A Short Off-Season for Team Verizon
It always seems kind of spooky walking into an empty theater; dark, quiet, still – only the ghosts of the Barrymores, Sarah Bernhart and Jolson (or for the youngsters, Ethel Merman, Carol Channing and Zero Mostel), to keep you company. But walking into a dormant Verizon Center on Monday afternoon was anything but that. There was still a sense of energy lingering in the dimly lit arena, as if those chants and cheers from 18,000 Caps fans during those 40+ games of the 2011 -2012 season were still echoing and reverberating. It felt good to be back inside.
Sure, the Mystics season is still going on, with a game scheduled for the following evening, but for us, Verizon means one thing only, our Caps. And while the floor was stripped of its ice, and the boards laid down to host the Seattle Storm Tuesday evening, there was still a stir of things to come for hockey fans – the offseason plods along but the work never really stops. Verizon was the scene for the Red Rockers auditions. Is it October yet? Nope, but Monday afternoon’s activity was a great reminder that it’s not all that far off.
Just as the work is beginning for next season on the hockey side (Draft, Coach Oates, the free agency scramble and Dev Camp in the next few weeks), for Michael Wurman, Director of Caps Game Entertainment and TV Production, and his staff, the preparations for next season are also in high gear, and choosing the Red Rockers squad is just one element of his many responsibilities.
Sunday’s round one of the auditions saw 78 prospects, all young women, arrive in hopes of making the squad. Parochialists that we are, we asked if any guys tried out for the team and Wurman told us that for the first time in three years, there weren’t any who auditioned. Le sigh.
We met Wurman for the first time last season. He reiterated that the Rockers were not cheer leaders or a dance squad, but ambassadors for the Caps organization that serve in a variety of roles, whether inside Verizon on game nights or at one of their scores of appearances during the year, 78 of them last season (up from 52 the year before).
Wurman, Tyler Hines, his deputy, and Emme Porter, Red Rockers Coach, had just completed round one of the tryouts on Sunday (a five hour ordeal), and 32 women made the first cut. 12 – 18 members is the goal. Day two of the auditions would be the final and most important test, the interview process. Wurman stressed the necessity of the Rockers to have strong interpersonal communications skills, on both a small and large scale, “The important part about it is that there’s not only a 1 on 1 interaction,” he told us, “but a 1 on 20,000 interaction as well. I feel they have to be adept at doing both.”
Last year’s tryouts took place in July and Wurman said the way the weekends mapped out this year, they got an earlier start. “We have Fanfest on July 14, and like last year, we like to have the team set by then because that’s the first time fans will see them…. It’s that tease of the upcoming season.” The Rockers will also be featured this summer at STH events and Capscon in September.
The selection committee remains the same as last season: Wurman, Hines, Porter, Caps’ Chief Marketing Officer, Joe Dupriest, and Director, Fan Development & Promotions, Kim Frank. DC101’s Elliot Segal came by the tryouts on Sunday, not as a judge, but on hand because he may interact with them during the reason, especially on Caps Red Line. Porter told us that the Rockers represent a pretty wide demographic. They’re not looking for women who know the game inside and out, but who are fans of the Caps. Rockers come from a variety of backgrounds; some worked in the Hill, and attend college or law school while they were a part of the squad.
In addition to the Rockers, Wurman and his team have their hands full with other preparations for the season. At the top of most fans’ minds is the much anticipated opening video they produce. He wouldn’t say what was planned, but that he was still involved in the first important step, picking the music. He works from a couple dozen possible cuts and in some cases gives them 20 or so listens to see if the fit is right. Production of the video is pretty complex, requiring graphics, animation and videotaping of the players. Last year, Wurman’s video team had exactly one hour to shoot at Kettler, just ahead of a regularly scheduled practice. They did group shots, 1 on 1s, green screens – a pretty big production squeezed into a very narrow shooting window. The video is produced in a modular fashion that allows game highlights as the season progresses to be inserted into it, keeping it fresh and timely.
Responsible for the all the entertainment elements inside of Verizon, Wurman tells us to expect a new twist to the Crowdwave. You know, the display from the large scoreboard that hangs over the ice - the arms to the left, arms to the right, interactive game. Call it Crowdwave 2.0. Wurman gives us a hint: “We are designing new games, new levels of it, now that we know the fans have seen a couple of seasons with it, so the newness is past us, so now we want to show the next level of it. Hopefully it will be, ‘Wow! We really didn’t see that coming.’ I really can’t give it away right now because a lot of it is in development.”
The fan experience inside Verizon is actually many smaller elements: the Rockers, Slap Shot, videos, lighting effects, Anthem, music and games. “There’s something for everyone on a game night; we know that everyone won’t have the same tastes. Some may prefer a certain style of music, but their dad doesn’t – we have to cater to all of that. I’ve got 20,000 critics every night. And we hear it; they’ll tweet at us. We try and stay mindful of it at all times.”
