Kiss cams have been a mainstay of the sports fan experience for more than three decades. If you’ve been to a game recently, you’ve surely seen the stunt—during a game break, two unsuspecting members of the crowd are broadcast on the Jumbotron and prompted, by graphics or the in-arena announcer, to smooch. It’s usually good for a laugh or two, but in an evolving world, one in which we’re having complicated and nuanced discussions about sexism, agency, and consent, it’s worth asking what role—if any—the kiss cam has in our current sports culture. What can seem like a routine in-game gimmick can come with a deeper significance.
Take, for instance, Adam Shprintzen’s experience. Ten years ago, Shprintzen moved from New York to Chicago for grad school. When his beloved Yankees came to town, he went to his first White Sox home game, by himself. He was sitting in the upper deck behind home plate when he realized he was on the kiss cam—and so was the woman sitting next to him. He describes the experience of appearing before a stadium full of people with the expectation to kiss a total stranger as “horrifying.”
“Getting past the initial amazement and shock of seeing yourself projected on the giant screen, there was an almost immediate feeling of discomfort of knowing that tens of thousands of people were staring at us expecting a kiss,” he says of the incident via Twitter direct message. “There was the inherent pressure to have some sort of reaction. … I can’t even imagine what was running through this total stranger’s mind at the moment, to be asked to kiss some random dude for everyone’s entertainment.”
Shprintzen, now a United States history professor at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, says that he doesn’t know how the fan sitting next to him reacted, because he couldn’t bring himself to look at her. He kept his eyes locked forward—away from the woman assumed to be his partner—and shook his head “no,” waiting for the camera to move on to some other pair. Shprintzen thinks he apologized to the woman afterward, though he’s not sure why. “I wasn’t the one who placed us on the Cam,” he said. “And while I am sure that was part of my sheepish apology, I was [also] apologizing for being embarrassing because we didn’t kiss.”
A decade later, Shprintzen says he doesn’t remember anything else about the game—not who won, not who pitched, not who made the best play. All he can recall is the total embarrassment of the situation. Looking back on it, he says he’s disgusted with both his own reaction to it and the fact that he was put into the situation at all. “It feels like the Kiss Cam plays off basic [misogynistic] assumptions of power and consent,” he says, “so much that I bought into its dynamics enough to feel compelled to apologize after it was all done.”
The kiss cam seems like a lighthearted gimmick, but underneath the surface is a more insidious cultural pressure and message. “You’re creating a social situation in which there is an expectation to engage in touch—both suddenly and publicly,” says Melissa A. Fabello, a sex researcher who studies how people make meaning of their experiences with touch.
Dan Wade, a Minneapolis resident who works in digital media, says the pressure of being caught on the big board made him feel like he had to kiss his ex-girlfriend when they ended up on a kiss cam at a Minnesota Twins game in 2006, a little more than a year after their breakup. When the camera landed on them, they were going to just wait it out until it moved on. But once people started to boo, they kissed and waved. “Neither of us were upset about it,” he said, “but we wouldn’t have [kissed] if there hadn’t been the expectation.”
“Of course you can reject the invitation,” Fabello, via email, says of people who are put on the kiss cam. “But the socialization aspect—the disappointment of the watching fans, the awkward interaction with the person next to you, the stereotype of being uptight—makes this more difficult. When we feel forced or cajoled into touch, even under the guise of harmless fun, it can make us feel uncomfortable.”
It might be easy to write off this discomfort as fleeting and no big deal, but Fabello says that’s not always the case. What might be a quickly forgotten embarrassing moment for one person can remind others of past trauma or otherwise add to a mounting social dynamic wherein one person’s comfort becomes less important than another’s enjoyment.
The experiences Shprintzen and Wade had are not the kinds teams are hoping for when they put people on the Jumbotron. The kiss cam is designed to be a fun stunt, something to keep fans engaged and entertained during game breaks. It’s such a popular gimmick that it’s widely used across different sports. Of the 30 NBA teams, 12 confirmed that they use an in-arena kiss cam. Only the Philadelphia 76ers said they didn’t run one, and the Boston Celtics said they did it “maybe once per season, if that.” The other 17 teams either did not respond or declined to comment. While most WNBA and NFL teams forgo the gimmick, it’s still used in MLB and NHL games too.
