South Florida novelist Carl Hiaasen set the climax of his 1986 Tourist Season at Miami's Orange Bowl, an event “as famous for its prodigal halftime production as for its superior brand of collegiate football.”

Hiaasen's fictional halftime show was themed “The World's a Stage” and featured “a throng of prancing, dancing, capering, miming, rain-soaked Broadway characters in full costume: bewhiskered cats, Yiddish fiddlers, gorgeous chorus girls, two Little Orphan Annies, three Elephant Men, a Hamlet, a King of Siam, and even a tap-dancing Willy Loman.”

Fifteen years' passage makes such a picture seem quaint, so enthusiastically has big-time sports pressed its marriage with big-time entertainment. Today, sports events of all types take place amid often-dazzling displays of show-biz pizzazz.

Barry Ostrowski, national sales manager for Las Vegas-based Light America, notes that sports events these days are competing with concerts, stage shows, and a host of other entertainment options; what's more, at $75, $100, and more apiece, sports tickets are comparable to those of major concerts and Broadway productions. So the entertainment component “is a high priority and becoming more of a priority. People want to be entertained.”

For examples, where better to start than with the mother of extravaganzas, the Super Bowl?

After a closely fought first half, tens of millions of viewers seized the chance to visit the restroom, refill the salsa dishes, and grab another beer. While they were at it, some 500 young volunteers swarmed onto the field to transform Tampa's Raymond James Stadium into a sophisticated concert venue, complete with nearly 500 lights (550,000W) plus trusses, computers, cables, pyro fixtures, and other special effects.

In less than five minutes, this small army turned a dozen tractor-trailers of gear into a stage on which Aerosmith, N'Sync, Britney Spears, and other superstars could strut their stuff.

It was the eighth Super Bowl for Vari-Lite International, and CEO Rusty Brutsché notes, “Every year it has become more sophisticated. They wanted a spectacular, concert-level production, but we only had four minutes to set it up,” he explains, adding that this kind of production normally would require a full 12-hour day with a team of professionals.

The key to success was to break up the job so that each volunteer had only one or two things to do, then rehearse the sequence intensely — out in the parking lot. “We had only one chance to rehearse on the field itself,” Brutsché says. The first rehearsal took 25 minutes, but after two weeks, the crew had it down below five.

This kind of streamlining, though, would not have been possible without computer technology — in this case, the Vari*Lite Virtuoso console, which enabled “virtual rehearsals” in which all cues were preset and the entire network of components fine-tuned before it was even loaded on trucks.

“Everyone is desperate to increase the entertainment value of [sporting events] because the competition is so intense.”
Rusty Brutsché, Vari-Lite International

Vari-Lite has also staged major productions for the National Basketball Association All-Star Game, the NBA College Draft, and a variety of other events. “The trend is to add more and more showbiz to sports,” Brutsché says. “Everybody is desperate to increase the entertainment value of these things because the competition is so intense.”

Wanted: More Involved Spectators

The NFL, in fact, isn't intense enough for some fans or promoters. Hence the recent debut of the XFL, the joint creation of NBC and the World Wrestling Federation. “Part of the problem [WWF head] Vince McMahon sees with the NFL is it squelching the entertainment value,” says Jim Anderson, general manager of Total RF, which is supplying wireless video cameras and microphones for XFL coverage.

The “gentility” of the NFL may have been underlined last October when the Washington Redskins, following their game against the Baltimore Ravens, were fined $20,000 by the NFL because their public address announcer had made, er, excessively unflattering comments about Ravens fans.

At XFL games, which began on February 3, “they want the fans in the stands to have the kind of mindset they have at wrestling,” Anderson says. Creating this mindset will involve numerous wireless cameras that “can go where cabled cams can't,” Anderson says, delivering closeups and searching the stands for particularly demonstrative spectators. The public address system for XFL games, he adds, has been designed to “keep the fans very actively involved.”

