Behind the Media Curtain An Exclusive Look into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame

THE Sport Australia Hall of Fame gala event at Crown Palladium is described as the night of nights, the most exclusive sports event on the Australian calendar. It’s an evening where the greatest and most influential sportspeople gather together and recognise the efforts and achievements of their peers, heroes and rising stars.

The opportunity to have an all access pass was the major selling point for me when deciding which internship I should pursuit.

My host partner, Jump Media and Marketing has controlled the communications and public relations for the Sport Australia Hall of Fame (SAHOF) organisation for the past several years. With Jump, I’ve managed clients the likes of Athletics Australia, the Amy Gillett Foundation and Australian Masters Games with my final task including contributions to the social media force behind the SAHOF gala event.

An incredible opportunity was presented to learn first hand all the details and requirements and how they come together to create a world-class celebration event. I would see how other media professionals work the event from behind the curtain, I would experience the social media machine at full pace attempting to maximise reach and interest. I would also get up close and personal with the legends of Australian sport, shake hands and do my part to ensure their night was memorable.

The date had arrived on Thursday 13 October, but before the gala at Crown Palladium during the evening, there was an abundant amount of logistics and tasks to cover throughout the day. For myself it was all steam ahead as soon as I left my car at the provided valet across the street at Crown Promenade.

A Beautiful Spring Day - Melbourne 13 October 2016

Dressed in a crisp shirt and slacks I powered my way through the Casino’s main door and up the staircase with this evening black suit pressed in a bag draped over my shoulder. The event would take up the entire floor but thankfully I was able to find my team and before any pleasantries could be exchanged it was go, go, go.

The Crown events teams were busy at work, testing the lights and sound, polishing the cutlery at each table, rolling out the enormous red carpet and constructing the custom built media wall.

The Red Carpet and Media Wall

We paced the halls, familiarising ourselves with the Palladium and discussed how each person would tackle tasks and responsibilities during the evenings event.

The Jump team featured six members. Dave Culbert, who would MC parts of the day’s event and evenings gala. Sam Culbert, manager and coordinator across the entire event. Christy LaPlante would shadow Sam on the red carpet. Jake Stevens and Peter O’Rourke would manage social media responsibilities. And then there was myself.

Initially my role was to shadow Dave – be his right hand throughout the day. Somehow I had the impression Dave's the kind of person that would rather fly solo on a night like this. He's a valuable source of knowledge but to get the most out of this incredible opportunity, I’d have to think on my feet and quickly find areas to contribute rather than wait for instruction from someone who has plenty of their own tasks to think about.

I kept reminding myself, this was the last chance I’d be given this kind of opportunity so make every moment count.

As well as providing the content across all of the SAHOF official media channels, Jump was tasked with providing support for all other media organisations coming through and covering the event. We setup the media room located just beside the red carpet entrance, which offered a space for all media professionals to connect to high speed Internet, a secure location for gear and also food and drinks service.

Once I had setup mine own space, we were off the MCG for the first official SAHOF activity – meeting and introducing the new inductees and as they unveiled their membership plaques on the walls of the National Sports Museum.

In the days leading up we had issued media alerts to meet and greet the inductees at the museum inside the MCG at 2:30pm and that deadline was fast approaching. We left two team members at Crown to pre-create twitter and Instragram media lists and drove across to East Melbourne.

We entered the hall with enough time to make sure every element of this activity flowed seamlessly. My role was to scout a new photo location somewhere inside the museum. Everything is about engagement – how do we hype this activity, what will audiences enjoy seeing? Each process relies on people’s interest.

The stage took shape inside the small cramped hall at the hands of MCG staff – they worked with a lightning efficiency. I wandered around each location, taking in the history of Australian sport while keeping an eye out for the ideal location.

The inductees and media all began to trickle in and I put on my professional voice, greeted each with a firm handshake as I introduced myself and congratulated the inductees. I was able to have brief conversations with Shane McInnes from 3AW, several Seven Network reporters and a representative from SEN. The realisation that this day was a chance to meet people and standout never left me. I wanted people from my chosen industry to be able to me with associate me with this SAHOF event, adding appeal to my character.

