Mavs fans: Don't stop the music
By JEFF CAPLAN
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
DALLAS -- The night the music died inside American Airlines Center, Mavericks fans, apparently disoriented by the anachronism of sneakers squeaking on hardwood, basketballs thumping and players grunting, told owner Mark Cuban to pump up the volume.
During the Dec. 30 game against Golden State, Cuban silenced every last note of ear-splitting music that's normally incessantly piped in over the Mavs' PA system -- a direct response to a remark NBA commissioner David Stern made last month about the abundance of artificial noise filling the league's arenas.
The experiment triggered a decisive fan reaction directed to Cuban's inbox.
"Ten to 1," Cuban said, "against the sneakers and for the music."
The sensory assault of recorded music, an alternating cacophony of blaring rock, hip-hop and R&B that's often blasted near the decibel level of a jet airliner and played nearly throughout the entirety of actual game action, has emerged as a staple at just about every NBA arena over the past five years.
"People got really used to that and comfortable with it," said Steve Letson, Mavs vice president of operations. "So now, when it's quiet, it's like, 'Geez, what's going on? Something's wrong.'"
Letson, with the Mavs for 22 years, remembers simpler days at Reunion Arena, when a drum beat enticed fans into the chant, "Dee-Fense," or a trumpet urged the crowd to scream, "Charge!"
Now, Letson sits courtside for every home game. His headset keeps him in communication with a DJ, who shuffles through an immense inventory of songs, as well as the operators of the scoreboard LED screens, which display movie clips and other noisy prompts.
Often, Letson takes cues from the owner, sitting along the baseline, flashing hand signals like a conductor to crank things up.
"Quite honestly, there's a balance there," Letson said. "Sometimes we don't give the fans a chance. We bombard them with so much fan prompts that you don't know if they're saying anything or not."
Stern apparently has been wondering the same thing. Or, at least, a questioner on an ESPN Web chat last month got Stern to thinking.
Stern was asked why PA systems are allowed to pipe in music during games: "If home fans can't get pumped up and make noise on their own, there is something really wrong with your league. The game should be the entertainment."
Stern said, "I agree," and added, "Unfortunately, most of our teams don't and think that the fans like the entertainment. We're trying to find a few games to experiment with, for teams to give us a 'silent night,' so to speak."
Always eager to set the trend -- he, after all, helped usher in this new age of constant noise and in-game entertainment -- Cuban, initially opposed to Stern's idea, decided to indulge the commissioner.
"I figured if it worked, great," Cuban said. "If not, it would put all the discussion to bed."
Interestingly, since Stern's rather innocuous answer on the chat, teams have begun to examine their in-game entertainment operation.
"I don't believe we're ever going to go back to an environment where we're not playing any music," said Brian Byrnes, the SuperSonics' vice president of sales and marketing, "but there's enough people talking about maybe too much in-game entertainment, maybe too much music, maybe too many things happening. I think we're all realizing that maybe the consumer has just gotten a little tired of just music all the time."
That's what Cuban set out to find out. But fan reaction was apparently so one-sided to the silent treatment, Cuban said, that at the next home game against Portland, the usual Rolling Stones song, Start Me Up, accompanied the entirety of the Mavs' first possession. The normal music onslaught was then gradually worked in.
And it will be back in force for Saturday's game against Minnesota, Letson said, because that's what Cuban has determined the ticket-buying customer wants, even expects.
"As they've priced themselves so highly, people expect entertainment for their dollar," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "And, they don't necessarily want the risk of walking into a game that's so boring because of the product on the floor that there's nothing else to enhance the entertainment value of being there."
These days, the Mavs are an entertaining product without penetrating deep inside the public's ear drums.
But teams have long been in search of ways to pump up the home crowds and produce louder, advantageous noise levels.
Jeff Scalf, the Indiana Pacers' vice president of game operations, piped in the roaring sound of an Indy race car when the Pacers were on defense during the 1994 season.
So many teams complained that the deafening sound was a distraction that the league outlawed it. A few years later, the Chicago Bulls were at the center of a noise complaint. Teams became frustrated when the Bulls played a musical tape for the duration of the opponents' possession, though there was a rule against music being played while the home team is on defense.
Today, home teams can play a drum beat or some other electronic-induced prompt on defense and actual songs, with lyrics, while on offense, a setup Cuban believes enhances the game's experience for fans, especially younger ones.
"We're going to go wherever our customers tell us to go, but in the interim, we'll try to mix it up and see if there's a better solution," Cuban said. "The whole goal is to find a better scenario, but you can't find one until you experiment."
So far, it does not appear that Stern has requested any teams to go silent for a night or two. There is at least a plan in the works to incorporate the idea into the NBA's Hardwood Classic Nights that celebrate the history of the NBA, "using only old-school organ music for fan prompts," NBA entertainment executive vice president Gregg Winik said.
While the NBA and its teams might never be able to please all of its fans all of the time, a reduction in noise levels might even find common ground with some of its players.
"I kind of like it a little quiet sometimes," said the Mavs' Jerry Stackhouse. "There is time for music in the regular season on those nights where there isn't that much energy in the building. In the postseason, you may not need it as much."
In the meantime, pack some ear plugs.
Jeff Caplan, (817) 390-7760 firstname.lastname@example.org