WASHINGTON — As the University of Maryland and University of Virginia basketball teams gathered by their benches late in the first half Sunday, a few middle-aged men in Room 0427 — the “Video Scoreboard Control Room” — tried to inject some mid-afternoon romance into a basketball gymnasium.
“Salute the Troops, then Kiss Cam,” Scott Youngblood, Maryland’s game-day director for 10 years, called into his headset. “Start looking for people.”
Kiss Cams have been a game-day scoreboard staple at college and professional arenas for decades. They can provide cheap laughs, as when two players from a visiting team are shown together. They can provide oohs and ahhs when grandparents smooch. There are occasional marriage proposals and occasional exaggerated gropes.
Mostly, though, there are camera operators and directors and nervous couples trying to create five seconds of lovin’ in front of thousands of sports fans in about the least-romantic setting imaginable.
“It’s not scripted. That’s what kind of makes it great,” said Carrie Blankenship, an assistant athletics director of marketing at Maryland. “It’s raw — love and humor all at the same time. You never know what you get.”
You might get Maryland junior Kelsey Franey, who was sitting next to a male friend on Sunday at Comcast Center in College Park, Md. The friend – who declined to provide his name – is dating someone else. He and Franey stared at each other as they realized that more than 16,000 people were watching them in anticipation.
“Oh no, oh no, not me,” Franey later recalled thinking. “It’s very stressful. . . . He really likes his girlfriend, so he didn’t want to upset her.”
The man kissed her on the cheek and rolled his eyes. Franey smiled and blushed. “For probably about 20 minutes afterwards, I was like, ‘Did that really just happen?’ ” she later said. Her friend cursed in disbelief when approached by a reporter and asked not to be quoted.
Or you might get Alexander Jonesi, a sophomore Maryland super fan. Jonesi arrives hours early for home games, the better to display his massive flags honoring the state of Maryland, Ukraine (home of Maryland center Alex Len) and the Bahamas (home of fan favorite Shaq Cleare).
Jonesi’s vigor and colorful accessories often land him on the video board mid-cheer. This time, though, he was supposed to kiss Melissa Capurro. She dates one of his friends; his own girlfriend was sitting on his other side.
“Uh-oh. Uh-oh. Uh-oh,” said video operations coordinator Ed Clark, sitting in the control room and watching multiple monitors full of prospective couples. “No, them over there! Those other ones!”
Jonesi and Capurro leaned away from each other, as far as humans can lean, toddlers fleeing a nurse’s needle, seeking refuge outside the frame. There was no kiss.
“That awkward moment when you’re on the kiss cam with someone other than your boyfriend,” Capurro later wrote on Twitter.
Why no kiss? “If I didn’t know her boyfriend, then maybe. And maybe if my girlfriend hadn’t been right next to me,” Jonesi said. “She might have pulled me back. Or slapped me. One or the other.”
Not every team, of course, uses a Kiss Cam. The Washington Capitals hockey franchise did for years, but when director of game entertainment Michael Wurman arrived in the fall of 2009, he wanted to go in a different direction.
“I felt like the cams are easy. We just wanted to challenge ourselves,” Wurman said. “Dance Cam, Smile Cam, Kiss Cam, Dance for Your Dinner 1/8Cam3/8 – put any phrase in front of the word ‘Cam,’ and most teams have done it. . . . I just felt, what does somebody kissing have to do with hockey?”
In the NBA, the Washington Wizards still use a Kiss Cam about every other game, prompted by a sponsorship deal with the D.C. Lottery. Kate Layman, the team’s director of game operations, said sponsors love the 75-second segment because fans are “literally staring at the video board the entire time.”
“It’s like live television. You’re not quite sure what’s coming next,” she said. “You have couples that surprise you, an older couple in their 70s and they’re just making out all of a sudden.”
Betty and Tom Lugenbeel aren’t in their 70s and they didn’t make out, but they sure like to kiss. She’s 64, he’s 68; they celebrated their 34th anniversary this month. Generations of Lugenbeels have been coming to Maryland basketball games, ever since Bud Millikan led the program in the 1950s and ’60s, but Betty and Tom had never been on a Kiss Cam before Sunday.
“I’m like, ‘Why don’t they ever pick us?’ and then they did,” said Betty, who was the first to notice their moment and hastily patted Tom on the arm to get his attention.
“C’mon, guy,” someone muttered in the control room.
“None whatsoever,” Tom said.
“No, not after 34 years,” Betty agreed. “We like to kiss.”
After their kiss, Betty leaned her head on Tom’s shoulder and grinned.
“You could almost feel people smiling,” Clark said.
On the other end of the spectrum were Michael Helderman and Kate Correia. He’s a sophomore, she’s a freshman, they’re both from New Jersey and they both love Maryland basketball. They’ve been dating for 31/2 months, Helderman said — “four months, almost,” Correia pointed out — and they had been featured on Maryland’s Kiss Cam once before.
“I actually saw the camera there this time,” Correia said Sunday. “So I was like, ‘Oh, okay, I’m gonna be on the Kiss Cam again. Great.’ ” She closed her eyes, leaned in and covered her face in embarrassment.
“Yayyy!” Clark said in the control room.
Youngblood, sitting to Clark’s right, has three cameras to choose from: two handhelds roaming the floor and a third near the 100-level concourse. The cameramen have to instantly judge who might be a couple, while dodging all the detritus of a basketball sideline – T-shirt tossers, resting cheerleaders, print photographers.
“Anybody, Stephen?” Youngblood asked cameraman Stephen Cohen midway through Sunday’s segment.
“Can’t find anybody,” Cohen answered, a hint of desperation in his voice.
The Kiss Cam became an every-game feature in College Park only this season, when Elephant Auto Insurance stepped up as a full-time sponsor. The background music can vary from Katy Perry to Barry White to the Temptations – to “get them in the mood,” Blankenship explained. The goal is eight to 10 couples per segment. (Betty and Tom Lugenbeel made seven, six of whom had kissed.)
“Anybody?” Youngblood called out from the control room. “Two more. Ready 1. Dissolve 1.”
Camera 1 meant Scott Norton, who had been trolling the student section closest to the floor. Now he found an attractive pair of young professionals not wearing Maryland colors: The manwore a blue vest, the woman wore a cream-colored top. They appeared on the video scoreboard and almost winced. He whispered in her ear, then shrugged helplessly at Norton’s camera as a fan in the background mockingly puckered his lips.
Turns out they were co-workers. They’d been dating for a week. No one at the office knew.
“We were just trying to have a nice Sunday,” she later joked. “It’s like, ‘How did the Kiss Cam know?’ “
“All right, let’s bring it out. T-shirt toss,” Youngblood said in the control room as the Kiss Cam ended and basketball resumed.
“Yayyyyy,” Clark said again.
“Can’t all be winners,” added Youngblood.