The space inside the hall was far too small to find a new picture opportunity, the dimly lit surroundings creating even more issue. I suggested that instead of a new location we should use the traditional spot however, have the inductees take a close-up ‘selfie’ around Dawn Fraser on the main chair.

The Inductees sit with Legend, Dawn Fraiser
My thought process was to relax everyone and create a fun casual picture. It wouldn’t be something that graces the Herald Sun’s front page but the result speaks for itself.

Post pic-op we ushered the inductees and media back past the statue of Sir Donald Bradman and cricket pitch to where the stage had been built. It was during this time I had a great awkward moment with Libby Trickett – in short she had left her jumper in the previous room, as I returned it to her she mistakenly thought I had taken it off her bag. There were people everywhere at this stage… I assured her I wasn’t a crazed fan and guided her to where her own new plaque was waiting.

The experience I had deep in bowels of the MCG with the media in attendance as well as these incredible Australian sportspeople set the tone for the rest of the day. I was finally on the inside, privy to all the answers.

As part of the media team in charge bringing life to the event, I felt empowered and these great inductees, as well as media professionals – people I want to be soon, looked to me for advice. The media circulated the hall gathering interviews with the inductees. Our goal was to ensure maximum media attention and the best coverage possible, if the afternoon’s activity was anything to go on, we were well on our way to achieve the client’s goals.

Jack Newton chats to 3AW

The drive back to Crown included debriefing and re-establishing tonight’s objectives. We were in a great place and had done everything we could to ensure the time spent at the MCG was productive but we all knew the real work was tonight.

I was given my next task as soon as I changed into something a little less comfortable. I only own the one black suit, I've rarely needed to but thankfully it looked the part and gave me room to run, because I’d be moving quickly for the rest of the night.

I set up an official media station just off to the side of the guest and member sign in table. The idea was the members would get their special identification pin, decide if they’d like a photo on the red carpet – if not, they would come past me and onto the pre-event gathering for all members in a special room. All media would also be required to come past me where I could offer a media guide and credentials.

The Media sign in table near official room

The frenzy arrived and weren't interested in media guides

The plan made sense and also meant I would get a chance to meet all the media professionals – the names on the expected list featured Tony Jones from Channel Nine, Samantha Lane from The Age and many others from the city’s most reputable news organisations.

In practice the plan just simply didn’t work. These were media personalities that had transcended the need for credentials and couldn't care less about reading a media guide. I chased down a few that avoided my table only to be politely told not to bother. Quickly my role went from media wrangler to ensuring the walkway remained clear for guests. I’d plummeted to clearway monitor as fast as I’d reached my peak.

I thought ‘to hell with this’ and moved on to the next task – the beginning of my most enjoyable. I would be giving the task of guiding the inductees and SAHOF members fresh off the stage to be interviewed live on air with radio station SEN 1116.

It was best to introduce myself to the hosts and producer well before required to get the most out of the experience. Connected to our main media room, SEN set up a small double table in a large room with a television connected to a live feed from the Palladium hall. They had everything they needed to broadcast on location except any access to actual talent – this is where I’d come in. I would bring the best of the best in to chat all things SAHOF and general sport to the masses making it actually worthwhile to broadcast from Crown.

I entered the SEN room while in a commercial break with a few plates full of sandwiches and sushi and a couple bottles of drinks tucked under my arm. Behind the desk way at the back of the mostly empty room was Mark Fine and Rohan Connolly, along with producer Peter McGinley. The gifts were a shameful enticement I know, but these guys are basically locked in a room, stuck on a chair for hours and food is a direct link to their hearts.

I was the real-deal to them. There was no mention of interns, free labour or work-experience. I was a man that looked the part in a black suit, standing in front of them holding delicious goodies suggesting the best guests to have on their radio program over the next four hours or so.

