It Takes a Village—and a Lot of Heart—to Put on a Meet in the PMAC

The lights go down. 13,000 fans cheer as PA announcer Mike Smith introduces the Tigers. One by one they run past pyrotechnics and onto a platform to wave to the roaring home crowd. Seamlessly the lights come back up, the platform is moved, bar mats are replaced to their competition setting and the first touch warmup begins without fans taking much notice of the flurry of work happening on the floor. 

A meet in LSU’s Pete Maravich Assembly Center is underway.

It takes about 34 people—from facilities and equipment staff to the marketing team and Smith himself—to make the magic happen. 

“You don’t just roll out of bed and put on an event of this magnitude,” Smith said. “It takes months of preparation. It takes years of practice.”

Much of Smith’s deep gymnastics knowledge comes from his daughter’s time working her way up the levels in gymnastics, and from a crash course by D-D Breaux after she brought him on as a gymnastics rookie in 1995. 

At that time, gymnastics had only recently moved from LSU’s field house into the PMAC. Breaux approached Smith, who was then announcing softball, about joining the gymnastics ranks to create a new atmosphere for home meets.

“It didn’t take me long to get hooked,” Smith said.

Because gymnastics and basketball have overlapping seasons and use the same facility, getting ready to host a meet is more than just setting it for gymnastics; first, the athletics facility manager for the PMAC, Bryan Paar, and his student staffers have to break down basketball if there’s a home game the day before. That includes retracting the 100-level seats on the floor that are out for basketball but not gymnastics, and moving the tables and chairs on the floor for games.

“Bryan and his staff leave at midnight or even later, sometimes 2 a.m.,” said Jeremy Arnold, the assistant manager for facilities and grounds. Sometimes, on a rare back-to-back-to-back—basketball Thursday, gymnastics Friday, basketball Saturday—both staffs are working around the clock for three days. 

Around four a.m. on a meet day, Arnold and his team start setting up gymnastics equipment, with a five-hour deadline to get all of the pieces in the arena. That way, other vendors like florists and the crews that set up partitions have time to do their work. Arnold relies on contractors to help with setup. That bar mat that has to be put in place once the intros platform is moved? That’s Arnold and his team.

“When we hit noon on a meet Friday, everything is good to go for the teams to come in for their power walk,” Arnold said. 

Smith arrives at the arena while open stretch is underway. He has a chance to talk to the visiting coaches and LSU head coach Jay Clark, and is always sure to check in with Ashleigh Gnat for updates on the beam squad—”because that’s where the meets are won and lost.” He also touches base with the marketing staff to make sure his script for the meet is ready to go. That’s not when his preparation for the day begins, though.

Smith and Clark are old friends and talk throughout the week. Smith, who owns an unrelated business, is not on the LSU staff and doesn’t spend his days on campus, so he stays up to date on the team via Clark between discussions about their kids.

He also does research on the team coming in; Smith is well aware that someone like Suni Lee coming to the PMAC will draw an interested crowd, and he wants his announcing to do those gymnasts justice. He also studies rosters, including the opposing team’s strengths, and takes careful note of pronunciations, reaching out to other teams to be sure he has them right. 

“I recognize when we have gymnastics royalty that comes into the building,” Smith said. “It’s just the right thing to do. It’s part of my role to help educate the fans. I want them to understand the moment.”

For Smith, the job is more than stating who is about to hop up on a given apparatus. He is prepared to talk about how many 10.0 start value vaults the crowd will see or unique skills coming up in a routine as well.

“It’s a small amount of education for our fans over time,” he said. “Things that over time I might repeat until it becomes part of the fans’ vernacular.” 

To Smith, a gymnastics announcer is a facilitator and a producer. Everything from cuing the next gymnast up, after the TV producer in his ear says its time, to filling time during a judge’s conference or equipment failure all goes through the announcer’s table.

Keeping the meet on track is Smith’s first goal. His second is education for fans. “My third goal is entertainment,” he said. 

That line—the one between providing information for knowledgeable fans while still entertaining casual ones—is important to Smith. He wants a Baton Rouge family that chose to spend money at a meet for the first time to have fun.

“They want to have a great time, and they deserve to have a great time,” he said. It’s about making what is happening on the floor both entertaining and comprehensible to everyone in the PMAC.

