The Fan Experience | Part 1

A Garden party

Nowadays, the games are just part of the show

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / March 8, 2009
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It's almost tipoff at the TD Banknorth Garden: Celtics-Lakers. NBA finals rematch. Historic rivalry renewed.

Let the showdown begin.

And the show.

Before the final buzzer, 300 crowd shots will be broadcast, along with 45 game-action replays on the high-definition Jumbotron. The Garden DJ will play 125 songs at rock concert volume. The Celtics cheerleaders will fire 40 T-shirts into the stands by air gun. On the court, four promotions will fill timeouts, along with three dance routines by a squad of young women wearing considerably less clothing than normal for a cold winter night. Halftime will feature a similarly-clad female unicyclist tossing bowls from the tip of her bright red shoe onto her head.

Oh, yes, and there will be 48 minutes of very good basketball, plus overtime. Don't forget that.

Love it or hate it, today's professional sports contests are about much more than the game, especially when it comes to NBA basketball. A sensory jolt of high volume sound and showmanship greets fans the minute they enter arenas. It doesn't let up until they leave.

Holding fan attention can be hard, and the business stakes are high. Modern pro teams can't afford to risk a deadspot in the spectacle. So they invest millions in what they call "game presentation," constantly seeking new ways to keep the show fresh. They don't dare take customer loyalties for granted, particularly with younger fans accustomed to a blur of sound and sight and buffet of entertainment options that don't cost $75 or more for a decent seat.

And they do all this knowing that the latest in game presentation can be hard to take for fans whose loyalties are passed generation to generation, and who may be nostalgic for the days when Garden entertainment meant John Kiley at the organ and fans cheering without Jumbotron prompts.

"Some of us who were brought up in the purest sense of the game find some game enhancements may not be as great as some people think they are," said NBA commissioner David Stern, whose league has a huge stake in the younger fan base but whose personal sympathies often tilt toward the traditionalists. "When the music gets too loud and you feel the heat on your eyebrows from pyrotechnics, you know a team has gone overboard."

Kelly Higgins of North Attleborough doesn't understand the debate over fired-up game presentation. When the 20-year-old won tickets to a Celtics game last season, she tried to give them away. She found no takers and went to her first NBA contest.

"When I got back I couldn't tell you who played, but I could remember everything they did on the Jumbotron," said Higgins, who is now eager to use her boyfriend's season-ticket package. "The atmosphere was so much fun. Everyone was so excited. If it wasn't that way, it would be boring. It's not just about basketball. It's everything."

Even in Boston, where many fans place special value on history and tradition, stage-managing game presentation is a priority for all pro teams. From the Red Sox with their carefully choreographed pregame rituals to the Patriots with their booming music and musket blasts, teams increasingly view the orchestrated spectacle as very good -indeed, essential - for business.

"We're quite confident that if we did not make an effort to entertain fans, the building would not be full and we would not have won Banner 17," said Wyc Grousbeck, the Celtics principal owner. "We're about entertainment and winning banners. We think they go together and last year was the proof.

"If we dialed down the game entertainment, we wouldn't have the third-highest gate in the league. The fans kept coming even in years when we weren't particularly good. Game entertainment was part of that."

Controlling the atmosphere
Inside the Garden's ninth-floor control room, 41 high-definition monitors operate at dizzying speed. Crowd shots, noise prompts, player statistics, and dancer close-ups flash across screens. Commands delivered via headsets direct cameramen stationed around the arena. Start wide. Standby on C. More crowd. Images jump from the control room to the Jumbotron. Rocky theme music fades into hip-hop tracks suggested by players.

While NBA guidelines keep all forms of entertainment from exceeding 95 decibels - about as loud as standing next to a jack hammer - the "noise meter" appears at crucial junctures and provokes high-pitched, lung-straining, ear-splitting screams. Some wonder if the tipping point between show and game has been reached, when young children appear on Jumbotrons looking delighted to be televised, but wearing earplugs to block out noise? Is a modern-day Circus Maximus what most fans want and expect?

"If you look at the way 'Ozzie and Harriet' was filmed compared to the way 'Sex in the City' is presented, you see the world of entertainment has changed," said Major League Baseball president and chief operating officer Bob DuPuy. "Sports are compelled to keep up with that changing environment. Sometimes it works. And sometimes it can backfire."

While teams share tips on what works best, the South Beach club vibe fueled by techno music at Miami Heat games doesn't make sense for many other NBA franchises. Explanations of NHL rules are helpful in newer markets such as Nashville and unnecessary in cities with strong hockey traditions. NFL games in 80,000-seat outdoor stadiums require broader strokes than NBA games in 18,000-seat arenas. A championship-caliber team plays to a different audience than a perennial loser. A Friday night crowd differs from one on Sunday afternoon.

League and team executives from all four major professional sports know game presentation cannot please everybody. Still, they consider harsh critics of current entertainment practices a "vocal minority," though that number famously included Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach, who particularly disliked dancers and noise levels that made conversation impossible.

"You're dealing with a different type of consumer today," said NHL director of events and entertainment Martin McCreary, who has presented everything from the Super Bowl to beach volleyball to the Bassmaster Classic. "People expect an entertainment experience. We're in the entertainment business. Whatever we can do to make contact with fans and give them more than they expected, that's our job. And what people expect from you, ramps up every year."

Especially given the current economy. Fans are looking for value. Among team and league officials, the "value added" game experience has become a popular talking point.

Celtics' fan surveys show 92 percent of all attendees are satisfied or extremely satisfied with game presentation. The same can be said for 81 percent of season ticket-holders. Of all attendees who consider entertainment important, 70 percent indicated they likely would come back because of game presentation.

