There’s an arms race of sorts now taking place in sports arenas. Hence, the Quad.
The Quad is the world’s biggest t-shirt cannon. The massive, four-barreled gatling gun resides in the bowels of the Milwaukee Bucks’ home arena. At some point during each home game, Bango, the Bucks mascot, rides it onto the court like Patton riding a tank into battle. Then he fires off 186 shirts in about 15 seconds, amid a cloud of cryo and shrieks from all the fans wanting something free.
The weapon of mass distraction is the latest brainchild of Todd Scheel, a former wedding DJ and Milwaukee-area businessman who now reigns as the Oppenheimer of arena armaments.
Scheel, 55, wasn’t the first to weaponize t-shirt giveaways; the Orlando Magic made that a thing in sports in the late 1980s. But the delivery systems have come a long way from the big rubber bands that were initially used (more on that history later). And nobody’s more responsible for the escalation in firepower than Scheel. He’s spent more than the last decade coming up with a series of bigger mousetraps: Before conceiving and fabricating the first four-barrel cannon, Scheel had already unleashed the first single, double- and triple-barrel shirt shooters of this sort.
At the 38,000-square-foot weapons lab/big-kid playground in suburban New Berlin, Wisc., that also serves as headquarters for his company, FX in Motion, Scheel also produces other implements for arena use. There are high-end confetti cannons that, he says, “will bury your floor in confetti,” real cannons (here’s one recently delivered to MLS’s Houston Dynamo), and mini-parachute systems that he brags are capable of making any coliseum “look like Normandy for about 55 seconds.” The company, which now has a full-time staff of 50, is getting into producing rugged, anti-aircraft-looking vehicles equipped with multi-barreled t-shirt shooters for outdoor stadiums, such as the Cincinnati Reds’ Redzilla.
The NBA has invested much more than any other major sports league in “dead-ball entertainment,” or whatever you want to call the sponsor-friendly efforts to keep ticket buyers occupied during game breaks. Scheel boasts that all 30 NBA teams, and “more than 250” college basketball programs, use FXiM’s wares.
For a guy who says he’s “not a sports fan,” Scheel sure has had an impact on the sports world.
And nobody is more into Scheel’s brainchildren than the hometown team.
“We’re lucky to have Todd in our backyard,” says Johnny Watson, longtime game operations manager of the Bucks. “We want to keep [fans] engaged the whole time, show them things they’ve never seen. The court is your theater, your stage, and with the pace of play and the timeouts you get, it really allows you to push the envelope with entertainment. We‘ve got a really exciting brand and league right now. You want to live up to that experience off the floor as well. My staff kind of ideates, thinking of new things, and we bring that to him: ‘Is this possible?’ Then he and his team are great at bringing everything to life for us.”
Before this season, the Bucks got Scheel to guarantee FXiM wouldn’t fabricate a bigger or gaudier gun than the Quad for any other sports franchise for at least a year. Scheel says the Bucks wanted the most massive “mascot toy” available in time for their new arena’s opening. Team management showed how serious they were by removing a group of high-dollar seats from their original seating plan to make sure there’d be room to roll out the shiny new ordnance.
On the December night I had an audience with the Quad, the Bucks and MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo were in first place in the Eastern Conference standings, and were hosting the two-time defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors. But a basketball game, even Bucks vs. Warriors—the greatest team of this era vs. the likeliest threat to its supremacy—is apparently no longer enough.
So even before tipoff, the Bucks’ game operations crew, which a team spokesman told me numbered “more than 100” workers on that night, started guiding a seemingly endless supply of non-basketball diversions from beneath the arena toward the court. There was a cartoonishly large plinko game, a team of square-dancers shuffling to James Brown cuts, and even a five-minute, five-second concert put on by ‘80s pop rapper Young MC (plenty of time to break off “Bust a Move”). Then there was the Bratzooka, another giggle-friendly Scheel creation in the form of a one-off (for now) Gatling gun-style sausage shooter attached to a massive BBQ grill, firing off a dozen warm bratwursts at Bucks fans in five seconds, all wrapped up in a foam-noodle capsule he also conceived that he guarantees will keep the food from breaking up like the Challenger while being shot skyward.
