Inside college basketball's growing group of halftime entertainment acts

ByDavid Hale ESPN logo
Thursday, January 30, 2020

TYLER SCHEUER knows what question is coming. He's so certain, in fact, he got business cards printed up with the answer, so he can simply hand you a card for your perusal rather than rehash the whole story, but there are always follow-up questions, and he ends up telling the story again anyway.

Scheuer is a 25-year-old would-be gym teacher from suburban Philadelphia now living in Florida. He looks like pretty much every other 25-year-old guy, dressed comfortably in basketball shorts and a T-shirt with short brown hair that frames a face lacking anything close to a distinguishing feature. There is no Jay Leno-esque chin or Pinocchio-like nose that might help explain his peculiar skill set. He's just a guy -- a guy who happens to be able to balance everything from an ironing board to a wheelbarrow to a 12-foot ladder on his face.

Now comes the question: How the heck did he learn to do this?

The short answer: he didn't. He's actually never practiced a day in his life. Scheuer was bored at baseball practice when he was 11, so he propped a bat on his chin and, sure enough, it stood upright with no effort. Then he started picking up random objects around the house or in his grade school classroom, and lo and behold, they seemed designed just for the contours of his face, too.

"I figured it was a skill everybody had," Scheuer said.

Scheuer is part of a small (but growing) group of modern vaudevillians earning a living by keeping fans in their seats when the action on the court (or rink or field) stops, and odds are, if you're a basketball fan, you've seen at least a few of the acts -- from Scheuer's physics-defying balance work to jugglers, BMX riders, frisbee dogs, gymnasts, yo-yo enthusiasts, magicians and of course, the grand dame of the profession, the unicycle-riding, bowl-flipping legend, Red Panda. And while the games remain the headlining act, YouTube and social media have turned the sideshows into legitimate stars that have become a critical part of marketing sporting events from small colleges to the NBA.

Scheuer's grandfather Jack used to work as a sports writer for The Associated Press, and he had connections with some local basketball teams, which eventually led to Scheuer doing his act at halftime of a Temple hoops game, where a marketing manager from the Atlantic 10 conference offered him a gig at the league's basketball tournament.

"How much do you charge?" the marketing man asked.

Scheuer shrugged. Payment? He was just happy to be able to perform in front of a crowd.

Well, the man said, the league had to pay him something, so Scheuer offered up the first amount that popped into his head.

"How about $25?" he said.

The man laughed. He offered $500.

"So that's what I started charging," Scheuer said. "I'd work a five-minute show and make $100 per minute. I thought I was living the high life."

By the time Scheuer was ready to graduate from college, a career counselor suggested he charge a bit more for his show. He Googled "halftime acts," then called a few of the performers he found and asked what they charged. Nearly all said they charged several thousand dollars. Scheuer couldn't believe it. He called a few schools and asked if they'd book him at that rate. Most jumped at the offer. Who knew?

By the time the semester ended and Scheuer had his diploma in hand, he called his parents with an idea. He wasn't going to be a gym teacher after all. He was going to be a professional halftime act.

"People say to me, 'What do you do?'" Scheuer said. "I tell them I balance things on my nose and chin."

Four years later, The Amazing Tyler is the most-booked halftime act in the country, doing upward of 50 shows during basketball season alone, and he's hired his dad to help with logistics. Turns out, balancing a bassoon on your nose is actually quite lucrative.

"We have an approach that's like Mardi Gras," said Brad Hecker, the marketing director for the ACC's basketball tournaments. "You've got to throw the kitchen sink out to the fans. We're in the entertainment business, and it's got to be sensory overload. There can't be a boring moment."

IN THE WORST moment of her professional career, Krystal Niu was given a 1-800 number.

Niu, better known as Red Panda, started performing at sporting events when she was just 7 years old. She comes from a family of acrobats and loved performing. The practice, however, was a bore.

"So I decided I wanted to be a dancer instead," Niu said. "I didn't know dancers practiced just as much."

So back she went to acrobatics, only that doesn't really capture her act. In fact, Niu said, when she meets new people who inquire about what she does for a living, she struggles to find a concise answer. Niu rides a unicycle, only a long center stand puts the seat about 7.5 feet from the ground. She stacks metal bowls on her foot, running them up her leg. Then she rides the unicycle around the court, stopping to flip the bowls into the air and catch them on her head.

The act stems from a traditional Chinese acrobatics routine that Niu tweaked over the years. She worked on balance, riding the unicycle and flipping bowls -- one, then two -- up to six before the stack became higher than the knee joint on her leg.

