You never forget the first time you embarrass yourself in front of 40,000 people. Mine happened in mid-June 2009.
I was in the midst of watching the Minnesota Twins trounce the Pittsburgh Pirates at the Metrodome during the marshmallowy structure's final season as a baseball venue. My younger brother was sitting immediately to my left, my younger sister to my right. During a lull in the action, my brother and I began discussing in game crowd entertainment.
He had interned with the minor league St. Paul Saints the previous summer, and I was hungry to know the secrets of in-game entertainment. Daryl Strawberry was standoffish when he visited on a gimmick night, he told me, as was Bill Murray. The team had a trained young pig named Boar-ack O'Ham-a as a mascot that would deliver a bag of balls to the umpire to start home games, and one time the pig got confused and ran to my brother along the foul line and sat at his feet with the bag of balls slung over his shoulders, looking at him expectantly.
The conversation turned to scoreboard gags, specifically the infamous "KissCam." If you've ever been to a sporting event that warrants a jumbotron, you're familiar with this gag- during a break in the action, two unexpecting gamegoing partners are captured by the stadium's roving, insatiable cameras and their likeness is displayed on the arena's Jumbotron. Around the photo, a clip art border of hearts, birds, flowers and other images evocative of romance appears. The strains of a love song begin playing, tinny, over the stadium's speakers. The KissCam's victims are ensnared, and the next five seconds of the filmed fans' lives will determine whether or not the 40,000 or so others in attendance cheer their image or shower them with disapproving boos.
I'm not a big fan of appearing on camera partly due to my membership in the Witness Protection Program and partly due to my hatred of seeing myself on camera, so I thought I could tap my brother for the Secrets of the Camera and avoid ever being captured, especially in a context wherein I'd be pressured to make out in front of a bunch of people.
He explained that the camera operators at his former employer's field would look for two opposite sex people sitting next to each other who seem engaged in conversation.
"So, if they saw two people moving their arms like THIS," he said, gesticulating wildly over my lapspace, "that would get their attention and the camera people might think those people were dating or something."
"Fascinating," I said, going along with his joke and returning the wild, over the top gestures, "So if I just sat there and waved my arms around at someone for a good portion of the game, I might get on the KissCam?"
"Yes," he responded.
Not more than five minutes later, strains of a love song began playing over the Dome's speakers and the stadium's camera operators began showcasing a parade of unsuspecting couples on the giant TV in the outfield. Aw, cute. Elderly couple. Aw, gross, young makeout couple. Aw... shit. Me. And my brother. On the KissCam.
My whole gamegoing life, I'd dreamed of what I'd do in this scenario, but seeing my image made gigantic caused me to react in an unprecedented way. I turned bright red, began laughing uncomfortably, and put my head on my knees as though I was going to be sick. My sister didn't miss a beat and high fived my brother over my back. People booed. The camera moved on to the next couple. And that was it.
It's a sports fan's worst nightmare or the culmination of a lifelong love affair with attention to appear on a giant screen and encouraged to act stupid, and it doesn't take a degree in statistics to understand that the more games you attend, the greater the likelihood you'll one day be captured by the KissCam or another fancam scoreboard gag. If you're a baseball fan like me and everyone else with a dad who had an unspoken "playing catch after dinner" rule, you're undoubtedly spending at least a few hours of your summer settled comfortably in the molded plastic cradle of a major league stadium's seats. Eventually, the cameras will probably get you, too. But why? And how can you avoid the camera, if you're shy?
I spoke with Jeff Syznal, one of the good people who makes sure your scoreboard is anything but boring for the Chicago White Sox, and even though the team is a bitter rival of my beloved Minnesota Twins, he took some time out of a busy gameday to share a little about the KissCam with me (he also was kind enough put my name up on the scoreboard during Thursday night's game between the Sox and Twins, which caused me squealing and jumping around and pointing out my name on the scoreboard to strangers around me).
According to Syznal, giant video screens were introduced to American baseball stadiums in 1982 when the Los Angeles Dodgers installed one in Dodger Stadium. The White Sox were the second team to Jumbotron up, and as soon as large video screens came into play, teams started using them to fill the frequent gaps in baseball games, which aren't the fastest moving of sporting events, especially if you're impatient or six years old. The 90-second gap between innings can be agonizing to the modern overstimulated and attention span-less fan, and the scoreboard gag was born.
Syznal explained that when queueing up for a fan-cam bit, his camera operators look for people who are engaged with each other and with the game and who look unlikely to embarrass themselves or the team (AKA: not sloppy). After all, people consume alcohol at sporting events, and alcohol makes people act like jerks sometimes, especially when they know that a lot of people are paying attention to them (see: Mardi Gras). "This is a family atmosphere," he explained. "People bring their kids to games."
Not so with the St. Paul Saints. Chuck Richards, video board operator for the team, told me that while initially selecting couples was a random scramble, as the crew got used to the KissCam segment, his camera operators looked for the most sloppy or most attractive couples to feature, as they tend to get the best crowd reaction.
At US Cellular Field here in Chicago, fixed crowd-roving cameras sit at a low level at first and third base and high behind home plate. Additionally, a wireless camera operator circulates around the stadium filming Jumbotron-appropriate shenanigans for breaks in the action.
Unlike the Saints, who picked couples out before the start of the KissCam segment, the White Sox pick their showcase-able couples live, which adds to the probability that those featured might do something embarrassing.
It's also a gamble for the Sox to put a couple on camera, as they might not be romantically involved. Brother and sister pairs are occasionally erroneously featured, as well as couples that aren't on a date. Occasionally same sex couples will turn and kiss their partners rather than the other person featured on the KissCam. Dustin Hoffman and Jason Bateman had a nice little makeout moment on the Jumbotron at a Celtics game earlier this year. And of course, there's undoubtedly the occasional faux-Sapphic exhibitionist who kisses another woman for titillation. Couples that tend to get the best reaction at US Cellular Field are the elderly.
Some stadiums allow people to pay a fee to pre-arrange camera time if they'd like to do the ever-ill-advised midgame in stadium Jumbotron proposal, but the Sox do not.
"You have to be careful when you do the KissCam," Syznal explained warily, "it's kind of a dangerous feature."
The White Sox don't feature same sex couples on their KissCam, but the Chicago Blackhawks do. One female colleague of mine reported that she and her entire row of college-aged female friends were once featured on the KissCam at the United Center. When they didn't kiss each other, the crowd booed.
My colleague and I aren't the only ones with KissCam booing stories; my parents, who are still pretty into each other, were once featured during a Target Field segment and instead of kissing pretended to commiserate over my dad's scorecard. They were also on the receiving end of stadium boos, but my dad got a kick out of it, because if there's anything that dads love, it's trolling the youths.
If you're a gamegoer or you anticipate being dragged to a sporting event against your will by a friend or lover who is a sports fan, take note: if you don't want to be caught on camera and encouraged by the crowd to kiss, don't look totally into the game. Don't wear a crazy outfit. Go with someone of the same sex. Avoid the fixed and roving cameras. And don't gesticulate wildly next to the person next to you, especially if he's your brother.