From time to time, that task becomes exceedingly difficult. Smith was sitting about 10 feet away from Sam Cerio’s graphic knee injury on the second day of regionals in Baton Rouge in 2019.

“That was definitely my most challenging moment,” Smith said. “We didn’t know at the time the extent of her injuries, except that she was horribly injured.” Smith knew that paramedics were on the way, and he took a moment to gather himself. “I needed to inform the crowd about what was happening without interjecting myself unnecessarily.”

LSU immediately stopped the music and made the arena quiet to ensure that medical staff could hear Cerio while treating her. Smith waited until she was on the stretcher to make an announcement, and the crowd acknowledged her.

“That was a memorable moment in that it was so horribly shocking,” he said.

Arnold has had some memorable, if less gruesome, mishaps as well. At that same regional, on the final day of competition, Utah staff was struggling with the vault settings leading into the final touch warmup of the meet. Arnold, who is on the floor with his staff with eyes on every piece of equipment in use at any given moment, became aware of the problem and managed to fix the issue—a stuck T-pin—with enough time for Utah to get its full touch in without the meet being delayed.

“From my perspective, if the public knows what I’m doing, it’s not a good thing. Something’s wrong,” Paar said.

The work Paar and Arnold do is behind the scenes by design, but the lack of attention doesn’t take away from their satisfaction at their work. Sometimes Arnold has to step on the catwalk above the PMAC. When he looks down at all the equipment his team set, he’s proud.

“When we see it from up top, it’s like, this looks phenomenal,” Arnold said.

The PMAC’s capacity is officially listed at 13,215. Record attendance was 13,729 on Jan. 19, 2018 when the Tigers defeated Alabama. LSU set a season ticket record of 7,351 this year, and head coach Jay Clark hopes to sell out the PMAC when Auburn is in town on Saturday.

Opposing coaches like Auburn’s Jeff Graba knows what their team is walking into when they compete in Baton Rouge.

“It’s a great environment. It’s going to be a huge challenge,” Graba said of Auburn’s meet at LSU on Saturday. “It’s obviously extremely difficult to win there.”

He’s not too worried, though. It’s just another road meet. Auburn did defeat Arkansas in Bud Walton in front of 10,345 opposing fans. To Graba, the tough road environments just make the team better, not to mention more prepared for the increasingly raucous Auburn Arena, too. Loud fans are loud fans, no matter for whom they’re cheering. 

Junior beam standout Gabby McLaughlin isn’t phased, either. She knows LSU has somewhat of a legendary beam lineup; her former club teammate Reagan Campbell is part of it. Getting up on that beam in the PMAC is just part of the job.

“I don’t feel any pressure. I’m confident in my abilities to do beam,” she said.

Just a handful of years ago, this kind of an environment in the PMAC seemed impossible. It took several minutes to bring all the lights back up after introductions in the early 2000s, which made timing the pre-meet festivities and the first touch difficult. Attendance was low, too. When Clark joined the staff as an assistant in 2013, LSU sold only 708 season tickets. Going back even further, when gymnastics first moved to the PMAC, many seats were blocked by a curtain to keep the few hundred fans that showed up condensed together on one side of the arena.

“We really took it to the next level with Jay’s arrival 10 years ago,” Smith said.

All of LSU’s top-25 attendance numbers have come since 2015. Technology changed—the lights come up much faster now—Heidi Wehterbee and her staff added pyrotechnics and expert marketing to the mix, and now the PMAC is a gymnastics destination. 

All of the work Paar, Arnold, Smith and the rest of the 34 or so staff put in makes an LSU meet what it is: a can’t-miss event with a professional atmosphere that highlights the amazing gymnastics on the floor.

It takes a village, but the payoff is big. Not only does an exciting environment help bring in well-regarded recruits looking for a top-shelf home meet experience, but it’s also fun and memorable.

Smith remembers Lloimincia Hall’s first 10.0 on floor in 2014, Kiya Johnson’s walk-off 10.0 to defeat Arkansas in 2021 and LSU’s first official sellout as highlights of his announcing career.

“It never gets old. It’s an incredible adrenaline rush. With the roar of the crowd you see the hair on your arm stand up,” Smith said.

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Article by Emily Minehart

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