- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2001

Sidney Lowe has seen it all. Laser lights humming. Acrobats tumbling. Fireworks sizzling. Dancing girls jiggling (and giggling).
Night after night, venue after venue, he's privy to the best seat in the house, an up-close, front-and-center view that money just can't buy and he's not a roadie, a ringmaster, or in any way related to Liberace.
Lowe's secret? He's a basketball coach for the Vancouver Grizzlies, to be exact.
And as anyone who's been to a professional sporting event recently can attest, that's as good as being in the band.
"They have everything going on, from motorcycles coming in to guys coming down [from the rafters] on a rope," Lowe said. "When it goes so long, when you're sitting and waiting for the smoke to clear hey, let's just play basketball.
"I don't know the marketing side of things, so it's hard for me to question it. But sometimes it gets out of control. It's too much."
Too much? More like not enough. When it comes to the burgeoning field of "in-game entertainment" those Velveeta-y stadium-and-arena-based gimmicks, pyrotechnics and promotions that drape the sports world like a red leather trenchcoat Bread has long since given way to Circus. And from the NFL to the NBA to the solvent-for-the-time-being XFL, the shows are getting bigger, louder, and cheesier all the time:
Before their Monday night game against the Dallas Cowboys last September, the Washington Redskins had parachuters think the film "Red Dawn" land at midfield to deliver the game ball.
Like most NBA clubs, the Washington Wizards begin every game with an elaborate, computer-generated video clip; Washington's features a giant, ornery wizard detonating the opposing team's logo in a Manhattan Project-shaming ball of flame.
So far, the XFL's lap-dancing, player-romancing, silicone-enhancing cheerleaders have been a bigger draw than no-name players like Scott Milanovich and He Hate Me. Also, the league has Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura providing color commentary.
"What's happening is the blurring between sport and entertainment," said Rick Burton, Director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "Teams pay more attention to the food, shoot free T-shirts into the crowd out of hydro-pneumonic guns or whatever, have blimps dropping things, have the exotic laser light shows, do exotic things at halftime and between the periods. It's all to make games an event, an experience."

Under the big top

It wasn't always this way. As recently as a decade ago, audio-visual "experiences" big speakers, bigger dance troupes, enough laser power to reenact the climactic battle for the Death Star were largely the province of rock concerts and Super Bowl halftime shows.
Meanwhile, sports were confined to smelly, rat-infested, decidedly unglamorous venues like the old Boston Garden. Places that seemed to exist mostly so that corpulent men could take off their shirts and drink beer in public.
"It took the Celtics a long time to get into any of this," said Matt Williams, the Wizards' senior vice president of communications. "They used to be so traditional: Turn on the lights, throw out the ball and let's play."
Somewhere along the line possibly when Disney bought a hockey team; probably when Shaquille O'Neal inked a movie deal to play a rapping genie that tradition went out the window. Stadiums and arenas got nicer. Crowds became more upscale. And sports took on a showbiz sheen, one that owes more to Siegfried and Roy than Lombardi and Auerbach.
"You don't just go to black and have dead air," said Mark Tamar, the Capitals' director of game operations. "Something's gotta happen. The fans expect it. We've got all this stuff built, ready to go, so there's never a dead, dull moment."
Take player introductions. The Wizards employ a light-dimming, music-thumping, strobe-flashing sequence that wouldn't be out of place at a Capitol Ballroom rave. The Capitals play a Hollywood-quality film clip that spoofs "Mission: Impossible" better than the film spoofed itself.
And the Redskins? They pretty much go to 11: Fireworks, the aforementioned paratroopers, a giant inflatable helmet and the thunderous strains of "O Fortuna" from "Carmina Burana" everything save a pair of four-story-high, helium-filled pigs descending from the upper deck.
"I think back to Chicago, when they were winning championships," Lowe said. "They had that intro music that got you ready to go. Hopefully, you do something to get the crowd excited, get some energy in the building."
Looking for energy? Try bombastic sound effects. Or goofy video snippets. Or both. In Los Angeles, the Lakers celebrate O'Neal baskets with the theme from "Superman." Their opponent in last year's NBA Finals, the Indiana Pacers, favor the subtle, charming roar of an Indy car engine.
Closer to home, the Wizards run an outtake from "Gladiator" and a song sample that exhorts the team to "push the tempo." And when the Redskins aren't blasting "Monsters of Rock"-era metal, they're busy playing the timeless, "Who Let the Dogs Out."
(Here's a question: Who hasn't?)
Add in suggestive dancers, booming, monster truck-style public address announcers, a raft of corporate-sponsored giveaways and John Belushi angrily invoking the infamous day when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor over and over again and the average game has enough juice to power California. At least the blacked-out parts.
"We want you to go home exhausted," said Declan Bolger, the Capitals' senior vice president of business operations. "That's our goal, that you go home and fall asleep right away, because you've had a great time."
Indeed, sports today just aren't complete without someone leaning precipitously out of their seat, reaching in vain for a CO2-propelled T-shirt. Even the mascots are cranking it up: Most NBA teams now feature a pair of costumed clowns, one for laughs and one for high-flying slam dunks.
In Washington, the bumbling G-Wiz shares time with G-Man, a buffed-out, spandex-clad, sunglasses-wearing jam artist; in Chicago, roly-poly ox Tuffy gives way to a ferocious, steroidal Minotaur known simply as Da Bull.
"The reason why you do it is that you can't dunk in a giant costume," Williams said. "To make a mascot that's fun and fuzzy and great for kid's birthday parties is great, but you can't jump off a trampoline in that. And you've got to put the fake muscles on, because it's amazing how bad even a very fit guy can look in spandex."

