SportsPulse: We caught up with broadcast legend Andrea Kremer to get her thoughts on what NFL broadcasts could look like in the fall without fans.
Watching live sports on TV without fans is like a ballpark frank without mustard. You need the cheers after a great play and the boos from the disappointed home fans. You need that obnoxious fan behind the visitor’s bench or the fan holding a clever sign.
Fans are integral to watching sports.
Or are they?
As leagues look to return during the coronavirus pandemic, fans won’t be in attendance at least at the start, and that will be strange. But we’re living in strange times.
How will sports look, sound and feel on TV in the U.S. when play resumes? A few clues can be found from baseball in South Korea and soccer in Germany.
“We’re not going to fool anybody with no fans,” ESPN senior vice president of production and remote events, including baseball, Mark Gross said. “It’s a live baseball game. Our job is to televise the game, and to make it as compelling to watch as we can with the obstacles of no crowds.”
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Leagues and college conferences, along with their TV partners, are grappling with three main components: how to compensate for empty arenas and stadiums, fan engagement and player and coach audio.
They’re also considering how many production people will need to be on location, how many camera angles to use and whether announcers will call games on site or from an off-site studio.
“So many sports have started to go that way, so many Olympic sports,” TV sports reporter Andrea Kremer said. “In Sochi and Rio (Olympics), they were being commentated from a studio in Stamford, (Connecticut) where NBC is located.”
Leagues and networks have not pinpointed how it will look and sound as they explore ideas. The viewing experience likely will evolve as games are played as some ideas work, some fail and new ones are introduced.
“We’re really focused on the best possible experience for our fans wherever and however they’re watching our games and trying to bring that community feeling to watching games even if fans are apart,” NBA senior director of domestic programming and content strategy Sara Zuckert said. “We’re looking at ways to bring fans together digitally and to give them ways to interact with what’s going on in the venue and in the telecast to make them feel more connected.”
Now is an excellent time to experiment with new and emerging technologies, and leagues have talked with multiple tech companies. Leagues were already exploring some of these ideas before the pandemic.
But the most interesting aspect to fans, especially for the NBA: player audio.
As much as sports is visual, it’s also audible, and in a fanless environment, fans want access to the interactions between players, coaches and referees.
Who doesn’t want to hear the chatter, trash talk, complaints, strategy and some colorful language?
When asked about broadcasting those interactions as they happen for fans watching on TV to hear, Zuckert said, “Unlike the other sports, we’re positioned a little bit differently in that we have music during our games in normal times. I do think that music and audio will still come through on the telecast in that respect.”
The NBA may use music and other sound, such as artificial noise, to mask some of what is said live.
Also, coaches may not want everything they say in huddles during timeouts aired. When Golden State coach Steve Kerr told Kevin Durant a Michael Jordan story during a timeout of a playoff game – Kerr implored Durant to trust his teammates – it was compelling coach-player talk. But Kerr wasn’t thrilled it was aired.
It’s possible the NBA televises more of those conversations during a break in play – after producers have had time to make sure the language is safe for all ages and strategy isn’t revealed.
Fred Gaudelli, executive producer of NBC’s Sunday Night Football, said he understands the interest in hearing what’s said on the field. He also knows he may not have the autonomy to broadcast everything.
“One of the technological advances to having no crowd is that you’ll hear the signals,” Gaudelli said. “You’ll hear the offensive signals, you’ll hear the defensive signals, you’ll hear coaches yelling. You’ll be able to hear all of that.
“Now, will the NFL put protocols in place to limit that? I don’t know because it’s going to be the same for every game and for every team. So, there’s no competitive advantage or disadvantage, and I’m sure some teams will probably adjust to that and do things as if they’re on the road all the time – where all the communications are hand signals, and the (snap) count is silent and all that.
“We definitely plan to take advantage of anything that is presented to us if you can even say there is one for not having people in the stands. But the first one that comes up is hearing everything that is going on. There will definitely be some interest in that.”
MLB would love to have more players mic’d up when games return, but that’s an issue that must be resolved between the league and players association.
“When it comes to mic’ing players, certainly, we like to mic the players as much as we can,” Gross said. “The feedback we got from viewers (in spring training) has been great.
The adjustment to seeing empty arenas and stadiums will take time, and invested parties are working on ways to counterbalance that. It might be something as simple as concealing the lower bowl of an arena or stadium with a tarp-like cover to hide empty seats, allowing networks to either run advertising, images or messages.
The Korean Baseball Organization placed placards featuring drawings of fans in masks throughout the stadium, and Germany’s Bundesliga used cardboard cutouts of actual fan faces, costing about $20 per fan to have their face placed in a stadium seat. KBO also used similar cutouts.
The use of virtual fans is also a possibility, and there are tech companies that can produce that. Players on the court won’t likely won’t be able to see those virtual fans, but viewers at home could. However, that is costly and may not be possible to do all game every game.
Another possibility: using a Zoom-like app in the arena or stadium to show fans watching from home – similar to the screen used at NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s house for the NFL Draft.
For other fan engagement, leagues and broadcast partners may look to technology that allows fans to have their cheers or boos heard by using a computer or smart phone and that corresponding choice would be part of the “crowd” noise heard on TV.
Networks have experimented with several alternative viewing options, such as hometown or “homer” feeds, live “group chats” appearing on the screen while the game is played, more interaction between fans and sideline reporters and different camera angles such as an above-the-court skycam.
“We want to bring fans the best possible look and feel of the game and the most engaging game that we can,” Zuckert said, “and still create that genuine feeling even if by nature things wind up looking slightly different.”