Magazine article Insight on the News

That's Entertainment!

Magazine article Insight on the News

That's Entertainment!

Article excerpt

Sideshows, including suggestive dancers, booming sound systems and corporate giveaways, are becoming the main attraction at sporting events, overshadowing the games.

Sidney Lowe has seen it all: laser lights humming, acrobats tumbling, fireworks sizzling, dancing girls jiggling. 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.

Lowe's secret? He's the head coach of the National Basketball Association's (NBA's) Vancouver Grizzlies. 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 says. "It goes so long when you're sitting and waiting for the smoke to clear. Hey, let's just play basketball."

Too much? More like not enough. When it comes to the burgeoning field of "in-game entertainment" -- the gimmicks, pyrotechnics and promotions that drape the sports world like a red leather trench coat -- bread has long since given way to circus. From the National Football League (NFL) to the NBA to the solvent-for-the-time-being XFL, the shows are getting bigger, louder and cheesier all the time.

"What's happening is the blurring between sport and entertainment," explains 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."

It wasn't always this way. As recently as a decade ago, audiovisual "experiences" -- big speakers, bigger dance troupes, enough laser power to re-enact the climactic battle for the Death Star -- were largely the province of rock concerts and Super Bowl halftime shows. Sports were confined to smelly, rat-infested, decidedly unglamorous venues such as the old Boston Garden -- places that seemed to exist mostly so that corpulent men could drink beer and take off their shirts in public.

Somewhere along the line, possibly when Disney bought a hockey team, that tradition went out the window. 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," says Mark Tamar, director of game operations for the Washington Capitals pro hockey team. "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."

Games somehow are squeezed in between bombastic sound effects and goofy video snippets. In Los Angeles, the Lakers celebrate Shaquille 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. 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 Chicago, the roly-poly ox "Tuffy" gives way to a ferocious, steroidal Minotaur known simply as "Da Bull."

The extra attractions don't come cheap: Pregame shows can cost $25,000 to produce, and computer-generated sequences can run as much as $1,000 per second.

Given the effort and expense of in-game entertainment, why do teams bother? According to Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports, a Chicago-based sports marketing firm, sideshows simply are a way of justifying spiraling ticket prices to an increasingly blase audience. "Teams have to return some kind of value," says Williams. "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."

There's a dark side to in-game gimmicks: Done wrong, they can be distracting, even detrimental, to the very games they're meant to enhance. …

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