Niu came to the U.S. in 1989, moving to the Bay Area. She worked in Chinatown, where locals offered help to get acclimated. The veteran performers all told her she needed a stage name. They suggested "Panda," because it was the national animal of China, and "Red" because it's the color of good fortune back home.

It was, as best Niu can remember, about 1991 when she got a call from a talent manager in desperate need of a halftime act for a Los Angeles Clippers game. The performer he'd booked got hurt and had to cancel, and he'd seen a tape of Red Panda. (In those pre-YouTube days, she used to mail VHS tapes of her performances). The performance was a hit, and soon Niu had bookings all over the country. Today, she's the biggest star in the business, the standard by which all other halftime acts are judged.

"When I'm traveling at the airport, no one recognizes me," Niu said. "I'm not that famous. But sometimes at the arena or at the hotel, yeah."

The routine continues to enrapture audiences after three decades largely because Niu has changed her tune on practice. Now, it's a daily ritual.

So when her unicycle went missing two years ago at San Francisco International Airport, it was a career-threatening loss.

Every job has its flaws, and for halftime performers, the struggles are all about travel. Scheuer had his dad come on the road with him until this year because, until he turned 25, he wasn't old enough to rent a car. Performances might last five minutes, but the travel is endless -- from arena to hotel to airport to rental car to arena. Scheuer had a stretch last year with 12 shows on a dozen different campuses in just 10 days.

"You become brothers and sisters," said Marco Dieckmann, one of three touring gymnasts in the Russian Bar Trio. "You share cars and hotels. You have to get used to it. It's a lifestyle like a rock 'n' roll band."

The props and gear needed for a show can be both difficult to transport and utterly impossible to replace. For the Russian Bar Trio, the key to their entire work is the three-inch-wide flexible bar they either FedEx cross-country or strap to the roof of a car like an oversized set of skis.

Niu's lost unicycle was a catastrophe. United Airlines said the bag had come off the plane, but never made it onto the baggage carousel. She couldn't work without the right equipment, and she had dozens of shows booked for the next few months. The airline told her to call customer service.

"It wasn't like I lost a toothbrush," Niu said.

She canceled several shows before finally giving up on recovering the unicycle after an airline official reviewed security footage with her that made it clear someone had stolen the bag. She collected parts from past iterations, hoping to piece together something usable for future performances, but it wasn't the same -- like a figure skater trying on a new pair of skates, she said.

"The performance goes bad because of that," Nius said. "I was really upset."

In tears after one of those performances, Niu drove her rental car to a Walmart to buy tools to make adjustments. She was working in her hotel room, and her agent called. News had leaked of the lost unicycle, and the Golden State Warriors had reached out. Niu lives in San Francisco, and she's performed regularly at Warriors games over the years. They wanted to help by buying her a brand new unicycle.

"I was in tears," Niu said. "I thought this cold-hearted person did bad things, and then there are so many other people who are nice and kind. It was such a nice surprise."

THERE'S RARELY a day when Mike Money doesn't get an email promoting the newest act hoping to perform at halftime during a Clemson basketball game. An assistant athletics director in charge of marketing and game management, Money is tasked with filling every break in the action at a Tigers' basketball game, and the job can be daunting.

On average, Money hires about a half-dozen professional acts for the season with costs that range from about $1,500 to $3,500 per show plus travel and expenses, and he supplements those with local groups willing to perform for free and even bring a big audience of ticket-buyers with them in exchange for the opportunity and a small travel budget.

For the bigger acts, however, there's big money at stake. While income varies wildly, a top performer might book 40 or 50 men's college games per year at $3,500 a pop -- bringing in close to $200,000 annually from the sport alone -- with colleges spending upward of $3 million annually to book the acts. Then there's NBA and WNBA games, women's college basketball games and corporate events. Scheuer has started working baseball games, too, filling the between-innings lulls with his act. He tries to simplify life for booking managers by including travel in his fee, and he'll spend extra time in the second half of a basketball game interacting with fans and the band. Every act looks for a way to add a little extra return on investment. In the end, Money said, it's all about audience reaction.

"I try to put myself in a Clemson fan's seat and say, 'Hey, is this something as a basketball fan I'd want to see when I purchase tickets for a game?'" Money said. "It's constantly looking in different spots to find something new, because we want to keep it fresh for our fans while also bringing in some of the big-time ones they're used to."

The market is surprisingly synergistic -- both for schools and performers. Money said he takes note of performers who work games on other campuses, and the network of marketing managers is always eager to share reviews.

There can be real advantages to working together, too, said Hannah Martin, who coordinates game operations at Xavier.

"We work with other schools and pro teams in the area to see if we can match up schedules and save on travel, or if they have any favorites we haven't heard of before," she said.

