The incredibly profitable Super Bowl wants to pay halftime show workers in exposure

The racist cherry on top is that the casting manager appears to be seeking out Black “field cast” performers for these roles.

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How in the world can a Super Bowl halftime show with Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Mary J Blige, and Eminem already be a disappointment? By being exposed as a multi-million dollar production unwilling to pay everyone participating in making the halftime spectacle look good.

Last week, accomplished dance artist Taja Riley caused a stir on Instagram by posting a series of text messages and emails showing information about dancers being asked to go through long rehearsals and participate in the halftime show as unpaid volunteers. One private text message came from the wife of someone who had knowledge of show producers reaching out to dance agency Bloc LA to recruit dancers for the unpaid opportunity. An email screenshot shows all volunteer participants must adhere to the schedule of 72 hours of rehearsals over nine days. The most telling of the messages shared was a text message from a Bloc LA dancer claiming the show’s casting manager asked specifically for “predominantly African American movers” to work for free. These revelations have since mired the highly-anticipated performance in controversy.

The aftermath of Riley’s post has been resounding. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, halftime show choreographer Fatima Robinson clarified the halftime show team was not asking people to work for free as dancers during the show, but instead as part of the field cast, which are the people who act as the on-field audience of the performance meant to “fill up the space and bring energy to the performers who are performing on the stage that we designed.” Robinson also said that Super Bowl halftime shows featuring unpaid field cast members have happened every year at the Super Bowl, and the only qualification people need to be part of the field cast is the ability to “walk and chew gum at the same time.” To Robinson, not being paid to be part of one of the biggest TV moments every year is a great learning experience for those wanting to be “part of something in Hollywood” tantamount to wanting to be a volunteer at Coachella or the Olympics.

Riley, who is the daughter of legendary music producer Teddy Riley, says the idea of exposure replacing financial compensation for work is an outdated mentality. Robinson says the halftime show will feature 400 field cast volunteers. Roc Nation is executive producing the halftime show, and Jana Fleishman, the company’s executive vice president of strategy and communications, told the Los Angeles Times they have no intention of not compensating professional dancers for their work, adding that field cast volunteers will not be asked to learn any choreography. Despite the halftime show’s clarifications, Riley is vehement in her stance: “whether it’s one volunteer or 400, every single person working the most profitable event of the year should be paid.”

In the history of Super Bowl halftime shows, seldom if ever are the screaming audience members on the field remembered longer than the length of the performance. But, Riley made a hard-to-argue point of the Super Bowl as the most profitable sporting event every year, and that everyone involved should be paid. The field cast may not be asked to perform any specialized skill during the performance beyond enjoying the most historic performance of the year so far for free, but without the field cast, Robinson and the NFL would be unable to create that concert feel they’re going for. The four legends would simply be performing their heart outs while surrounded by yards of turf. The field cast won’t be the primary, secondary, or even tertiary reason the Super Bowl halftime show will likely amass its usual nine-figure ad revenue, and the artists themselves aren’t even paid to perform at the Super Bowl. But, if dancers who will be performing choreography to make the show look better are being paid, should the audience tasked with helping the show look better not get financial compensation as well?