Contrary to popular opinion, the most powerful man in the Kansas City Royals organization isn’t owner David Glass or manager Ned Yost or even the big-boned, big-swinging slugger Billy Butler.
No, the most powerful man in the organization is the guy striding into the office right now, a couple of hours before a recent game, dressed in shorts and flip-flops, a skateboard tucked under one arm.
His name is Todd Kinsey, and for most of the past five years he’s been the Royals’ production coordinator/event presentation and production — which is a fancy way of saying he’s the guy who runs the Kiss Cam.
Since it began appearing in the 1980s as a lighthearted complement to the on-field action, the Kiss Cam has become as synonymous with live sporting events as an overpriced beer. In stadiums and arenas across America, it has sparked relationships and ended others — a young woman made headlines recently when she doused her significant other in beer after he refused to get off his cellphone during the couple’s Kiss Cam appearance.
And, on at least one occasion, it has sparked political unrest: Last summer, after attending a U.S. basketball team exhibition game, President Barack Obama and wife Michelle found themselves at the center of a small public firestorm for failing to smooch for the Kiss Cam.
“I don’t know of a place, whether it’s professional or college, that doesn’t do it,” says Chris DeRuyscher, director of event presentation and production for the Royals. “It’s just a staple.”
The Kiss Cam’s widespread popularity, meanwhile, has turned guys like Kinsey into romantic puppet masters, with the voyeuristic ability to force you — and any other baseball fan with the guts to bring a date to the ballpark — into very public displays of affection.
A 28-year-old Florida native, Kinsey carries out his duties from Kauffman Stadium’s cramped control room high above home plate. There, he occupies a seat in front of a panel packed with buttons and joysticks, and a bustling collection of 15 television screens showing live footage from six video cameras.
He communicates with the camera operators to identify promising couples — “or what looks like a couple,” he says, “because you can never really tell if it is or not” — and then project their images onto the Royals’ 105-foot-tall video board behind center field, where they will be accompanied by romantic music and seen by a stadium full of fans.
After five years with the Royals, Kinsey reigns over the 45-second Kiss Cam segment. He knows, for instance, that elderly couples almost always warrant a considerable crowd reaction, and that a pair of players on the opposing team does the same. He knows whom to avoid (Royals players and coaches), and he strives for the rare nights when all of the 10 to 15 couples featured on the big screen actually lock lips — the production coordinator’s version of a perfect game.
The smile he wears while discussing his work indicates a firm grasp of the power he possesses, though he tries, he insists, to (mostly) use that power for good.
He has, at one time or another, played wingman — when a friend brought a female acquaintance he was interested in to a game a couple years back, Kinsey made sure they ended up on the big screen come Kiss Cam time. And he has provided more than one angst-ridden male tween with a golden opportunity to make that nerve-racking first move.
As Kinsey puts it, “We have no problems facilitating something like that.”
At the same time, it’s far from an exact science.
Despite his experience, there is, in the end, really no telling what might happen when two people find themselves on the stadium’s Kiss Cam. He has mistakenly spotlighted brothers and sisters. He’s caused (unintentional) rifts between couples when one wasn’t keen on kissing the other in such a public forum.
One night recently, he highlighted an elderly couple he figured would make for a good final kiss, only to discover they weren’t actually a couple; the woman’s companion was seated to the other side, just outside the camera’s frame.
Still, there are worse ways to make a living than spending your evenings overlooking the lush green grass and surging fountains of the K, facilitating romance 45 seconds at a time.
During a recent weeknight game against the Detroit Tigers, Kinsey and the dozen or so others in the control room go about their business in a studied but casual way. Kinsey, eating a salad, runs through his slew of other duties: overseeing the Oblivious Cam, the Fan of the Game and the Miller Lite Six Pack of Facts.
In the top of the seventh inning, Kinsey begins talking via headset with the six camera operators, lining up potential couples he thinks will make for good Kiss Cam theater. The screens in front of him begin filling with potential couples, and a few minutes later, immediately following the seventh-inning stretch, a red heart appears on the stadium’s video board, and the Kiss Cam is underway.
Staring at footage of couples from the six cameras, he quickly analyzes which ones appear the most promising and begins calling out which shot to display on the big screen.
A montage fills the video board. A middle-aged couple in matching powder-blue Royals T-shirts. A couple of 20-somethings. A Detroit fan dressed in a Tiger-print suit, sitting alone, who obliges the crowd by smooching his Tiger hand-puppet. One after another, they kiss.
When it ends, Kinsey and a few of the others politely celebrate another installment gone well.
Todd Kinsey’s Kiss Cam!” says one co-worker.
Later, Kinsey gives that night’s edition a glowing review. Things got a little hectic behind the scenes, he admits — one couple initially seemed perfect, until the woman apparently left for the restroom at the last minute — but the control team turned in a valiant effort, with every couple who appeared on the video board kissing. A perfect game.
Kinsey has never appeared on the Kiss Cam himself, he says, and asked how he might perform if the tables were one day turned — if he were to find himself on the other side of the Kiss Cam lens — he says he’d do his best to put on a show.
But he’s perfectly content in his current role.
“I would prefer,” he says, “to be the man behind the curtain.”