But none of the attention-getting bits, each of which had a dedicated sponsor, created more of a crowd buzz than when Bango pulled the trigger on the Quad during his third-quarter ride, and delivered a fast and furious barrage of balled-up blouses. Fans of all ages went after the bounty like Dennis Rodman after a rebound.
Some faction of sports fans—purists to some, curmudgeons to others—will sneer at the Quad, point out that the launcher, unique as it is, has nothing to do with basketball, and rail that all the diversions that have made Scheel a sports world force depreciate the game and contribute to the utter disappearance of down time inside NBA arenas.
Before tipoff, I had asked Dan Cole, a Scheel disciple and FXiM manager who’s served as game-night caretaker of the Quad since its birth, to defend the beast. He saw no need.
“There’s no reason for this to exist,” Cole tells me as he pats the Quad, “except that it’s awesome.”
I first spoke to Scheel in 2009, after seeing his first generation gatling gun t-shirt cannon, the model with merely one barrel, at a Georgetown Hoyas game. The gun left a bigger impression on me than the game, and I wanted to hear from its creator. I was just as taken by the enthusiasm Scheel had for his work.
“I’m a big kid getting to play with big toys in big arenas,” he told me at the time. “I can’t wait to get back to the shop again and blow things up.”
His business, and the number of cannon barrels on his gatling gun shirt shooters, have increased proportionally in the years between our last talk and when I visited his new headquarters early into this NBA season. I asked Scheel to expand on that not-a-sports-fan refrain I heard from him all those years ago.
He hems a bit, then brings up the moment he found God. It came about seven years ago on a Sunday, when he was visiting Texas and took in a service at a Dallas megachurch. The pastor threw an amalgam of the same sort of special effects and props at the parishioners that Scheel’s made a living working into fans’ game-day experience—everything but the t-shirt cannons, really.
“The first time I had that ‘aha!’ moment, the first time it hit me and I finally heard the message, the first time I had my walk with Christ,” Scheel tells me, with a level of born-again zeal you’d expect of preachers or pro wrestlers, “was in a non-denominational church in Texas with all the lights and the band and the video walls. And the way [the pastor] spoke it wasn’t just ‘Okay, let’s go to Hymn 9:43 and pray.’ It was all, ‘Wow!’ The PA system had subwoofers, so not only are you hearing the words in the worship songs, you’re feeling them in your chest. There was haze and lights, so you have the visual. And for the worship songs, instead of looking down in a book, the [lyrics] are up on the video boards onstage, and I can sing along and watch. All these things together were amplifying the message. Why was I connecting? Because [the pastor was] doing exactly what I’m doing! It wasn’t about a distraction! It was about engaging them even more!”
Smoke machines and booming bass might not have much to do with Jesus, in other words, but when put to good use by a pastor they can make you wanna keep coming back to church. Scheel says he joined a church as soon as he got back to Milwaukee and has stayed observant ever since. He recently bestowed a few area churches with massive video panels from the giant scoreboard from the Bradley Center, the Bucks’ previous arena, that he salvaged before that building was demolished. (Here’s the roof getting blown up in January.)
The Bradley Center was hallowed ground to Scheel. It’s the place where he worked his first sporting event in the late 1980s, a night that caused his career to veer. He’d been running a DJ business with lots of wedding work since high school, and would have been happy never leaving that gig. But his break came when a cosmetologist Scheel was dating talked up her boyfriend’s DJ skills while cutting the locks of a customer who was also the owner of the Milwaukee Wave, the local indoor soccer team. That led to an invitation to the Bradley Center to work a Wave game with the sound crew. Scheel remembers that the regular staff was content to just “turn on a U2 CD” during every game break. Then a dispute over a call incited the visiting coach to pull his squad off the field. Scheel, noting the tumult taking place down below and sensing the crowd’s growing discontent, took control of the playlist, ejected Bono, and pumped “Big Girls Don’t Cry” over the house PA.
“The whole place goes crazy,” he says.
