glavine
⭐ 2011 – Bobby Cox
⭐ 2012 – John Smoltz
⭐ 2013 – Chipper Jones
If you could have a superpower to help you in your career, what would it be and why would you choose to have it?
I think it would be to have the power to duplicate myself. The ability to be in two places at the same time. Not only would this be a great time management tool … allowing me to get work done while being in meeting after meeting, but it would give me a chance to resolve one of my biggest professional challenges: creating a good work/life balance.
“Event management in pro sports requires a lot of time at the office.”
Late nights, weekends and holidays are part of the gig. Quality time with my beautiful wife and two beautiful daughters was often sacrificed.
Having a good work-life balance is extremely important over a span of a career … an area I strive daily to get better at.
Mat’s Final Thoughts
As fans, we all love attending baseball games – they’re thrilling, they’re entertaining, and they provide excitement. Some say, attending a game amount to escaping the rigors of everyday life. But while we’re at those games, it’s difficult to stop to think about all of the work that goes into the planning and setup of these events. After hearing about what Scott Cunningham had to say, there’s no doubt that there truly is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes. So the next time that you attend an Atlanta Braves game, or any other sporting event for that matter, cheer on your favorite players and teams but don’t forget about all of the people who worked hard to bring the event to life. In Atlanta, Scott Cunningham, as the Vice President of Fan Experience, ensures that fans experience more than just a game when they invest their time and resources to attend a Braves game!