The role of the kiss cam at sporting events ranges from pure entertainment to an opportunity for sponsorships. But in the current cultural moment, it’s worth examining the kiss cam from other perspectives. Is the practice exploitative? How do teams go about running their cam to ensure that everyone on it is happy to be there? And how has that changed with our evolving understanding of consent and the ongoing #MeToo movement?
The exact roots of the kiss cam are unclear, but video screens in sports arenas debuted in 1980 at Dodger Stadium, and sometime not long after that, kiss cams were born. The concept seems to have originated in Major League Baseball, and it soon spread to most of the major sports leagues around the United States.
“Everybody says, ‘Oh, I love the kiss cam!’” says Rob Calia, the Atlanta Hawks’ senior manager of event production and a member of the Hawks’ staff for nearly two decades. Calia estimates that the Hawks have run the kiss cam for about 17 years. These days, the Hawks crowd knows it’s coming when Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” comes over the speakers. “That is the one thing that people always seem to take away from games, because we try to always make it so something memorable happens during the kiss cam.”
A spokesperson for the Orlando Magic, who also run the kiss cam during games and have done so for the past 15 years, described the feature as “a fun way to break up the game and bring a lighthearted moment to the in-venue experience.” David Schindler, senior director and executive producer of event presentation and production for the Tennessee Titans, thinks the whole goal of the cam is “comic relief.” “No matter what happens on the field, we can get a laugh and have some fun once a game with the Kiss Cam,” he says. Schindler was hired by the Titans two years ago after spending 18 years working for the Hawks, and he says he’s made the kiss cam a feature at every Titans home game.
Like most in-game productions, the Titans’ kiss cam segment is sponsored, a practice the Golden State Warriors have recently adopted too. In October, then-ESPN business reporter Darren Rovell reported that the Warriors’ kiss cam would be sponsored by last-minute hotel booking app HotelTonight (which is also a sponsor of the Ringer Podcast Network). Rovell tweeted, “The fans with the best kiss for each home game, that get the largest crowd applause, will get a free hotel room to stay in courtesy of the sponsor.” Along with the tweet was an image showing three different ratings the Jumbotron kisses could receive: “basic,” “charming,” or the winning result—a door hanger with the words “get a room” written across it, along with the HotelTonight logo. Kissing apparently sells.
The appeal of kiss cams boils down to the fact that people like to see themselves on screen. Marcel Danesi, professor of semiotics and linguistic anthropology at the University of Toronto and author of The History of the Kiss, believes kiss cams arose out of an increased social desire to get noticed. He likens it to the rise of what he calls “notice-me media,” like social media platforms. “It seems that today if something is not captured in some image medium—SnapChat, Instagram, etc.—it has no value or even reality,” he wrote in an email.
“It’s a time for the fans to show who they are,” Lisa Estrada told the Los Angeles Times in 2010, when she was the Lakers’ director of game operations and game entertainment. (Estrada now works for the Lakers in another capacity.) “It’s not about Kobe; it’s not about a Laker girl; it’s not about a sponsor; it’s about them, and they seem to love it.”
Not everyone loves the kiss cam, though. In fact, the concept seems almost tailor-made to have something go wrong. Some teams have even capitalized on this idea, planting people in the crowd to produce “blooper”-type moments (though Schindler says he’ll “never confirm or deny” that some gags are set up for the camera). In 2011, Erin Gloria Ryan wrote for Jezebel about the horror of ending up on camera with her brother. The Obamas went viral in 2012 when Michelle seemingly dissed Barack on the big screen at a Team USA basketball game. And there are plenty of “kiss cam gone wrong” videos to peruse on YouTube.