The Celtics' numbers don't reveal how many attendees dislike game presentation, but clearly their feelings aren't strong enough to make them stay home or give up season tickets.

"I've silently accepted the fact that this is the way it is and I have to deal with it," said 49-year-old Chuck Stevenson of Plymouth, who has attended Garden games since the late 1960s and finds noise prompts most annoying. "If I want to see a good basketball game with a good team, I have to put up with the sensory overload."

Added 12-year Celtics season ticket-holder Kathy Wolf of Dublin, N.H.: "I go for the game. I tune out the rest of it. I guess everybody has to keep up with the Joneses."

While difficult to pinpoint when and where the game presentation buildup began, the financial motivations behind it are easy to understand. The tossed T-shirts, the birthday wishes broadcast on Jumbotrons, the free tacos when the home team tops 100 points, the seat upgrades, the trivia questions, the first pitch ceremonies are all brought to you by one or more sponsors.

Sponsors play key role
"In terms of cost-benefit analysis, game presentation is a slam dunk," said Smith College sports economist Andrew Zimbalist. Noting the average NBA player makes $5 million per season, he called pay for dancers and programmers a "trivial expense." But it is those dancers, who make on average $100 per game, and programmers who help game presentation express team personality.

"When game presentation is done well, it's a reflection of the team's brand," said Chris Granger, the NBA's senior vice president for team marketing and business operations.

And franchises cannot put too high a price on brand loyalty.

"We've revived first pitch ceremonies with gusto," said Red Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino of productions that honor veterans, cancer survivors, and Olympic athletes. "They enable us to market the brand and celebrate certain values, reinforce messages we'd like to communicate to our fans.

"The Red Sox didn't always sell out and they may not always sell out in the future. We've got to stay vigilant, make sure we provide fans with a team worthy of their support and the experience they want. We think there is a key brand loyalty that exists right now and we want to perpetuate it for a long time to come."

The history-filled countdown videos played immediately before Celtics and Bruins games capture each team's essence. The Celtics' video clocks in at 15 minutes, nearly twice as long as any other in the NBA because there are 50-plus years of history, and 17 championships, to cover. The Bruins' video starts with a movie theater-style opening and runs five minutes.

Some teams forgo countdown videos altogether. The Anaheim Ducks once opened with firemen rappelling from the arena rafters.

In the NFL, where game presentation guidelines are strictest and massive stadiums present logistical challenges, pre-approved touchdown celebrations present an obvious opportunity to display team personality. At Gillette Stadium, the costumed End Zone Militia fires muskets when the Patriots score, a salute to the team and the region's shared Revolutionary War history.

"It should be about the excitement," said Amy Latimer, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Bruins. "We're better off giving fans something they want with a sponsor attached to it, than jamming an ad down their throat."

Organized chaos is the goal
Ultimately, game presentation is still a giant judgment call by individual franchises subject to the taste of thousands of fans. Teams constantly evaluate what works and what doesn't.

The Celtics parted ways with the man who played Lucky the mascot in late January and will reevaluate bringing in another dunking leprechaun after the season. On the subtler side, the Celtics' dancers perform fewer routines than when they debuted in 2006, days after Auerbach died. The Celtics were the last NBA team to add dancers.

The real juggling acts take place behind the closed doors of conference rooms and control rooms. The day before a Celtics game, marketing executives and game presentation directors finalize a 75-page script. They plot out promotions. They review music selections for timeouts. They want well-organized chaos.

"Trying to keep track of everything going on is like air traffic control," said Celtics director of game presentation Sean Sullivan. "It happens so fast and we have to stay one timeout ahead."

NBA games typically last 2 1/2 hours, leaving 102 minutes of downtime to fill. Game presentation directors take each sport's natural rhythm and drama into consideration when making decisions about what music to play and what video to show.

"Do I want to do a fan cam after Tom Brady fumbles?" said Patriots entertainment content manager Jason Dvorkin. "No, I don't, because you won't get the correct reaction. If we're on defense and it's third down, we know we need the excitement up. We'll play a song like 'Welcome to the Jungle' because the crowd knows once that song starts, this is something big, important, let's get loud.

"It's about being on top of what's happening on the field and what needs to be accomplished in the game and making those decisions quickly," Dvorkin said.

In the bigger picture, game presentation goals for all pro teams are the same: Energize and engage fans to create a true home advantage. Present promotions in an entertaining way. Showcase players and their personalities. Give the crowd a communal experience that can't be replicated anywhere else. Don't offend.

In addition to capping decibel levels and putting safety first during pyrotechnic displays, league guidelines generally prohibit videos that mock the visiting team or might incite hostilities. When a player is seriously injured or a controversial play takes place, teams cannot show multiple replays. No music or lighting effect can disrupt the visiting team. Violations result in fines.

During overtime of the Celtics-Lakers game, Garden control room director John Mitchell bounced from his seat on the ninth floor to an open window. He took the temperature of the crowd every possession, calling for the "De-fense" chant each time the Lakers touched the ball. The noise meter appeared during timeouts. The Rocky theme returned with 16 seconds left.

"The fans normally take over," said Mitchell. "It's really their show."

For a moment, it seemed as if Mitchell believed he could will the Celtics to victory with crowd noise. With a push from the control room, the Garden reached its loudest collective scream of the evening.

But on this night, thanks to a force beyond Mitchell's or the Celtics' control - a force named Kobe Bryant - it would not be enough.

Shira Springer can be reached at Coming tomorrow in sports: How technology may enhance the fan experience.

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