Taylor Swift's Reputation Tour plays Papa John's Cardinal Stadium Saturday, with more than 45,000 people expected on campus.
Taylor Swift's Reputation Tour plays Papa John's Cardinal Stadium Saturday, with more than 45,000 people expected on campus.

How do you get a 10-time Grammy Award winner to play on your college campus? To start, you need a mix of knowing the right people, having the right facility and being in the right location.

Such is the case for Taylor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour, which comes to Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium Saturday. The show – which kicks off at 7 p.m. with opening acts Camila Cabello and Charli XCX – is expected to bring 45,000-plus highly animated fans to the University of Louisville. 

“I can’t tell you what will be louder, the sound system or the deafening screams. (Swift) puts on a great show and it is loud. I expect the same thing to happen here on Saturday,” said Michael Ortman, UofL stadiums manager.

Saturday will mark the second Taylor Swift show that he has helped facilitate. The first was her Red Tour in 2012, when he worked at Soldier Field in Chicago. Ortman has 21 years of experience working at stadium venues, five of which have been at UofL. He has worked on tours from U2’s The Joshua Tree Tour at Papa John’s Stadium last year to the Rolling Stones’ Bridges to Babylon Tour in the late 90s. His first concert as a UofL employee was Kenny Chesney’s Big Revival Tour in 2015.

“No one show is the same. I think this Saturday will be my 36th stadium concert. I’ve done eight Rolling Stones shows, four U2 shows, several Dave Matthews shows, Bon Jovi, Kid Rock, Beyonce, NSync,” he said. “Nothing’s ever the same. It’s fun.”

His connections led to a conversation in 2015 with Chesney’s management group, which is the same group that manages Swift’s tour. The team was able to experience the venue and operations, and Swift’s tour manager noted that he wanted to put Louisville “on the route.”

“You never really know until things come into play. We didn’t officially start talking to them about this show until August, September – less than a year ago,” Ortman said.

Of course, with the stadium’s ongoing construction, the conversation had to include some added logistics.

“We were upfront with them about everything, including access restrictions. Same with U2 last year. Nobody came in and didn’t know, but we are still able to provide what they need and so we were able to work through those logistics,” Ortman said.

Swift’s team did a site tour in the end of May, which gave them a glimpse into construction workaround details – storage, trucks, access, dressing rooms, etc. 

Because football operations are now in the building, the event team had to scramble to find dressing room alternatives. They secured five RVs and a 20-foot-by-20-foot tent to build dressing rooms for Swift and her performers. For the opening acts, they set up areas in the press box area.

“Sometimes you have to think outside the box to get them the space they need,” Ortman said.

Ortman has worked 12-plus-hour days along with his team – Andrew McClung, director of stadium operations, Erika Fitzgerald, director of ticket operations, Mike Morris, lead on Physical Plant, and many others – prepping for this show while managing a variety of other events at the stadium and other facilities throughout campus. For the concert, his team staffs medical, police, security, parking, arranges cooling stations and provides the tour team with what they need.

Swift’s stadium tour entails 80 total semi-trucks – 53 for production, including audio/video and lighting; 20 steel trucks to build the stage; and the rest for generators, merchandise, etc. The crew started laying the floor last weekend. The steel structure should be done Thursday, and the specific features for this show – a snake pit, for example – go up on Friday.

“By the end of day Friday, the production will be put together. When it gets dark, her team will run through the lighting and everything else to work out the bugs,” Ortman said. “This is Taylor’s first show since her Europe performances, so they’ll spend until 3 a.m. or so getting everything run out.”

Also on Friday, the 8,500 seats will be set up. About 50 UofL students are helping with this logistic, and the seating provider is making a payment to their student organizations of choice. When the show ends around 11 p.m. Saturday, UofL students will also help take down those chairs.

“The building will be empty by 11:45 to midnight. By 4 a.m., the 53 production trucks will be on the road to the next show,” Ortman said. “It is organized chaos.”

Showcasing UofL

Ortman adds that Louisville’s centralized location is appealing to tour managers because it is close to other mid-major cities, such as Indianapolis, and allows fans an opportunity to see a show without having to travel to a city like Chicago.

“Our location is a big benefit, especially with routing as tours are going from space to space. I’m hoping we can continue to be on that radar,” he said. “If we’re on that radar, opportunities exist for us to be known as ‘UofL gets it. Let’s go there to play a show.’”

The benefits extend beyond location, however. Securing a major act like Taylor Swift or U2 exposes UofL to fans who may otherwise never have that opportunity. On UofL’s official Twitter channel, for example, one fan noted they were coming in from Japan, and another from Canada. This opportunity is not lost on Ortman.

“Especially with Taylor’s demographic – that 12-to-35-year-old age group – this gives us the chance to show ourselves off and maybe put UofL in their minds when they’re thinking about colleges a few years from now,” he said. “That is a benefit you can’t put a value to. If bringing in acts like this allows us to bring in more people and be successful, I’d do it every day if I could.”

Starting Monday, however, Ortman will pivot back to football and getting construction completed by the first home game Sept. 8.

“Once everything is moved out of this building, it’ll be like nothing ever happened,” he said. “And we’ll move on to make sure we’re doing what we can to keep this place busy.”

Alicia Kelso
Alicia Kelso is the director of social media and digital content. She joined UofL in 2015 as director of communications at the Brandeis School of Law. She also serves as a senior contributor at Forbes.com, writing about the restaurant industry, which she has covered since 2010. Her work has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Bloomberg, The Seattle Times, Good Morning America and Franchise Asia Magazine.