He passed the audition. Scheel started his job as house DJ at the Bradley Center two weeks later, and began working games for Marquette basketball, the Bucks, and the Wave, as well as the local arena football and minor league hockey contests. He was still doing weddings, too, and says he realized pretty quick that the sports gig was basically: same job, bigger rooms. “Play this song, then see how that would [affect] the energy!” he says. He also decided that what made him love the DJ gig was the ability it gave him to manipulate crowd energy, which was found in far more abundant supply at sporting contests than receptions, even if he was not a big sports guy. “I was addicted to the energy of sports,” he says.
Scheel’s decision to focus his arenas over wedding halls was finalized in the winter of 2002-2003. Marquette won 15 of its last 16 regular season games, with burgeoning legend Dwyane Wade leading the school to its first Final Four appearance in more than a quarter-century. “There was so much energy,” Scheel says, “I walked out of the games, I’m ready to do a doubleheader!”
A peak came when Marquette faced No. 15 Wake Forest. “Dwyane Wade hits like four threes in a row,” Scheel recalls with giddiness, “and the other coach [Wake’s Dave Prosser] calls timeout. The place is going crazy. And I hit ‘Zombie Nation’ with all the faders at full and the whole arena is bouncing. It’s incredible!” Marquette coach Tom Crean noted in postgame remarks that the crowd gave the building “a March feel.” Others noticed the energy, too: Days later, Scheel got a call from Wake with a request from Prosser that he come right down to from Winston-Salem, N.C., to pump up the volume when the Demon Deacons faced hated Duke in a nationally televised game.
Traditionally, Scheel learned, the arena sound crew would just let the Wake pep band play during breaks. But when Wake went on a run in the second half and got the crowd going crazy and forced Coach K to call a TO—a “hot timeout” in game operations parlance—Scheel drowned out the band by pumping, you guessed it, “Zombie Nation” all over again. The already rocking room rocked harder. Wake went on to beat Duke in double-OT, snapping a 14-game losing streak in the rivalry. “The students stormed the floor!” Scheel says. “Everything couldn’t have worked any better.”
His takeaways: Whatever worked in Milwaukee would work outside of Milwaukee. FXiM set its sights beyond its backyard.
Any sports fan looking to pin the t-shirt launcher boom on just one guy can put it on Pat Williams.
In 1986, Williams left the Philadelphia 76ers after a long run as general manager, with four NBA Finals appearances and one title (1983) under his belt. He got involved with James Hewitt’s bid to get Orlando an NBA franchise, which was granted in 1987, though the team wouldn’t actually start playing until 1989. Over the next two years, Williams, as president of the team, devoted as much energy toward developing off-court entertainment programs as he did player personnel. He now says his priorities were partially guided by a “when in Rome…” mindset.
“Disney set the standards in [Orlando] for all things entertainment,” Williams tells me. “I realized in addition to building a basketball team, we were going to have to build an entertainment center, at the Disney level of entertainment.”
But Williams was also a disciple of Bill Veeck, the legendary White Sox owner and seminal figure of value-added entertainment in the sports realm—Veeck’s 1986 obituary in the Chicago Tribune said he “fractured many of baseball’s stuffy rules in the belief that the fans came to the ballpark not only to see a game but to be entertained.” Veeck was the guy who installed the first “exploding scoreboard” in sports, put a dwarf in the lineup, and put on “Disco Demolition Night” in 1978.
When Williams was a minor league baseball administrator in the early 1960s, he cold-called Veeck and asked for a personal audience to pick his brain. Thus began a friendship that lasted until Veeck’s death in 1986, just as Williams was putting together the Magic’s operation. (Williams later authored a biography of Veeck, Marketing Your Dreams: Business and Life Lessons from Bill Veeck, Baseball’s Promotional Genius, published in 2000.)
“Bill’s position was you can’t sell these games on the won and lost column. It’s too risky,” says Williams. “But, you can guarantee a night of great fun every time you come into my ballpark!”
Veeck’s influence was all over Williams’s moves in Orlando. Long before the Magic signed any players, the team had a mascot, Stuff the Magic Dragon, and a dance team. Williams says the pivotal moment for the operation, and for the evolution of t-shirt launchers, came when a pair of local magicians, Tim Glancey and Giovanni Livera, cold-called him just as he’d done to Veeck a quarter century earlier. They introduced themselves to Williams while taking a fully inflated regulation basketball out of a briefcase too small to fit the orb. Williams thought it was, well, magic. He hired them immediately.
