Playing Ball for Pittsburgh

In honor of its namesake, Heinz Field is home to two of the world’s largest ketchup bottles. Here, Jim Sacco stands near the replicas that flank the stadium’s scoreboard. Each is built from 8,000 pounds of fiberglass, 375 feet of neon tubing, and 20,500 LEDs. If full, each bottle would contain 13,000 gallons, enough to cover the entire football field in a ¾-inch layer of ketchup.

You won’t see Jim Sacco running deep on Sunday, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a crucial part of the Steelers’ offense. How he keeps the fans energized and Heinz stadium ready for any event.

Like most kids, Jim Sacco grew up on a ball field. Unlike most kids, however, he never left. “My dad was an usher at Forbes Field [home of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1909 to 1971],” recalls Sacco. “I grew up spending weekends at the ballpark. Back then
everyone worked two jobs, and being an usher was my dad’s second job. It was how he supported my mom, sister, and I. It’s ironic that I’d grow up and make it my career.”

Sacco is the executive director of stadium management for Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the University of Pittsburgh’s Panthers. He oversees day-to-day operations and development for the stadium, including food service, maintenance, security, and event staffing. “I’m in charge of everything that takes place here,” Sacco says. “Well … except for what happens on the field.”

Facts & Figures

HEINZ FIELD


1.49 million square feet in size

10.5 miles of handrails

15 novelty stands

25 feet from end
zone to the first row

56 restrooms

60 feet from sideline
to first row

40 miles of water pipe
to heat the field

487 lavatories

1,544 suite seats

2,600 square feet for
visiting locker room

6,000 square feet for
Steelers’ locker room

7,300 club seats

65,500 cup holders

Sacco got his start in the early 1970s at Civic Arena, the former home of the Pittsburgh Penguins NHL hockey team, working in security for concerts. Nicknamed “The Igloo,” the Civic Arena was the first major sports arena in the world to have a retractable roof.

“I loved it,” says Sacco. “It was always my goal to be involved with a major facility and a major organization. I started out entry level, and my dream was to someday run a building.”

In 1990, Sacco moved to Three Rivers Stadium, former home of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pittsburgh Pirates, the city’s Major League Baseball franchise. He moved to Heinz Field in 2001 and became the executive director. “I’ve been in venue management for way too long,” Sacco says with a chuckle. “And I’ve been around three great organizations. I love sports and I’m fortunate to have been associated with great teams.”

A hometown boy, Sacco was born and raised in Pittsburgh. He says he has always rooted for Pittsburgh teams and has been glad to remain loyal. “Most people’s goal is to get back home,” he says. “I never had to leave.”

But every day brings a new challenge to the executive. The facility hosts the Steelers’
home games—which have always sold out since 1972—as well as college and high school games on a weekly basis throughout the season. Heinz Field also plays host to megastar concerts, having housed such acts as U2, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, Bon Jovi, and ’NSYNC, which was the first event to be held at the stadium when it opened in 2001. Heinz Field also hosted the 2011 American Idol auditions, and the stadium was used in the filming of the 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises.

“You never know what you’re up for,” Sacco says. “You never know what’s going to come about. You just have to make sure you have a first-class facility and a great environment. People come here to attend an event, and it’s my job to give them exactly what they’re looking for. I can’t control what happens on field or ice, but I can control everything else.”

It’s a lot to control. A horseshoe-shaped structure that offers views of the city’s skyline, Heinz Field is 1.49 million square feet, with a seating capacity of 65,500. The field is just over two acres of natural bluegrass, equipped with an automatic heating system that maintains the turf at a constant 62 degrees. Even with all of the components, Sacco says his main focus is on the fans. “Whether the event is a sporting event or a concert, everything we offer and everything we do has to be fan friendly,” he says. “From the moment they enter the parking lot until the moment they leave, we have to provide the highest quality of service, and the highest level of entertainment.”

That includes keeping up with the latest technology. “The buildings and venues keep changing,” Sacco says. “The entire experience is about more than just watching what’s taking place on the ice or on the field or on the stage. It’s a major production. It’s about technology, a video board, and a sound system.”

For the 2012–13 season, Heinz Field installed high-definition video and audio equipment, which gives fans sitting at home the feeling of being at the field. In addition, the scoreboard is 48’ x 27,’ and more than 500 televisions can be found throughout the facility. In addition to the latest technology, food service inside the field has changed, too. The facility has 47 concession locations throughout that serve an array of items. “People don’t come for a hot dog now,” says Sacco. “They want a variety of food to choose from, and we provide them with what they’re looking for.”

While there still are hot dogs for sale, fans can also snack on fish and chips, fresh-cut garlic fries, cheesesteak sandwiches, chicken wings, and freshly carved roast beef. Gluten free and vegetarian foods are also available, and new offerings for the 2012–13 season include Pub 33, which offers microbrews, and Hickory Bridge BBQ Co. Even with all of these upgrades and options, Sacco says fans themselves haven’t changed. “A fan is always a fan,” he says. “What has changed is the experience of coming to the game.”

In all of his years in venue management, Sacco’s favorite event other than hosting AFC Championship games was the NHL Winter Classic, which was held at Heinz Field in 2011. An annual event started in 2008, the Winter Classic is held New Year’s Day and involves a regular-season hockey game being played outdoors. Only cities that have the right weather can host the event, and Pittsburgh was chosen to be the site for 2011. To make it happen, a hockey rink was constructed on the Steelers’ field—a feat that took just nine days, the shortest prep time in the event’s history. Between 150 and 200 people worked 12-hour shifts each day to make it happen. Immediately after a game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, the rink was torn down so that the field could host the AFC Wild Card Playoff Game. “It was nothing short of incredible,” says Sacco of the experience. “To put together and produce and operate an event of this magnitude was unbelievable. I think I’m most fond of this event because it brought me back to the days I started at Civic Arena.”

Sports Illustrated magazine ranks Heinz Field second on its list of best NFL Stadiums,
based on a survey of fans. Sacco says he believes he has done well in this field because he loves all the events, regardless of type. “Entertainment, sports, concerts, truck pulls—I like everything,” he says. “I think you have to go in open-minded and balance everything, contribute evenly to all you can, and make every event an experience.”