By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The way things have been going lately with West Virginia University’s basketball team, which is struggling as it tries to draw itself together during the early going before Big 12 play begins this weekend, it is not farfetched to say that the entertainment at halftime has been as satisfying as some of the basketball.
That is not by accident.
Matt Wells is charged with turning a basketball game at the Coliseum into an event, and over the years he has become quite adept at it. It appears this year will be no different.
This is due, in no small part, to the fact that on Jan. 28, for the Big Monday matchup against Kansas, which figures to be a game for the ages as it is, he has lined up the Red Panda Acrobat for a return engagement to the Coliseum, one of the most popular acts to appear not only at WVU games but across the nation.
The Red Panda Acrobat’s real name is Krystal Niu. She was born into a family of Chinese acrobats and is uniquely gifted. Like how many people do you know know who can touch their ears with their toes?
Who do you know that can flip bowls onto her head with her feet?
Tough, you say?
How about while atop an 8-foot unicycle?
Get the picture? Krystal Niu is one of a sideshow world of carnival-like acts who travel the country and appear at sporting events, part of the world into which Matt Wells has tapped in, and she has become one of his favorites.
It is not only because with each appearance the crowds at the Coliseum fall more in love with her, but because she is a professional who is unflappable no matter what the situation.
A few years back he had her booked in for a Sunday afternoon game against Purdue.
“There was was a miscommunication when the game time was changed for television where she didn’t get into Pittsburgh until an hour, maybe two hours before game time,” Wells recalled. “She literally pulled into the Gold Lot of the Coliseum. We had one of our interns park the car for her, and she came running into the arena with about two minutes left in the first half and she went out there absolutely nailed the show.”
Think about that for a minute, but before you do let me tell you the other end of the spectrum. Some of these performers can be terribly self-centered and haughty. A number of years back the Pittsburgh Pirates had put together a post-game show the final day of the season headlined by rock ’n’ roll legend Chuck Berry and the Four Tops in an effort to surpass 1 million in attendance.
They drew a big crowd, had the concert ready to go, bottom of the ninth inning ... and Jim Morrison hit a home run to force extra innings.
Almost before the ball landed in the stands, Chuck Berry was off and in his car, not about to wait around for extra innings to be played. Only the Four Tops agreeing to play a second set saved a riot from occurring.
Not so with the Red Panda Acrobat.
“You talk about a professional and being able to adjust on the fly, she did part of the show during halftime then came back and did the rest of it during a timeout. Honest, if you didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes, you wouldn’t have known the difference,” Wells said.
West Virginia puts a great deal of effort and interest into developing the entire entertainment day around a basketball game.
“It’s our obligation to provide entertainment value to our fans. They’re buying tickets and paying for parking, fighting traffic and all that goes into attending an event. So we try to program things around the actual game to add more value and hopefully provide a little more bang for the buck, keeping them entertained from the time they get there until they leave,” Wells said.
And this is more than it seems, which most think of as the halftime show.
Perhaps the touchiest of it all is to come up with a performer for the national anthem. They have to find singers for all the sporting events and try to stay local or with a West Virginia touch, and this weekend for the Big 12 opener with Oklahoma they have a new group called Taylor Made.
“They’ve experienced some success on the country charts and have ties to West Virginia (Taylor County). They are out of Nashville now and have hit the charts,” Well said. “For the most part we are working with local people.”
They screen the people who sing and realize that a solid presentation is necessary.
“The last thing you want is for the national anthem to become a story. It’s kind of like an offensive lineman. A guy does a great job and you don’t hear much about it, but you mess it up and everyone knows about it,” Wells said.
Later this year there will be a return national anthem from Peter Wilson, who was recently on the “David Letterman Show” and a member of the White House band from Morgantown.
Add in events that bring in young fans, such as halftime competitions like the shootout and youth basketball exhibitions, and you have a whole lot of effort going into it from people outside of Bob Huggins and his staff, the idea being win or lose, for the fans to leave feeling like a winner.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.