“They had ideas totally out of the box for this basketball team of ours,” Williams says.
The magicians showed off some potential game-night diversions they’d concocted, the most lasting being Backpack Basketball, which was a hydraulic backboard to carry around and raise up instantly so fans could take their own shots during timeouts, and a slingshot that would fire t-shirts at the fans.
Glancey and Livera were too excited about their shirt launcher idea to wait for the Magic’s debut to unleash it. They got an opportunity to show it off early from their new pal, Stuff the Magic Dragon, who happened to be played by Dave Raymond, better known as the original Phillie Phanatic, one of most famous mascots of all time. Raymond got the Orlando gig by knowing Williams from his run with the 76ers. In the spring of 1989, a few months before the Magic’s inaugural game, Raymond invited Glancey and Livera to the Phanatic’s birthday celebration, a huge annual promotion at Veterans Stadium that featured lots of mascots and on-field entertainers. Glancey and Livera wanted to impress the Phanatic, a character whose reliance on edgy gags has led to his being regularly referred to as “the most sued mascot in baseball history.”
So they brought the slingshot, made of big bungee cords, to the party. Raymond says he had one in college that he used to fire water balloons at sunbathers on campus. Glancey and Livera repurposed the gadget to turn textiles into projectiles at Veterans Stadium. The bit killed.
“We were performing in center field,” says Livera, “and I raised my hand to my ears, like who wants it? We’d run to point our body to the other side of the stadium, taunt the audience about who wants it more, and they would all cheer! We couldn’t believe we could get a stadium of 46,000 fans cheering that crazy for a t-shirt! We knew we had something!”
Raymond counts Glancey and Livera’s performance in Philly as the birth of the t-shirt launcher. “That was the beginning,” he says.
The prop got the same pop from Magic fans. A major shoe company stepped in to sponsor the t-shirt launches. Glancey and Livera’s whole act was so well received that by the Magic’s third season, Williams had more than doubled the magicians’ budget and told them to hire enough game-day entertainers to work the upper and lower decks of the Orlando Arena. Glancey and Livera formed their own company, Sports Magic Team Inc., which farmed out pep squads to other cities and sports to deliver the same amalgam of gags and launched t-shirts the Magic fans had been getting. (They were even hired to bring their launchers on tour with Jimmy Buffet.)
And pretty soon, Livera notes, “the only games where you don’t see t-shirt launching are golf and polo.”
“Everybody in sports, and I mean everybody, was doing what they did,” says Williams. “It just became standard operating procedure, and it all started with these two guys who I never heard of who just showed up in my office. Everybody in sports has added their own little tweaks, but the heart of it was what those guys came up with.”
Why are fans so taken with t-shirts? Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim partnered with Tufts psychology professor Sam Sommers to blow the lid off of some of the mysteries of sports fandom, including the allure of launched shirts. Their studied conclusion: “[T]he real appeal seems to be simply this: The shirts are free.”
The Phillie Phanatic thinks there’s more to the appeal than the freebie-ness theory accounts for. He also sees the balled-up t-shirt as a surrogate foul ball, perhaps the holy grail of unexpected souvenirs available to sports fans. “I did about 81 games a year for about 17 years and I can count on one hand how many times a foul ball came close to me,” Raymond says. “So it’s a big deal!”
Livera says he and Glancey, who died in 2017, also thought long and hard about the appeal of the launched t-shirts. “It’s about the experience,” he says. “This is a memento, like keeping a ticket. It’s also like winning the lottery. People want to think they’re lucky. And when they get hit with a t-shirt, it confirms that they were right.”
Whatever the reason, evidence of the launchers’ mainstreaming abounds. Anybody playing NBA 2K will likely spot a t-shirt cannon on the court during timeouts. The New Yorker mocked the cannons in a magazine cartoon. The Simpsons writers acknowledged the boom by killing off Maude Flanders in a 2000 episode by having her knocked over a grandstand railing by a t-shirt cannon at a stock car race. Then there’s Bud Light’s homage from its “Real Men of Genius” series to “Mr. T-Shirt launcher inventor.”
“When we saw that commercial, Tim and I called each other and gave each other a long distance high five,” says Livera. “Man, we made it!”