The Ringmasters

The extra attractions don't come easy. On an average night, the Capitals deploy more than 30 people to handle game presentation, with Tamar acting as ringmaster. From a fourth-level platform at MCI Center, he orchestrates a 12-person video crew, the organ player, the public address announcer, a sound man, the scoreboard operator, the light crew and a 10-person group that roams the arena on foot, pumping up the crowd as needed.
Each contest is scripted down to the minute, with every bell, whistle and puck giveaway accounted for well ahead of time. Advance work is a must: The Capitals have already planned much of their St. Patrick's Day presentation.
Tamar also produces the team's original video clips, a labor-intensive task all its own. For a recent "photo album" segment on defenseman Sergei Gonchar, Tamar had to borrow snapshots from Gonchar's mother (who happens to live in Russia), film the pictures, edit them into a coherent sequence, add graphics and choose an appropriate background tune.
Total work time? More than a day. Total play time? About 30 seconds.
"People are amazed at the amount of time and effort we put in," Bolger said. "It's not like we show up 20 minutes before the game and say, 'What are we going to put on?' I'd put it on par with a live production on TV."
And like a television broadcast, game presentation isn't cheap. The Capitals' "Mission: Impossible" opener cost $25,000 to produce, and computer-generated sequences such as the Wizards' can run up to $1,000 per second.
"And don't forget the rights fees they're paying on these songs," Burton said. "Every time they play "Rock and Roll, Part II," Gary Glitter's making a few bucks."
Given the effort and expense of creating in-game entertainment, why do teams even bother? Williams credits a trio of factors: Increasing sophistication in sports marketing, greater competition for the entertainment dollar and the ever-expanding nexus of sports and showbiz.
"In basketball, we just cranked it up a notch," he said. "It went along with everything else in the NBA global expansion, great business, good attendance."
Added Bolger: "Consumer expectation has grown. Go back 10 years, and you bought a car with a radio. Now there's an expectation for a CD player. There's a greater level of service everywhere."
Others offer a more cynical explanation. According to sports business expert Bob Williams, sports sideshows are simply a way of justifying spiraling ticket prices to an audience that is increasingly blase.
"Teams have to return some kind of value," said Williams, president of Burns Sports, a Chicago-based sports marketing firm. "So they've gone to the gimmicks, the laser light shows, the sponsor giveaways. A lot of the corporate fan base is not really interested in the game.
"I've been a Chicago Bulls season ticket holder for years, and I can tell you that the crowd changed dramatically when they moved from the old stadium to the United Center. The crowd came later, left earlier, and didn't really follow what was happening [on the court]."
Regardless of the underlying motivation, there's no denying that a liberal sprinkling of game night Parmesan helps to draw fans. At least locally.
The Capitals have increased their actual attendance by 13 percent this season. The Wizards' average home attendance through 28 games this season is 15,480, up from 14,511 at the same point last year.
And the struggling Mystics? They've only been the WNBA's attendance champions for three consecutive seasons.
"The philosophy is let's get the fans here, show them a great time, and hopefully have them want to come back," said Wizards' vice president Williams. "On the business side, we can't worry about what happens on the court. We can't control it. So we have to show people a great time whether we're winning or losing."