Kiss cams were originally intended to be in-game entertainment—what happened in the arena stayed there, and the only people who saw you on the screen were the people in attendance. Now, with cellphone cameras and social media, there’s a chance that your 10 seconds on screen could end up being seen by millions of people. There are even facial recognition apps designed to identify fans who appear on in-arena cams.
One of the main issues with the kiss cam is that there’s no way to opt into—or out of—it. If you want to to watch your favorite player or team in person, you’re also opening yourself up to being broadcast on the big board. Some people come up with contingency plans before going to games to avoid ending up on screen, like Arizona resident Ashley Gustaveson. “There were plenty of times before [I got married] that I went to a game on a date and planned in advance how I would get out of kissing the guy in case we got on the Kiss Cam. Most plans involved mouthing, ‘He’s my brother,’” she says in a Twitter DM. “I also tried to not move very close to or overtly flirt with the guy next to me until after the Kiss Cam inning.”
Estrada told the L.A. Times in 2010 that “people are always asking me to be in other promotions, but nobody ever asks me to be in the [Lakers] Kiss Cam.” She speculated that was because “they know it only works if it’s spontaneous.” But what if that’s actually indicative of people having no desire to be featured on it?
“Selecting fans can be challenging at times because we don’t have time to talk to fans to actually know if they are a couple,” the Orlando Magic spokesperson said about the kiss cam via email. “[Camera operators] are typically looking for fans looking up at the board so we know they are paying attention, and looking for cues that indicate fans are together (arm around the other, holding hands, or season-ticket holders we’re already familiar with).”
Kiss cams, at their core, work by promoting assumptions and stereotypes—about what kind of people are in a couple, or how an assumed couple will behave. Ryan, the Jezebel writer, likely ended up on the kiss cam with her brother because he was describing how the stunt worked based on his time working at a stadium. But there’s obviously a host of reasons that two members of different genders might be talking to each other. They could be siblings, like Ryan and her brother. They could be father and daughter, like the woman at a CFL game last year who mouthed, “That’s my dad,” when the camera focused on them. Or they could just be friends.
Calia, with the Hawks, says that some of the fun of the kiss cam is in the variety of couples featured—from an elderly couple, to a couple where one person might be more into their nachos than their partner, to “a couple that is totally embarrassed and really not with each other.” In that case, he says, if the pair look like they’re giggling and enjoying the attention, “We’ll come back to them. And we’ll have our P.A. announcer play it up, like, ‘That’s how you do it, fans!’ And sometimes they give in and [kiss], and other times, they cover their face, and the crowd just eats it up.”
The Magic spokesperson said that if people don’t want to participate in the kiss cam, “we respect that and move on to our next fans.” He also said that camera operators are “ready to move on to our next set immediately” if the situation calls for it, but “people frequently have fun and play into that moment.”
Jason Rocco said he and his male coworker made light of the situation when they were featured on the kiss cam at a Washington Wizards game three or four years ago. But that was a very different situation than the time he was put on a kiss cam with a stranger at an arena football game in Philadelphia. The woman he was seated next to was so upset to see herself on the kiss cam with a man she didn’t know that Rocco says she left her seat and he doesn’t remember her returning.
Teams do grant requests to be on the kiss cam, which people sometimes use for a marriage proposal. Calia says they do five or six live, in-game proposals at Hawks games each season, usually at the end of a kiss cam segment. But could someone contact a team ahead of time and ask not to be featured on the kiss cam? Calia says that courtesy is something often granted to celebrities in attendance who just want to quietly enjoy the game, but that he’s never had a noncelebrity fan ask to not be featured.
Schindler, with the Titans, scoffed at the idea that people might be unhappy to appear on the kiss cam, and was surprised to hear that I’d spoken with people who were upset they were featured on one. “Most people coming to a sporting event know [the kiss cam is] a thing and hopefully they’re coming to have fun and not take life too seriously.” He estimates that in the 20 years he’s been working in sports, “maybe twice” he’s received complaints from someone unhappy about being on the kiss cam.