Not everybody is taken with the the cannons’ creep into the conventional. A 2017 piece in The Atlantic mulled the changes in the crowds that came to Boston Celtics games back in the day in the crusty but beloved Boston Garden with fans at the TD Garden, its swankier replacement. The old schoolers felt the newer arena “had far too many jumbotrons and T-shirt cannons for their taste.”
“Back then, people came for the basketball,” one says. “They didn’t come to win a free T-shirt.”
But Williams, for one, is fine with whatever role he played in launching the launcher boom. He he has no time for anybody complaining that the distractions are detractions.
“Bill Veeck would be loving this,” he says, of the boom in t-shirt cannons. “That t-shirt probably cost 40 cents or 50 cents, but it’s $1,000 worth of goodwill and excitement and joy to somebody who catches it. They’ll be remembering it the rest of their life! If it was up to the ‘purists’ we’d be out of business by Mother’s Day. This is entertainment. Those people who say the game should be enough, well, they’d be jumping up there with everybody else if a t-shirt’s coming near them, trying to catch it.”
By the early 1990s, Glancey and Livera upped their shirt-launching firepower from the slingshot to repurposed potato cannons, which relied on compressed air to propel their materiel. And over the next decade lots of other NBA teams (including the San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns) and big-league franchises in other sports took up similar arms.
The first time I remember seeing t-shirt guns was at a 1997 game between the Washington Wizards and Seattle SuperSonics to open the D.C. building now known as Capital One Arena. I noticed all the shirts were going to the side opposite Clinton; I later heard that the Secret Service requested that nobody aim near the president. And these fears were merely for hand-held so-called “spud guns,” that at the time were the best arena weapon available.
Scheel took it from there. A long, long way.
The first high-caliber t-shirt gun grew out of Scheel’s desire to find a way to shoot lots of meat at the fans in a short amount of time.
Before the 2007-2008 season, the Memphis Grizzlies went to Scheel and said they wanted a bigger t-shirt cannon than anybody else had.
“They wanted something that’ll reach the roof,” Scheel says.
At that time, he’d never offered FXiM clients anything more powerful or showy than the the single-shot shirt guns of the sort that were pretty ubiquitous in sports by then.
But when Memphis came calling, he had already spent years working with his father, a career engineer, on developing a multi-chambered hot dog shooter in hopes of furthering the single-shot sausage guns that were already serving fans in the upper reaches of baseball stadiums. He couldn’t find anybody as into a massive food cannon as he was; even Memphis had turned his prototype food cannon down.
So he just tweaked the assemblage of PVC pipe, CO² tanks, a car battery, and steel bars on wheels that was going to make for the world’s fanciest hot dog shooter to accommodate t-shirts, and sent Memphis the first gatling gun t-shirt cannon.
Grizzlies fans loved the guns, which took five seconds to fire 12-shirt batches. He went back to Marquette, and they ordered one and loved it, too. Then Marquette’s Big East rival, Georgetown, ordered a gatling gun of its own in 2008. And word about Scheel’s toys continued spreading throughout the sports world.
Scheel says the original gatling gun was three years old when the Philadelphia 76ers called. “They said, ‘We want something bigger!’” Scheel says. “So we gave them a double.” Soon enough, the arenas were teeming with doubles, which could shoot 60 shirts in 10 seconds. (The New York Knicks used two at once; the New York Rangers would bring four double-barreled guns out on the ice simultaneously.)
Then in 2015, he gave the Bucks a first-generation triple-barrel version, which fired off 114 shirts in 10 seconds.
Scheel says he occasionally hears from relative greenhorns in the dead-ball entertainment realm trying to stake their own claim to having the biggest, baddest t-shirt cannon. His response is some form of, “Bring it on!”
“Let’s do it, my gun against your gun,” he says. “Mine will make yours look silly. It’s a toy compared to what we build! There’s nobody in the world that has what we have!”
He says his designs for cannons have become fodder for intellectual property thieves. Imitation is flattering, but annoying. Scheel says he’s learned after trademarking “T-Shirt Gatling Gun” that there’s little mileage in claiming rights to designs for mascot toys. So he’s stopped registering patents and trademarks, and found the safest way to defend the viability of his novel products is to come up with more novel products.
