As sports slowly return to action during the coronavirus pandemic, some aspects of networks’ presentation will look the same, while others could see a fundamental shift. A historic show like ESPN’s “College GameDay” in the fall already is being forced to consider whether it will have the atmosphere of students and fans, who have fueled …
As sports slowly return to action during the coronavirus pandemic, some aspects of networks’ presentation will look the same, while others could see a fundamental shift.
A historic show like ESPN’s “College GameDay” in the fall already is being forced to consider whether it will have the atmosphere of students and fans, who have fueled passion into its telecasts for decades.
Meanwhile, TV sports producers are using Zoom video calls to discuss how they should present fan-less stadiums, which is leading to creative and perhaps previously unthinkable possibilities.
ESPN, Fox, NBC, CBS and Turner Sports, according to sources, have experimented with the idea of using virtual reality to enhance the at-home viewing experience, by superimposing realistic-looking fans onto screens.
The idea is in its infancy and there is a mixture of opinions toward it, but it is something the networks are playing with as fan-less games appear to be the immediate reality.
It is all part of the reimagining of how to broadcast potential games during the COVID-19 health crisis. Games likely will start without fans in attendance, as the overriding goal is to provide a safe environment for everyone working within the sporting events.
Sports are slowly starting to re-emerge on television, with NASCAR returning to Fox on Sunday from Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. NBC will present a charity golf Skins Game on Sunday in Florida, while ESPN this past weekend held a UFC production on Saturday.
Sports TV will also follow the same social distancing guidelines that will be present in all workplaces as the country continues to gradually reopen.
For the last four decades, networks have scaled up or down the same basic broadcasting model, depending on the size of the events, Fox Sports executive vice president Brad Zager said.
“How do we produce TV if we were starting from scratch and wanted to take advantage of everything that is out there and we didn’t want the show to suffer?” Zager said of the question networks are asking themselves.
With the NASCAR event, Zager and his team — led by producer Barry Landis and director Artie Kempner — are trying to do everything it can off-site with safety the No. 1 concern.
“From the viewers’ perspective, we feel 100 percent confident that the plan we have will give viewers what they are used to when they watch Fox NASCAR,” Zager said.
Without a crowd, Zager said the broadcast will be able to use drones over the track more often. Sunday’s announcers Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon and Larry McReynolds will be located in a Charlotte studio, as they have been in for the simulated races that Fox has broadcast in recent weeks.
Pit reporter Regan Smith will be on site at the race.
For NBC’s coverage of the skins game from the Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla. featuring Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff, host Mike Tirico will broadcast from his home, while analysts Paul Azinger, Gary Koch and play-by-player Richie Lerner will be in a studio at the PGA Tour Entertainment facility. Jerry Foltz and Steve Stands will be course reporters, following the golfers.
Sportscasters increasingly not being on site, at least for the time being, is the new normal though, as seen by other smaller sporting events, The lack of fans in attendance will allow for the increased use of drones and different, potentially closer camera angles.
It also will lead to new challenges.
“Audio becomes a big issue,” ESPN’s executive vice president of production Stephanie Druley said. “Now, you can pick up everything that is being said. We have had discussions about really leaning into the audio as part of the broadcast.”
“If you did that, would you put things on a very quick delay? Yeah, you probably would. We learned a lot from the XFL and our ability to mic and have the kind of audio access we had.”
Submit your sports media questions here to be answered in an upcoming Post mailbag
The unpredictability of the pandemic and the still-in-question plan of how the leagues will stage their games makes for a fluid situation. If there is a college football season, it seems unlikely students will be permitted to congregate for ESPN’s “GameDay” as they always have.
“Of all the things we know about, we know very little about college football,” Druley said. “That is the one that is harder to think about in terms of not having fans there because they are such an integral part of the environment of the game.”
For “GameDay,” ESPN is looking at several options in terms of still being on campus or possibly broadcasting the show from inside a stadium. It is still months away, so nothing has been decided yet.
Regardless of the sport, all the networks are considering how to best present a fan-less stadium. The technology of filling the crowd with virtual fans can look very real, but it is uncertain whether networks would go forward with it. Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd trumpeted the idea on his radio/TV show weeks ago.
“That’s only come up recently in one conversation,” Druley said. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen that demonstrated, quite honestly. It feels odd to me. I don’t know who you are doing that for. I don’t know as a viewer that I need to see fake fans, but I haven’t seen the technology yet.”
On Tuesday, during an interview on SiriusXM’s Andy Cohen Live, Fox’s Joe Buck added, “They’re looking at ways to put virtual fans in the stands so when you see a wide shot it looks the stadium is jam-packed and in fact it’ll be empty.”
For baseball, the latest restart plans that include home ballparks being used could create an opportunity for local broadcasters to possibly call the games, though the crews also could be forced to announce them from studios or from home.
The YES video feed for a home Yankees game against Baltimore would be the same one used by the Orioles home network of MASN. The opposite would occur if the Yankees play at Camden Yards.
In theory, the away regional sports networks would still be able to present a hometown slant, as it would still have its own announcers on the call.
As for the NBA, if it ends up holding games in a single complex, such as in Orlando, it could allow for an intimate view of the game without the need to enhance the broadcast as much. There also would be the ability to pick up a lot of fun audio.
It all will be part of having the games go on because in the end, sports TV will be just like the rest of society. There will be an emphasis on safety and social distancing as it tries to return to some normalcy in a new reality.