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Ravens rely on Sommerhof behind the scenes at M&T Bank Stadium

Although every game or event held at M&T Bank Stadium is special for Roy Sommerhof, there's something about the first home game of the regular NFL season for the Baltimore Ravens that has his pulse racing faster than usual.

Despite the fact that Sommerhof says the fans will be even more "up and excited" than usual when the defending Super Bowl champs host the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 15, the 55-year-old Ravens vice president of stadium operations will be also be ready to face the challenges of welcoming more than 70,000 guests to his workplace.

Considering he's already been on hand for a slew of openers since jumping from ticket manager to his present gig in 2000, the West Towson resident knows the drill.

Even so, what Sommerhof enjoys most about the job is that "every day is different."

On any given day, the former Towson High wrestler might be called upon to deal with tickets, transportation, concessions, security, maintenance, plumbing, parking or financial issues — anything that involves the stadium on game day.

He's had some doozies, too, including the time someone ill-advisedly attempted to flush a colostomy bag down a toilet in an upper deck family bathroom that caused a messy sewage spill in the visiting owner's box.

In the same unhappy vein, a disgruntled fan once kicked a urinal off its moorings, creating what Sommerhof labeled a "Niagara Falls" effect for those unlucky enough to be close to the incident.

When those things happen, identifying the source of the problem and quickly assembling a team of plumbers and cleanup crew becomes his top priority before things return to normal.

That's not the kind of stuff he learned by majoring in sports management at tiny St. Thomas University in Florida after graduating from Towson High in 1975.

Still, he put his undergraduate degree — and proximity to the Baltimore Orioles' spring training site — to good use.

"At the time, it was the only undergrad sports program in the nation," said Sommerhof, married with two sons, one of whom attends a boarding school and the other is a Dumbarton Middle School student. "I always wanted to be in sports. It's in my blood."

By being at St. Thomas when the Orioles held spring training practices on its Miami campus in 1979 and 1980, the Wiltondale native was eventually able to land a job selling tickets for the team after being an usher for three years for 10 games at $10 a day.

From that inauspicious start, he worked his way up to ticket manager before moving to stadium operations manager in 1988, four years prior to the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. He left the Orioles in 1996 after 17 years to run the Ravens' ticket office and eventually moved back to stadium duties in 2000.

As the man in charge of making sure things were in perfect order when Camden Yards opened to rave reviews in 1992, it gave him an appreciation for what goes into running a much larger structure with a greater capacity for fans in an era of heightened security.

He's already been a major player in the recently completed first phase of a two-year $35 million renovation project to upgrade the stadium's video boards, concession stands and concourses.

Moreover, all 16 lower concourse concession stands were also given a facelift and a pair of high-definition, state-of-the-art video boards were added.

Sommerhof even braved 15-below-zero temperatures in South Dakota last February while perusing new video boards that are another fan-friendly touch offered by the Ravens and the Maryland Stadium Authority, which owns the building.

Next on the agenda for the upcoming Ravens home opener is a new security requirement that fans will only be allowed to carry a clear plastic bags of a certain size to bring into the stadium.

That policy will also be in effect for other stadium events, such as monster truck performances, soccer matches, concerts or NCAA Lacrosse championships (slated for next Memorial Day weekend).

"The biggest thing is to get the word out," he said. "And we're in the process of doing that now."

That's not the end of his worries on game days. Keeping 2,500 employees "on the same page" might be his greatest accomplishment.

"Roy does a great job for us," said Dick Cass, Ravens president. "He was responsible for our renovations and he's our go-to-guy for non-Ravens events. He's widely respected as one of the best stadium operators in the league."

Sommerhof draws a comparison to nearby Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to make his point about the all-encompassing nature of his job.

"About 30,000 people pass through BWI every day," he said. "On game day, we have more that twice that many people attending a game at M&T Bank Stadium. Some need transportation to the facility (by light rail), some need to park their cars and all need to be checked before they enter the stadium. We have to provide food, bathrooms and emergency medical care. Then we have to clean up after them. And while they're here, we have to make sure they have a safe and positive experience. It takes a lot of people working together to make sure that happens."

One of the ways Sommerhof's crew ensures fan safety is to monitor a wall of 46-inch TV screens from a command center that can pinpoint someone acting out anywhere in the stadium bowl.

"We might get a call from someone who says there's a problem in Section 152, Row 14," he said. "We can zoom in on that and then identify the guy in question. From there, we can call the SAFE Management Courtesy Squad (security personnel) to discuss with them what we saw on the monitors. SAFE Management will confront the individual causing the problems. We can bring the guy causing the problem in and tell him what we saw. If he denies it, we can confront him with a recorded version of his behavior."

Season ticket holders can lose personal seat license privileges if their behavior is egregious enough.

And for fans that are too rowdy even after they've be confronted by security, a few hours in a what is playfully dubbed a "Super Max" holding cell adjacent to the command center usually cools their jets before they're carted off by the Baltimore City Police Department to be charged at a nearby station.

"It doesn't happen very often — usually only once a year," Sommerhof added. "We don't like to do it. If a season ticket holder is ejected from a game for bad behavior, the fan has to attend an on-line anger and alcohol management class. It can happen at away games, too. The same thing applies to other teams' fans, league-wide."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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