Peter was new to the producer role and wasn’t familiar to how the SAHOF gala event worked, which meant he relied on me for all his information. I walked them through the timing but it’s always just a plan and one that’s quick to change, be altered or thrown out. Because I had a direct line to the organisers, I became SEN’s eyes, ears and facilitator.

Everything was aligning perfectly – I had ditched my pointless role of handing media passes to the faces of well-known Melbourne journalists in favour of hanging out with Finey and Rohan Connolly talking shop. The glamour was just a few meters away but the action was in that room.

The view from the Crown Palladium stage

Alas, the festivities began and I left the world of radio and took my seat next to the stage to watch and record the proceedings. For an hour I moved between my seat and sitting on the floor hidden from sight, capturing images for SAHOF’s social channels. I would then forward them to my colleges to upload with all the necessary tags to accompany the posts. Getting support meant making them visible to the various stakeholders of each personality. The glamour of a front row seat is taken away when you’re frantically flipping through pages to find the appropriate social media tags behind legends like surf life saver Kristy Ellis.

As I sat crouched at the front, I thought about those in attendance sitting around me and all the way to the back – a who’s who of state and national sports organisations, family of SAHOF members and the most influential media personalities. They would have no idea the frenzy of my media team and what’s going on behind the curtains as they feasted on steak and sipped champagne.

With each segment of the gala concluding on stage it would be my time to shine. As instructed I guided the individuals through a side door and back to the red carpet where the photography circus lay in wait. It was an incredible chance to have 30 seconds with each superstar, a short moment to ourselves where I would congratulate their achievements, describe what’s about to happen next and ensure them their seat wouldn’t stay empty for long.

My vantage for most of the event

The skill was in the wrangle, there’s so much going on and people walking through the foyer. My quiet moment with them was always quickly over completing my task became extremely difficult as we were rushed before we could reach the privacy of the media area.

While the photographers and journalists ate up the stars in front of the media wall, I would duck into the SEN room, inform the guys of who I was bringing in next with enough time to allow them to set a line of questions and also organise broadcast breaks.

The Mentors with Scholarship winners

As soon as the frenzy gave a moment’s lapse, I would jump onto the carpet and take the SAHOF member around the corner into the broadcast room with the team ready to go. It was another pleasant moment with the inductees and one where I felt important. I was achieving a job that was making a difference rather than just being along for the ride.

My first member delivery was swimmer Kieren Perkins. Coming off the stage after speaking on behalf of the mentor members assigned to sponsor the next generation of sports talent, he was the perfect person to gather for SEN.

Rohan Connolly and Mark Fine talk Swimming with Kieren Perkins

I watched on as Kieren spoke to Fine and Connolly and chatted to Peter about the logistics of getting more talent in. I asked him who they would like next but offered advice on the best personalities to bring in – knowing most of the stories that would likely come up and also who their listeners would most appreciate as I’m one of them.

From my point of view I was playing both sides of the fence. I was there from Jump, working for SAHOF but from SEN’s perspective, I was there to ensure the athletes were in and out, like a talent bodyguard. I spent several hours repeating the process as each segment of the gala progressed.

The Red Carpet Portrait of all 2016 Sport Australia Hall of Fame Inductees

If this was my first introduction to the media’s view of events and gala festivities, it was really the most exclusive and comprehensive overview possible. The high’s of managing talent and media channels - seeing the glitz and glamour unfold right before my eyes. Then there were the low’s of having some of the magic taken away by seeing behind the curtain, having plans fall through and at times feeling under utilised. In addition one of our video presentations shut the whole audio system down, which unfortunately occurred during the Spirit of Sport Award going to Luke Beverage during an acceptance by his wife. It was a moment of disaster where we could do nothing to help, just sit by and hope. The crowd thinking ‘oh well’, while the production team is in crisis mode. Luckily all was well in time for the main event to follow.

The night’s highlight came towards the end and featured Australia’s newly crowed ‘Queen of sport’, Michelle Payne. I was aware of her winning the Don Award before the event and was very much looking forward to sharing a moment with her.