“It can be heady at times, but then we sit back and relish and enjoy it. Mostly, everybody just really cares, which is so much better than a dead arena, like if nobody stands up at Fury.
We strike a chord and overwhelmingly we do what we set out to achieve. The idea of the overall environment is that we’re supposed to be subtle. As rock and roll as we like to get, we really do try and keep it just part of the experience. We never really want one element to be the rock star. The game on the ice is center stage, and we do what we can to compliment it.
So if it’s Bruce on the organ, Crowdwave, the open video, specialty videos – we like giving that to people and giving them something different. Especially for the season ticket holders who are here night after night. Not only are they invested in the team, but we want to give back to them saying we have something different for you.”
On game nights Wurman’s team works off a script. In their control room above section 412, all crew members (lighting, video, and sound engineers) are in constant contact.
“Every game is scripted, but with the express knowledge that we will vamp. We will vamp quite a lot. Whatever is happening on the ice will always be my number one priority. We could have something scheduled for the first TV timeout, and then something happens, and we call an audible for a different element, or we move it to a different spot in the game. We could be seconds away from a t-shirt toss, and we hit the window, and then something happens on the ice – we vamp and move our scheduled elements around – maybe push something back to another period or another night. We don’t want to lose the game, meaning we don’t want to lose fans’ involvement, their excitement with what’s happening on the ice.”
Communications can be a challenge, especially in a deafening arena:
“We’re on headsets, two-way radios, cel phones, whatever we need to do to keep everyone in touch. Sometimes it comes down to good old human horsepower. Tyler will come up to me and I’ll relay something to him and literally in one minute he’s down from 412 into the Olympia tunnel waiting for the Anthem. Sometimes the quickest way of doing things is word of mouth.”
For arena music, the digital library they work with is big, very big – about 20,000 songs. Wurman often calls audibles with the songs played in Verizon, too.
“We’ve actually done songs on the fly, as long as we know they’re clean. It could be the night of a game and if something has happened out in the world, or we see something on twitter – like last year on a game night, Heavy D passed away. I looked through the song library to see if we had ‘Now That We Found Love,’ their biggest hit, and we didn’t have it, so I went online and pulled it down. I checked that it was clean – and this is all while the game is going on – and we got it into the intermission. A few people tweeted back saying it was cool. It’s nice hearing that.
Last season again, responding to what happened in the world, with MCA from the Beastie Boys passing away – they have a full instrumental album and we played that during pregame and it ran as beds under the PA announcements and we played it throughout the night. I was a fan of the band and it was a good way to honor him.”
Wurman tells us his team is always open to fan requests for music, and they welcome suggestions via social their social networks and the Caps game app.
“We get requests during the game, and if I see something that I think can fit, and if we have it, we’ll go with it. We got a request a while back for a dark metal band called Children of Bodom. They requested and said, ‘This would be great on a power play.’ So I went online and listened to some cuts. I was familiar with the band a little, so I tried to find something that worked – still heavy but not something that was going to scare everyone. We found a good instrumental and we now use it for heavy moments, like fights. We’ve gotten nice feedback from it. I read everything posted to us. Is every suggestion gold? No, but that’s OK; many work out. If it makes someone happy that that we used their song – then that’s great.”
We told Michael that if he sees requests come in for the Grateful Dead or Philip Glass, he’ll know it’s us. “No pressure,” we said. One of the few Dead songs that made the charts, Touch of Grey, sometimes does make it into the rotation, he told us, but we’re not holding our breath for that triptacular Scarlet > Fire from Barton Hall. We didn’t mention Nickelback.
The most important music requests however, come from the players. “The warm up music in the playoffs was not only all from the players themselves, but in a very specific order. They requested it because they were in the mindset. They said when we they’re outside the locker room, hit it at a specific point and just play through because this is their routine. It was really nice. It made our jobs easier. During the regular season in warm ups, they’ll give us a few songs, but so it doesn’t get repetitive, we’ll add in a lot of different music. Mostly it’s rock because it’s upbeat, it’s driving and it’s what they want. But there was a set list of songs they wanted during the playoffs, so we used the same one and we were doing well I wasn’t going to argue with it.”
The Rocker prospects were headed to the floor and our time was up with Michael. We congratulated him on another Emmy win, their second for Caps Red Line. In fact, both Monumental team broadcasts won the award this season. We’d like to think the Emmy is like the Cup, each member of the team gets a day with it. Michael invited us back during the season to shadow him on a game night from the control room. We can’t wait to take him up on that offer. And just in case, we’ll bring along a few Dead box sets. Winter is coming. And maybe Winterland, too.
Just as we were going to press, Michael tells us the Rocker squad will number 20 this year. Congratulations and good luck to all. We often haunt section 406, right behind the Dale Hunter banner, so aim that burrito canon right at us. No pressure, ladies. No pressure.