“We could spend $15,000 for a patent,” he says, “and then somebody steals it and you gotta spend $50,000 to $70,000 to protect that patent, and the only thing you’re going to win is the [compensatory] damages. Our point is that we gotta keep going, so by the time somebody steals the single-barrel gatling gun, we’re already moving the double-barrel. Then we do the triple. Then we do the Quad. Then we’re putting them on machines. Nobody else [in the off-court entertainment realm] has the money, staffing, talent, resources to do all that we can do.”
In the case of t-shirt guns, that means bigger is better. FXiM started developing the Quad for the Chicago Bulls, who wanted a big-splash gadget as part of its sponsorship deal with an auto parts manufacturer. The Bucks heard the Bulls were looking to get the new armament, and, while Chicago mulled all the logistical headaches of getting the big gun down to the arena floor—“They were going to have to bring it in through the roof,” Scheel says—the hometown team swooped in and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “They didn’t want anybody else to have it!’” Scheel says.
There are some folks scared enough of the existing designs: Australian authorities took a single-barrel t-shirt cannon away from the Townsville Crocodiles and the Cairns Taipans of the National Basketball League in 2016. Crocs management railed against the ruling, calling the t-shirt launcher “almost a foundation piece of game day entertainment.” The same year, the guns also got banned from all Australian Rules Football games. The devices thought of as mascot toys in the U.S. were defined Down Under as “category B weapons,” meaning special licenses were heretofore required to manufacture or shoot them.
And there is occasional evidence that the diversions aren’t completely harmless. In 1999, a fan at an Oakland A’s spring training game almost died while falling out of the stands trying to catch a launched t-shirt. A Houston woman sued the Astros for a million bucks last month, alleging a point-blank blast from a t-shirt cannon broke her finger, an incident noted for giggles by Conan O’Brien. In 2008 the Boston Globe reported on how the Chicago Bulls mascot, Benny the Bull, shot Kevin Garnett and James Posey of the visiting Boston Celtics with his t-shirt cannon during a timeout. Other than maybe their pride, nothing was even bruised by the mascot’s attack. Chip the Buffalo, the Colorado University mascot, blasted himself himself in the naughty parts with a cannon last fall. (Scheel’s dubious over whether the viral ball blast was legit or a stunt, noting that the alleged injury got Chip got an amount of publicity any mascot “would give his left nut for.”) But the liability of teams when t-shirt cannons turn ugly is still an unsettled legal matter.
Scheel’s never had any brush of that sort with law enforcement over his wares in this country. But he’s wary of the legal system. “The legal departments are my biggest competition,” Scheel says.
Scheel doesn’t want to risk Bango or any other cannon shooter turning a gun on the fans: So the Quad’s cannons are at fixed 45-degree angle, so Bango can send a barrage of shirts up to the cheap seats, but he couldn’t go all Phanatic and aim low to blast a courtside patron or visiting player.
“He can only go left or right,” Scheel says. “I used to make things DJ proof. Now I have to make them mascot proof.”
There are no current plans to add a fifth barrel to the t-shirt cannons, Scheel says. Space would seem to inhibit future expansion. The Bulls, remember, realized they couldn’t fit the four-barrel rendition into their arena except through the roof. And the Bucks had to remove pricey courtside seats so that the entrance for the Quad would be smooth each night.
But Scheel isn’t one to rest on his barrels: If anybody wants a bigger gun—The Pent? The Quint?—he’s standing by.
“If the Bucks win the championship, they could say, ‘We want something bigger!’” Scheel says. “And with the redesigned platform for the Quad, we could do it. We already have the design. Somebody just needs to pull the trigger.”
There are no signs the fans are tiring of t-shirts. Giovanni Livera, the sports world’s original shirt shooter, says he’s noted and enjoyed the escalation in size and power of the fun guns over the years, almost all of it attributable to Scheel. So I asked him: Where is this arena arms race headed?
“I guess it’s the t-shirt bomb,” Livera says. “Just a big pile of shirts that they put in the center of the court and blow it up. Everybody will get t-shirt shrapnel.”
Correction: The article originally stated that Bill Veeck put a dwarf in the White Sox lineup; Veeck actually put a dwarf in the St. Louis Browns lineup.