Fans of the NBA's Houston Rockets are also invited to achieve a frenzy at the opening of that team's home games at Compaq Center, notes David Spear of Classic Fireworks. “We try to get them to a fever pitch with music, lighting, pyro effects, anything we can do,” he explains.

One highlight of the Rockets' player introductions is — rockets, of course. Classic Fireworks rigs a series of ultra-thin steel cables from the backboards up to the catwalks near the arena's ceiling. Eight miniature rockets, trailing red sparks, shoot upward along these cables at the conclusion of the introductions. “It's just to bring that fan excitement one level higher,” Spear says. “With indoor pyro, the purpose is always to enhance what's already happening,” he adds. “Outdoor pyro can stand by itself.”

One place pyro is standing proudly is minor league baseball. “Fireworks have gotten huge all over the country,” Spear says. Six different pyro companies exhibited at a recent trade show for baseball executives, he adds. Whereas fireworks were once limited to opening night and the Fourth of July, he notes, lately they've been turning up more and more frequently.

One big attraction for management, Spear says, is “Fireworks keep people in their seats until the end of the game, even if the home team is getting beat 10-nothing.” That's good news both for player morale and for concession operators.

“Hockey has also gotten crazy for pyro,” Spear continues, noting his company has staged fireworks displays with devices clamped to the goal frames and attached, by suction cups, to the glass wall encircling the rink.

The launch last fall of the NHL's expansion Columbus Blue Jackets in Ohio provided the occasion both for a one-night extravaganza and for a sophisticated multimedia installation designed to sell season tickets. Potential ticket buyers could visit a 20' × 40' scale model of the Nationwide Arena, then under construction. There, they could sit in actual arena seats and watch a projected simulation of hockey action on the “rink” below. Lights, sound effects, and a scale-model scoreboard all contributed to the illusion — as did transducers that shook the seats, making guests feel part of a roaring, enthusiastic game-night crowd.

“We brought a little bit of Hollywood into it,” says Dale McClintock, president of FusionArts, which designed and installed the simulator. “And it was very successful. They sold tickets faster than any previous franchise ever had.”

For opening night, FusionArts installed a permanent array of intelligent lights, together with a temporary installation of four Christie Digital Roadie 10K projectors. The 10,000 ANSI lumen projectors were mounted high above the rink to project downward onto two 30' × 40' target areas.

“The ice gives images a soft, diffused look and makes it appear as if the images are projected into the ice rather than just on the surface,” McClintock says. Content created especially for the event included a video look back on the history of hockey, stars of yesteryear, and photos of Blue Jackets players as they were introduced.

Part of FusionArts' design for the season ticket sales facility was a mockup of a typical VIP suite, featuring large plasma screens for video display. More than 500 video displays are scattered throughout the arena, McClintock says.

More Action Outside the Arena

In fact, highlighting the action in the arena is just part of the explosion of sports-connected entertainment. Light America specializes in exterior lighting, and recently provided a 50,000W color searchlight along with a dozen other searchlights for the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. Shining against the exterior of the Thomas & Mack Center at the University of Nevada/Las Vegas, as well as into the night sky, the devices created “an umbrella of light.” Such color washes and other architectural illumination are increasingly common, says Ostrowski.

David Sorin, CEO of Current Events International, notes major sports events also provide the occasion for innumerable corporate hospitality events, which can become extremely sophisticated. “We've done light shows for the Philadelphia 76ers and other teams,” Sorin says, but he notes that teams with lots of home games often don't have the budget to make a big splash every time. One-off events like Bowl games and the NCAA's basketball Final Four, on the other hand, bring out the host in a lot of sponsors.

A party staged by Current Events and the Vega Group of New Orleans for the sponsor Nokia at the 2001 Sugar Bowl, for example, used more than 100 intelligent lights, along with pyro effects, and a concert-quality sound system supporting two bands performing for 2,500 partygoers at the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium. “It's just a way of making it memorable,” Sorin says, “something people really want to go to.”

And if these hospitality events may not seem directly connected to action on the field or in the arena, they are nonetheless raising expectations that the actual games will be as entertaining as the peripheral events.