The crowd offered an extended standing ovation as Michelle accepted her trophy awarded to the person or team that has most inspired the nation. As she walked off the stage I stood waiting, eager to guide her through the next few minutes.

Michelle Payne walks to the stage after announced the Don Award winner 2016

Michelle was still in a state of shock. She spoke to me a soft delicate voice, as if she felt out of her element. I offered her congratulations as we walked through the side door, leaving enough space for her long elegant lavender gown. We slowly walked the 30-meter hallway past people gathered to take photos on phones of the newest winner named in Sir Donald Bradman’s honour.

The media gathering had tripled at the red carpet due to the nature and prestige of the award. Added was how exceptionally stunning Michelle Payne wore that dress, the beginning of the spring carnival may have helped but I like to think they were there because of the kind likable character Michelle is.

I stayed throughout the interviews to enjoy the moment deciding to text through warning of Michelle’s arrival to the SEN team. This was a moment I’ll always remember – standing just a meter from a woman that will no doubt transcend her sport, more than she already did last year, with her latest achievement conquering the Sport Australia Hall of Fame.

I had spent the night with the inductees, all significant and special in their own right but there was something indescribable about Michelle Payne. Perhaps it was her shyness in the moment, or her ability to speak to each person she interacted with a gentle sense of care. Michelle Payne 100 percent deserved that award and everybody in the room knew it, all except for the champion horse rider herself.

Before I could lose momentum, Wally Lewis, regarded as the greatest rugby player Australia has ever produced was elevated to Legend status. I was again crouched down in front of the stage taking in the conversation he was having with Sandy Roberts.

Watching Wally's chat from in front of the stage

By now it was business as usual. I had the trophy box ready for Wally and his award, just as I had with Michelle as he finished on stage. We walked to the media wall where my team had organised his family to be waiting. From there it was through to SEN for the final interview of the night.

While Wally was on stage I directed the SEN crew on time – we were running out of it but I knew Wally would be a great ending to an incredible night. I negotiated taking a longer break before so they could extend the program past it’s 11:54pm original conclusion.

Thankfully because coming off a Rohan Connolly special question, Wally went into an astonishing yarn about getting on a secret flight courtesy of an unknown club back in his playing days. Kerry Packer had sent for him and wanted to talk contracts after greeting Wally on the runaway as he stepped of the private jet and onto the tarmac at Sydney airport.

While this was going on, I could see Peter and Finey arguing in silent gestures because the SEN crew back in the studio was threatening to cut the feed. We were well over time but you just can’t stop a story like that midway – it was midnight after all. This was a memorable moment for me, another inside look at how the media world works without the audience ever knowing what’s happening.

When it was all over I thanked the all three from SEN for allowing me to help. In turn he offered their sincere gratitude for facilitating the night. I genuinely felt I’d help make the broadcast and hope they remember me at some point down the line.

Wally and his family were the kind of people that offered to help pack down the media room after because one of the Crown managers was desperate to reset for the next day.

He and his family were the last to leave and long after the rest of the guests had moved on to after parties, we were there still trying to get a head start of tomorrow’s media. We created an email and link to all the raw footage for easy editing to various media organisations that would be ready for the first post event interview with Libby Trickett live on channel Seven’s Sunrise at 8am.

It was 1am before we were officially off the clock and with no work tomorrow, I was easily convinced to have a drink upstairs at the official after party. The head of SAHOF event, Tania Sullivan bought the last three Jump team members standing a bottle of sparkling, and offered us a toast to our hard work.

I ended the night with a potential job offering from Tania to help with next year’s event. I’m not sure if it was one of those 2am post event and adrenaline offers but I’ll was looking for another way to break into the media’s inner sanctum so I’ll be sure to follow up in any case.

I was walked back to the valet I reflected on every moment I’d just experienced. This was the glamorous side of media and public relations, so much so that it was well worth all the hours I spent transcribing interviews and organising media releases. This is a profession a sports lover can really comfortably sink into. Now I just need to find a way to get behind the curtain more often.

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james Raknes

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