Phil Manley was standing amidst the grand monuments to sport constructed for this year’s Winter Olympics when a colleague pointed out an intriguing fact.
Here was Manley, along with a host of other directors and assistant directors and technicians who would be, in the space of a few short hours, running the video boards and Jumbotrons of the Sochi games. This was the cream of their industry, each with countless hours behind the lens of a camera, with thousands of kickoffs and pitches and slam dunks in their clip files, along with game-changing digital tableaux like the “Make Some Noise” and the Rally Monkey video bites that have rocked arenas and stadiums all across the world.
High above this gathered crew, aerial footage was being recorded and one of Manley’s fellow directors leaned to him and said: “You know, everybody in the world is looking at where we are.”
“It was kind of surreal to be there,” said Manley, a Ralston native and 2006 graduate of Daniel J. Gross Catholic High School. “Even after he said that, it didn’t hit for awhile that, yeah, there you are. Where the gold medals are handed out. Where the world’s best athletes are.”
For the better part of the last two months, Manley worked as a video board director for both the Winter Olympic and Winter Paralympic games held in Sochi, the Russian resort town on the Black Sea, covering the oft-marveled-at curling competition in the former and the all-out bloodbath that is sled hockey in the latter.
Manley said, he too, was unsure of what to expect when it came to curling — the ancient Scottish game which looks like bowling on ice and which most casual observers believe should be played with a beer in one hand.
“I was surprised at how much athleticism it took,” Manley said. “Those stones are huge, heavy. I learned more about it as the event went along and it was fun to watch.”
As to the Paralympic sport of sled hockey, which features athletes missing most, if not all of at least one leg, Manley, a self-professed “hockey guy,” said he was equally curious about what the sport would look like.
“You ask yourself, ‘How do guys without legs play hockey?’” he said. “And pretty quickly, you find out that it’s still hockey, it’s just hockey played by guys without legs. The speed was very much more than I thought it would be. The hits these guys take were amazing. It was just a lot of fun to be a part of.”
Manley worked that venue with another director who is almost singularly involved in the de facto state religion of Alabama: football.
“But after he saw sled hockey, he said, ‘I’m going to have to watch this again,’” Manley said. “He wanted to do more hockey games. That kind of reeled him in.”
Working video boards is a craft Manley has honed for several years now, since he first started college at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Manley began as a computer science major there until his brother, helping operate a camera for UNO hockey games at the Qwest Center, introduced him to the behind-the-scenes technical work that keeps a sporting crowd enlivened and energized.
“I found that I really enjoyed it,” Manley said. “This is what I wanted to do.”
Manley started spending more and more time in an apprenticeship on the floor of the Qwest Center (now the CenturyLink Center), working more hockey games and Creighton University basketball games.
He changed his major at UNO, but continued to get more of an education doing the work.
“It took me a little while to graduate,” said Manley, who did earn a diploma in 2013. “I just kept working my way up through the ranks in the business. I was learning a lot right there.”
He picked up work when the College World Series came to town. He’s done Final Fours, Frozen Fours (the college hockey equivalent to the basketball tournament), and produced content for the National Hockey League’s New York Islanders and Florida Panthers, and the Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League.
Also on Manley’s resume are lines showing that Fox Sports, CBS and the Big Ten Network have solicited his services.
At 25, Manley continues to freelance, nabbing opportunities to do something new and hone his craft.
“You just throw your name out there and see what happens,” he said. “I’ll take whatever comes and be happy to do it.”
At the Olympics, Manley said the job was pretty cut-and-dried. Curling is not the kind of sport where people go wild with every slide of a stone.
But there were still moment when he was able to break out of just running replays of the last action on the ice.
Manley and his team came up with little set scenes — called interstitials in the biz — to get the crowd pumped up.
“We would occasionally use our ‘Great Sweeping’ and ‘Good Draw’ and ‘Nice Takeout’ interstitials,” he said. “During the gold and bronze matches when there was only one match, after great shots or after one end, we would use things like ‘Make Some Noise’ and ‘Get Loud.’”
Manley was also responsible for commercial promotions, daily recaps and music video sequences and, as curling is usually only something that lands in the average sports fan’s consciousness every four years, he also helped build a quick educational video.
Outside of the work, Manley was also able to indulge in a few things any traveler to Sochi would be hoping for, especially a hockey fan.
He took in the instant classic USA-Russia men’s hockey game that was decided 3-2 in favor of the Americans after an epic shootout pitting Team USA’s T.J. Oshie in a round for round net battle with another pair of NHL starts in Russia’s Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk.
“That was an unbelievable experience,” Manley said. “All that NHL talent there. For a hockey guy, I was hoping to just catch one hockey game. That was the one to catch.”
Manley said he didn’t experience any of the much ballyhooed infrastructural problems many journalists and tourists decried during the Games.
“Everyone in the media was concerned that this was going to be an unfriendly place, that the Russians weren’t really going to welcome anyone,” Manley said.
“And people in Russia, you heard, they had lived under circumstances that would make them maybe a little embittered. But being there was so much different that what anyone expected. You really had a younger population that was brought up in a different world. Everyone was so welcoming. There was so much positivity and happiness around the venues.”
Manley also missed out on most of the political drama that has unfolded since the Olympic flame went out over Sochi.
The Crimean crisis was just beginning in the closing days of the Paralympics, on the northern coast of the Black Sea. Sochi is situated on the sea’s eastern shores.
“There were a few days when we saw ships far out in the Black Sea,” Manley said. “But there was a feeling among most of the people that this was just another political mess. We kept an eye on the situation. We watched the news. But we never felt unsafe or scared.”
Manley has returned to his home in Papillion and is now on the lookout for the next big thing in his freelancing career.
He’s also holding in his mind the possibility that another Olympics might be on the horizon.
“I would hope I might get another chance at that,” he said. “It was a little intimidating at first, being the young kid in the room, the kid from Omaha. But I got a great experience and something that I can point to for other jobs. That’s what happens in this business. You keep going out, doing jobs. I hope that’s an experience I get to have again.”