One of the biggest assumptions kiss cams make, though, is that people at games are straight. Throughout its history, this stunt has perpetuated heteronormative norms, as well as homophobic ones. In the early aughts, the Pittsburgh Penguins came under fire for putting men wearing the jersey of the visiting team up on the kiss cam together, a practice that was stopped after LGBTQ rights groups objected. And in 2015, the New York Mets were also forced to issue an apology and discontinue their practice of putting players from the opposing team on the kiss cam together after it was criticized on Twitter as homophobic.
Schindler says that putting two men on the kiss cam for a laugh is a gag he’s seen teams do in the past, but it’s not something he would do at a Titans game now. “From a PC standpoint, people felt offended” by two men being put on the kiss cam as a joke, he says, referring to the criticism the “lark” has received, “and the last thing we want to do is offend people on something that’s supposed to be fun.” But at the Titans’ September 30 game against the Eagles, two men—both in Eagles jerseys—were put on camera during the segment, and they embraced in an awkward hug-slash-headlock. “I honestly don’t know” how or why it happened, Schindler said. “It’s possible that the camera operator and director thought it was funny and put it up. Sometimes in ‘live tv’ stuff like that happens.”
Things have gotten slightly more inclusive in recent years, as same-sex couples have been more frequently included in the kiss cam’s view and have received applause at some stadiums. “I think early on, it just wasn’t on people’s radars, and it was a knee-jerk reaction just to do male/female couples,” Calia said. “But I’ve seen it across the league that it’s just more common to [feature same-sex couples], and I think it’s great.” The first same-sex kiss on an NHL kiss cam happened in 2016, at a Los Angeles Kings game. Just last week, two men kissing on the kiss cam at a Los Angeles Clippers Pride Night reportedly received a standing ovation. However, the majority of the couples on the kiss cam still tend to be heterosexual—even at Pride Nights. According to Deadspin, in 2010 the St. Louis Cardinals hosted an “Out at the Ballpark” night but didn’t show any same-sex couples on the kiss cam. And this season during the Lakers’ Pride Night, only two of the 10 couples featured on the kiss cam were same-sex pairings.
But not all teams are making an effort to feature same-sex couples on their kiss cams. “We don’t target [same-sex couples]. We generally look for a man and a woman,” Schindler says. “I think that [featuring same-sex couples] is a scenario where there are people who might be upset about it, that someone could find it offensive. Don’t take that as a political statement; we just don’t want to upset anyone.” This is despite the fact the NFL released an ad filmed during the 2017 Pro Bowl called “Love Has No Labels” that expressed an intention to diversify the kiss cam. “The message is not political, it’s apolitical,” Eric Jannon, an executive creative director at R/GA, the creative agency that partnered with the NFL to make the ad, told The Wall Street Journal at the time.
Making kiss cams inclusive of same-sex couples can be a double-edged sword. Providing more visibility to a gay couple could open them up to harassment or violence from homophobic fans. In one instance from 2017, an arena announcer for the Sheffield Steelers, a British hockey team, called a kiss between two men on the kiss cam “disgusting” and asked security to remove the couple. For as much progress as professional sports has made in recent years when it comes to LGBTQ acceptance, the game-day experience is still not necessarily known for embracing queerness.
The days of kiss cams being an apolitical, spontaneous, and relatively benign in-game feature are over, whether teams like it or not. Sports leagues have diverse fan bases, and it’s no longer enough to simply not be exclusionary. Explicit inclusion is the next frontier. The kiss cam, for as innovative and novel as it was when it was developed, just doesn’t seem built to withstand the cultural shifts we’re witnessing.
An incident on a kiss cam at a Syracuse University football game in 2015 led Steve Port to write a letter to the editor of Syracuse.com. Port wrote that a woman who shook her head “no” when she was featured on the camera was met with “no less than six sets of hands from the seats around her shov[ing] her unwilling face into” the face of the young man sitting next to her. Port told the Associated Press at the time that he “wasn’t out to kill the kiss cam,” but he was “out to raise an important issue that [he] saw happening.” He felt like what he saw on the kiss cam was at odds with the nationwide discussion about sexual violence on campuses. He described the incident as “oh, my God, this woman is saying no and it didn’t matter.”
