There's a new Jungle growing as the Bengals take on the biggest gameday overhaul in the 22 seasons of Paul Brown Stadium.
A brand new and flashy lighting system. A massive "Ruler of the Jungle" presentation stage. A foam sculpture players' run-out tunnel lined with multiple columns complete with tigers on each side exhaling smoke.
It's just the beginning for a new staff charged with turning The Jungle tradition into a garden of early 21st century delights for fans.
"Anything that moves or makes sound in the stadium is going to be a fresh look and feel," says Wil Blackwell, senior manager of gameday production who is overseeing a total re-boot of the control room. "Everything you've seen in the past, everything should be new. You're going to see a brand new gameday show here."
Which is exactly what Elizabeth Blackburn had in mind when she joined her childhood team a year and a half ago as director of strategy and engagement. Blackburn grew up in the stadium named after her great grandfather taking it all in as one of those ultimate fans and now that all the gates are opened back up for the first time in nearly two years, there are going to be fireworks.
Each Bengals touchdown this season is to be greeted with fireworks, not to mention new scoreboard graphics. But all plays, such as an interception or sack, are going to look new on what Blackwell calls "full takeovers," of the boards after big moments.
"New traditions are hard," says Alex Schweppe, gameday and live events coordinator. "With proper communication and understanding our fan base, it can go a long way. We're doing things that have never been done here before. Like the "Ruler of the Jungle." The fans have been wanting a new tradition."
Blackburn and Seth Tanner, the club's director of content, have turned to youth and experience to produce change with new hires earlier this spring.
Schweppe, 25, a Cincinnati product from Madeira, arrives from working gamedays for the Saints and NBA Pelicans in New Orleans. Blackwell, who proudly tells you he was born the same year of the Bengals' first Super Bowl run, brings six Emmys from working productions for the Chiefs and 49ers during 17 years in the NFL. Dan Brown, 31, manager of creative services, worked Division I sports at Syracuse, Florida and Mississippi State while also working as a contracted designer for NFL Network.
"We're looking to challenge the status quo," Schweppe says. "We want to do what Bengals fans want and match that with the 2021 NFL game presence for the ultimate fan experience."
Start with the "Ruler of the Jungle," and Schweppe has a feel for that from his days with the Saints, where the tone would be set by a current player leading the frenzied crowd in a pregame "Who Dat," chant. The Bengals have similar plans for a "Who Dey," version with a local celebrity or former player leading the charge.
All on the 25-by-25 foot presentation stage that is going to be six feet off the ground in the southeast slice of the stadium with the suspension bridge in the background.
The stage is going to be a busy place with COVID protocols expected to limit field accessibility. Military heroes, anthem singers, check presentations and contest winners are just some of the activities expected to take center stage during the game.
Pregame buzz is also going to have a different sound with the Jungle Zone moving across the street to the expansive lawn of the new PBS neighbor Andrew J. Brady ICON Music Center.
The Cincinnati Bengals have the most passionate fans in the NFL. Check out some of the best fan images from the 2020 season. Who Dey!
With Dan Brown splashing a much heavier dose of orange and black around the stadium (the background of the Ring of Honor wraps around the east façade in Bengal orange), Blackwell's six cameras are set to portray the building's different look from what amounts to a new control room.
There are new content players and a new switcher as they change the look and layout of the two scoreboards. New fiber cables running from the TV trucks downstairs give Blackwell more video options to put on the board. There's also a virtual down and distance so the first down line can be seen during a live shot.
And then there are the new lights. There are restrictions what can be done with them during the game, but during pregame, halftime and postgame they'll have the ability to be turned on and off and be switched into patterns, such as a wave.
"We'll have some fun with that in the Thursday night game," Blackwell says of the Sept. 30 game against the Jaguars.
When PBS hosts Back Together Saturday presented by Fifth Third Bank for the July 31 practice that is open and free, take a good look. It's the last day of the old tradition for a variety of reasons.
With the control room undergoing final renovations, it's not expected that the scoreboards are going to be turned on. But the popular elements of what was once called "Family Dey" are still in place with inflatables, balloons, face painting and autographed prizes ranging from jerseys to footballs. Dan Hoard and Dave Lapham can be heard announcing the practice and the first 5,000 fans get a Bengals silicone wristband. Gates open at 2 p.m. with practice set for an hour later.
"We don't want to put all our cards on the table," Schweppe says.
Blackwell is taking a look at the lone PBS preseason game on Aug. 29 against Miami, two weeks before the opener against Minnesota.
"For the Dolphins game, we'll be in first and second gear making sure everything is operating," Blackwell says. "Then when the Vikings come in here, we'll put it all out there."
They put it out there on Sunday, Sept. 12 at 1 p.m.