When sportscheese attacks

Moments before the kickoff of January's NFL playoff game between Tennessee and Baltimore, the Adelphi Coliseum Jumbotron flashed a video clip entitled "A Special Message from Brian Billick and the Baltimore Ravens."
Prepared by Tennessee's marketing staff, the film showed the Ravens rejoicing in the aftermath of their 24-23 victory over the Titans on Nov. 12. The segment concluded with a shot of Billick mockingly waving a copy of a magazine that proclaimed Tennessee to be the league's best team.
Furious, the Ravens dumped the Titans 24-10. After the game, Billick blasted Tennessee for the video, dubbing it "totally classless."
"It's a battle I go through every night," Tamar said. "How much pump is too much pump?"
Tennessee's snafu illustrates the dark side of in-game gimmicks: Done wrong, they can be detrimental not to mention distracting to the very games they're meant to enhance. At halftime of a recent game at Minnesota, NBA referee Greg Willard had to ice his jaw after a acrobat mistakenly flip-kicked him during a timeout.
Or take last month's game-ending fracas between the Dallas Mavericks and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Thanks to a promotional deal with Taco Bell, fans at Reunion Arena receive a coupon good for a free chalupa whenever the Mavericks score 100 points or more in a home win.
With Dallas ahead of Cleveland 98-81 in the waning moments of a Feb. 15 contest, Mavericks forward Gary Trent scored a unnecessary basket. As the crowd chanted "cha-lu-pa," Cavs forward Wesley Person decked Trent presumably for running up the score triggering a melee that included Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
"You never want something like that to happen, but I guarantee you that the sponsorship guy that sold that deal was loving [it]," Williams said. "He probably went crazy, and they probably renewed his deal for next year."
More pump: In 1995, Orlando forward Horace Grant hyperextended his right knee after slipping on a wet court. During the Magic's next game, the team's marketing department in a fit of sensitivity had fans grease up and slide across the floor as part of a halftime promotion.
The stunt held up the game by 40 minutes, as players and coaches from both teams refused to play until the court was thoroughly cleaned.
"Anything that effects the play of the game is not good," said Sacramento Kings assistant Pete Carril.
Tell that to the Redskins. Following an Oct. 1 victory over Tampa Bay, the team was fined $20,000 for violating the NFL's crowd-noise policy. Shortly thereafter, local radio personality Bruce Kelley was dismissed as the team's on-field announcer after yelling "Ravens suck" over the stadium PA system during an Oct. 15 win over Baltimore.
"Back in Chicago, I saw Phil Jackson threaten the sound [crew]: 'Turn that damn volume down,' " said Wizards assistant coach John Bach, a Bulls assistant from 1985 to '93. "He used to put a big cover over his head, to register his protest with fireworks."
Maybe Jackson should have used an umbrella. Prior to the tipoff of their 1994-95 season opener, the San Antonio Spurs put on an indoor fireworks show in the Alamodome. The resulting haze set off the building's smoke alarms, triggering the arena's fire sprinklers and dousing fans for 15 minutes.
"With the fireworks, sometimes you see so much smoke out there you can't believe it," said Toronto Raptors coach Lenny Wilkens. "That part we could do without."
Blue smoke. Blistering soundtracks. Pregame video callouts. Rasslin' over chalupas. The XFL may be floundering, but somewhere, Vince McMahon is smiling. Sideshows are already the main attraction for the WWF. Is the rest of the sports world slouching toward … Thursday night "Smackdown!"?
"A purist will say that the game will always be the game, that athletes will always give great performances and the average person will always appreciate it," Burton said. "But the truth is that some of the moments of the game are being made secondary to the collateral entertainment."
When the Bulls a team that won six titles in the 1990s recently snapped a franchise-record 16-game losing streak against the equally inept Atlanta Hawks, streamers were shot off from each basket.
Afterward, Chicago vice president of business operations Steve Schanwald told reporters that he had picked up the idea from a Harlem Globetrotters game, and that he liked it so much he planned do it after every home victory. However infrequent.
"Once you start doing some of this stuff, you've got to do more of it and you've got to do it differently," Burton said. "So it becomes a lot like a spiraling heroin addiction. I'm inclined to believe that you'll see crazier and crazier stuff."
How crazy? Burton recalls attending a recent minor league soccer game in Portland, during which the home team rounded up a bevy of regional team and corporate mascots to compete in a halftime match.
"Halfway through, they stopped the game and all started wrestling," Burton said. "They dogpiled the Pillsbury Doughboy in this massive mascot heap. It was hilarious, the best thing I've ever seen."
At least for now.
Staff writer Eric Fisher contributed to this report.


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