We’re in a place, culturally, where it’s time to rethink the kiss cam gimmick. Port’s letter led Syracuse to discontinue its kiss cam, and Sue Edson, chief communications officer for Syracuse athletics, confirmed that the school no longer does a kiss cam at their home games. “There’s a compulsory public display of affection that today, right now, in this #MeToo moment, seems really strange to have roll on without anyone talking about it,” says Yago Colás, a professor of English at Oberlin College and a basketball historian.
Port addressed this in his letter, as well: “The instances I witnessed at the game encourage and condone sexual assault and a sense of male entitlement, at best,” he wrote, “and they are an actual instance of assault, at worst.”
While kiss cams definitely provide an element of pressure, it’s unlikely that the pressure extends far enough to meet the legal definition of coercion. Under New York criminal law, coercion requires instilling in the victim the fear that if the demand is not met, the offender will do something like cause physical injury or damage to a property, says Carrie Goldberg, a New York–based lawyer who specializes in sexual violence cases. That threshold is unlikely to be met with a kiss cam, but Goldberg says that if someone is harmed from the kiss cam, they could potentially file a civil case.
“Of course there’s nothing inherently perverse about kissing, or even sex for that matter,” says Fabello, the sex researcher, “but there’s something disturbing about performing it for others’ entertainment in a decidedly non-sexual environment.”
Some NBA teams are opting out of kiss cams. A 76ers spokesperson said that they “do not have this as part of [their] in-game programming.” In 2009, the WNBA’s Washington Mystics came under fire for their reasoning for not including the feature. “We got a lot of kids here,” managing partner Sheila Johnson told Washington Post columnist Mike Wise at the time. “We just don’t find it appropriate.” Many people rightly saw this as a coded allusion to the fact that what she viewed as “inappropriate” was the potential of kids seeing two women kissing, because the WNBA has a large lesbian fan base.
The WNBA’s Connecticut Sun also don’t include the feature at their games, but not because they think there’s anything inappropriate about their fans’ sexual orientation. “There are so many new and interactive things to do during timeouts [and] breaks—not to mention sponsored elements we need to cover—it’s just not something that has made the cut,” says Amber Cox, vice president of the Sun. “Plus, a real focus has been including more videos into games that highlight player personalities. We want to use the time we have with a captive audience to create off-the-court connections with our fans—especially those who might be attending for the first time.”
Colás speculates that the kiss cam is still a staple in the NBA because it’s a more mainstream league than the WNBA, and teams expect to have more casual fans in attendance who might be looking for in-game entertainment that isn’t necessarily focused on the players. But he says he’d love to see the NBA go the same route as the WNBA and provide more in-game content that lets people get to know their favorite athletes.
The Toronto Raptors do a kiss cam for a few select games each season “tied to a partner activations (i.e. a jeweler) and appropriate themes (Valentine’s Day, New Year’s, etc.) that connect and add to the overall experience for fans,” a Raptors spokesperson wrote in an email. He said they use a few other cams throughout the season, too, including a hug cam and a high-five cam.
The high-five cam is something some teams are already implementing to get fans engaged while also solving most of the problems that come with kiss cams. High fives are incredibly relevant to the culture within a sporting event: Fans and teammates already engage in the celebratory action after a big play. It’s still an imperfect solution because many disabled people can’t participate. But a kid can high-five their parent. Bros can high-five each other. Friends can high-five. Teammates can high-five. So can coworkers, significant others, and siblings. Calia says the Hawks have experimented with different cams, like flex cams and dance cams, but he says the kiss cam is “tried and true.”
Even still, people like Colás hope that the future of the kiss cam at sporting events is that there isn’t one. “Where we’re at as a culture, we need … something going on all the time” to keep us entertained, he says. And if someone is looking for entertainment beyond the court, here’s to a future in which it doesn’t come at the expense of fans’ feelings of safety.