That's the key, Hecker said. When fans buy a ticket, they know they're going to see a basketball game. The halftime acts are a surprise, and that can lead to valuable marketing as word -- and video -- spreads on social media.

Similarly, while its rare two performers are in the same venue at once, Scheuer's experience is that nearly everyone on the performance circuit is eager to share tips and contacts. It's a small world, and there's a shared understanding that few outsiders can understand just how tough life on the road can be.

THE ORIGIN story for John Casey's act starts like so many other important moments in history: His girlfriend convinced him to do something he didn't want to do.

Casey wasn't a dog person. Never had one as a kid, never saw the appeal. But he had a buddy who performed in Frisbee competitions with his dog, and an invitation to an event was proffered. Casey's girlfriend was smitten with the idea, so they went.

"Six weeks later, we had mutt we thought was a border collie," Casey said, "and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life."

This was the early 1990s, and the idea that tossing Frisbees to his dog might be a career was absurd. But after winning a few Frisbee events, Casey landed a halftime gig for his hometown Cincinnati Bengals. That led to another offer, performing during halftime for the first-ever Carolina Panthers home game, and more offers followed that. He has since performed during halftime of Bulls games during the height of the Michael Jordan era, in front of Jay-Z and Beyonce at Madison Square Garden, and once threw out the first pitch at a St. Louis Cardinals game where the catcher was, of course, his dog.

"These acts were a niche in the mid-90s when I started," Casey said. "Now it's a business, and big business for some people."

It's big enough business for Casey that he quit his job as a framing contractor years ago to focus on his act, and he now works with partner Nikki Collier, a Frisbee dog world champion, on numerous entertainment ventures. Their newest act is dubbed the Big Air Box Jump and involves a dog vaulting off a 20-inch box, flying more than six feet into the air, and landing in Collier's arms.

"As we say in the marketing business, it's taking the act to new heights," Casey said.

That a necessity in today's halftime act landscape. The market has gotten increasingly competitive as YouTube, Twitter and TV shows like "America's Got Talent" expose more and more people to the unique pleasures of Frisbee-catching pups and bowl-balancing unicyclists.

The difference for Casey, he said, is his act isn't just about entertaining the fans. The Russian Bar Trio can FedEx its balance beam to the next location, and Red Panda can fine tune a new unicycle when needed, but Casey's tools of the trade sleep at the foot of his bed.

Casey uses his act to promote pet adoption, and the star of his show is the perfect pitch for the cause. Scout is a 25-pound blue heeler that was on track to be euthanized at a shelter in West Virginia when a rescue organization called Casey with an offer. The dog was too high-strung to find a home with a typical family but had a chance to be the perfect fit for Casey's act. Casey was dubious. He didn't have much affinity for Australian cattle dogs, but he couldn't say no.

Eight years later, Scout is still chasing down everything Casey throws.

"She's become the greatest halftime Frisbee dog ever," he said.

BEFORE A performance, Red Panda sits on the floor of her dressing room and stretches her legs to get loose.

"The nature of the act, I never know if I can make today's show perfect," Niu said. "I can guess a percentage. But I never know. And that makes me nervous. That makes me driven."

Earlier this month, Niu performed at halftime of the Syracuse-Notre Dame men's basketball game. Her three-bowl flip went awry, bowls tumbling to the court. A video circulated, with fans in the background audibly gasping at the mistake.

Three decades into her career, it seems both entirely reasonable Red Panda might flub a performance or two, but it's also utterly shocking when it happens, and even Niu admits the physical part of the routine is "different" these days.

Casey can empathize. Usually he gauges a show's success by two metrics: "Dogs caught Frisbees, and nobody pooped on the floor," he said. But a few years ago, he quit smoking, and he quickly added about 30 pounds. He told a friend after one sluggish show that perhaps Scout was getting old, losing a step. Then he watched a video of the performance and realized the problem was with him. He changed his diet and exercise routine completely, getting the act back into top form.

For the Russian Bar Trio, the stakes are even higher. Gymnast Eve Gagne soars high above the ground, and if her teammates with the bar are even a tick out of sync, she risks serious injury. They practice the routine using ropes and harnesses to get things just right, but at showtime, there's always the danger that something could go wrong.

Niu doesn't think much about aging out of the job, though. Truth is, she's never really considered what life would be like without it. She knows one day, the act won't be quite the same, but she'll keep doing it anyway, even if it's in a gym, by herself, practicing the flips over and over.

"It's never come up in my mind I'd do something else -- maybe because I can't do something else," she said. "But it's what I enjoy doing."

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