It’s harder than ever to get people to take their eyes off of their phones at sporting events, especially at halftime, but I’ve compiled a list of some of the best at captivating the crowd at a time when the game takes a break.
I got a text from my Sellout Crowd cohort Jon Hamm on New Year’s Eve that inspired this week’s list. Jon was sitting with our colleague Jenni Carlson at the Thunder’s win over Brooklyn.
“Jenni and I have an idea for a Ranking Something Silly: halftime shows. We both have a strong opinion of what number one should be.”
I am nothing if not a people pleaser, so at Jon and Jenni’s behest, I will give you my list of the best halftime shows. I have to start with a few caveats, though.
First, I haven’t been to an NBA game in quite some time. I’m not a fan of the Thunder, and I’m pretty sure they’re not a fan of me. My Thunder watching is on Bally Sports when the app works, which means I don’t get to watch as often as I’d like.
Second, this list is NBA halftime shows only. Some sports, like baseball or boxing, don’t have a true “halftime.” I didn’t include things that happen between innings or during timeouts, like potato sack races or half-court shots. I also didn’t include football halftime shows, because that’s usually a band performance, and with a few exceptions (mostly HBCUs), they are all overrated.
Before we get to the best, here are some of the worst.
Concerts: Very few artists are universally popular with the melting pot crowd in attendance, which means that only a small few care about the show. The biggest names would never sing two or three songs at halftime. Let the musicians sing the anthem. Leave halftime for the acts.
Little league games: Once in a blue moon, you’ll have a cool moment during these exhibitions, but generally, they’re stinkers. It’s fun for the kids and their families for sure, but outside of that, it’s boring for the rest of the crowd. There’s always a kid who won’t pass and the final score is like 4-2. Henry Iba would’ve loved them.
Dunk teams: These were awesome in the ‘80s and ‘90s when you didn’t see highlight-reel dunks regularly. Nowadays, with the clear path foul and defense in the paint being legislated out of basketball, I would rather watch J-Dub or Wemby throw one down than some 5-foot-7 guy jumping off a trampoline and landing on a mat. The mascot dunks are still cool, but we don’t need to make them a full halftime show.
Now we move on to the best halftime shows. This is my opinion and my opinion only. If I left something out or you think I’m a moron, please do email me at [email protected].
7. Quick Change
Unfortunately, this act ended in 2021 when David Maas died of COVID-19. Maas and his wife, Dania Kaseeva, spent decades wowing halftime crowds with a well-choreographed and well-executed act that combined dance, magic and fashion. Without fail, people would marvel at how Maas and Kaseeva were able to pull off their magic, with standing ovations being pretty standard. The duo were so loved by the late President George H.W. Bush that they performed three times for him at private functions.
While some people may find the contortionists a bit unsettling, there’s something about watching a full-grown man shove his body through a toilet seat or a tennis racket that is captivating. The young lady who shoots the bow and arrow with her feet is also included in this category, though her performance is more artful than it is weird and goofy.
5. Balancing acts
Whether it’s the people who do handstands on top of a 20-foot stack of chairs or the guy who stacks metal tubes and rides on top of them like he’s on a surfboard, these acts are intriguing for a couple of reasons. First, everyone is amazed at the skill it takes to master the craft. It certainly checks the “wow factor” category. But also equally if not more important, there’s a subset of people that don’t necessarily want them to fall, but wonder what will happen if they do. I would argue that this is why most people watched Evil Knievel back in the day. It’s hard to turn away from those types of situations, which is exactly what makes it a great halftime show.
4. Unconventional drumlines
This one may be controversial, but drums are just cool. Guys sitting and making incredible music banging on the bottom of buckets or trash cans is next-level cool. The best part about the drumline halftime act is that you don’t necessarily need your eyes to enjoy it. If you’re looking down at your phone or making out with your significant other or tucking into a pretzel with cheese, you can still hear and appreciate the drumline. They’re also the one act on this list that can work as pregame entertainment for people walking into the stadium.
3. Simon Sez
Steve Max, better known as the “Simon Sez guy,” has been entertaining crowds for years by turning a simple childhood game into a full halftime act. It’s fast-paced, it’s hilariously funny, and it’s also a great chance to have a wholesome laugh at the expense of some other fans. Steve was performing at halftime on New Year’s Eve in the Paycom Center, which was the reason for the original Jon Hamm text. Steve was once a juggler, balancer, magician and stand-up comedian before finding his niche role as a Simon Sez expert. He’s been doing it since 2003, and it’s now his full-time gig.
2. Anything with dogs
Whether it’s a frisbee-catching dog, a jump-roping dog, a comedy act with dogs or a dance routine with dogs, any sort of routine that includes man’s best friend deserves a spot on the list. It takes a real heartless person to not enjoy cute dogs showing off their skills. If you don’t properly appreciate the amount of skill and dedication it takes to train a dog to perform so well, I urge you to spend a few days with my dog Bear, who can’t even be bothered to learn how to stay out of the mud when it rains.
1. Red Panda
When Jon and Jenni told me that they had a strong opinion on what the number one halftime show was, I knew immediately where this was going. I couldn’t agree more. My reply to their text was, “🔴🐼.” Great minds think alike. Rong “Krystal” Niu, better known as Red Panda is a fourth-generation acrobat born in Shanxi, China in 1971. I always thought that at some point she decided that sitting on a unicycle and flipping bowls onto her head with her feet was going to be her specialty, but it turns out that her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother also did the same act! Her life changed on Thanksgiving Day in 1993 when Niu had to fill in on short notice at halftime of a Clippers game after another performer canceled. For 30 years now, Red Panda has been entertaining fans with her one-of-a-kind act. She may not be as perfect as she used to be, but until further notice, Red Panda sits on her unicycle alone at the top of the halftime show rankings.