Charlie Cushing walked into Xcel Energy Center on March 12, 2020, half-knowing what was about to happen. A day after the NBA had paused its season, the audio technician ambled about rather than prepare for the scheduled Minnesota Wild game until the news came around 12:30 local time: The NHL season would also be halted. Cushing found himself in the arena lobby with three dozen other equally wayward crew members. “One guy looked at all of us,” Cushing recalled. “He said, ‘Anybody ever file for unemployment before?’” Forty heads shook in unison.
“Black Thursday was what it was,” Cushing said of March 12. “Devastating. There’s no other way to put it. It took the entire industry to its knees.”
Below the level of show director and producer, most sports broadcast professionals work on a freelance basis. They are paid for the games they work (for Cushing, that is often more than 200 a year), and their busiest months come in the spring, when NCAA championships overlap with NBA, NHL and MLB seasons. Instead, Cushing’s Minnesota colleagues hit 100% unemployment last year.
When live sports returned, many pros remained sidelined as networks were limited to smaller crews. Some have left the business entirely, while others hope that networks will go back to full staffing rather than keep costs down. Meanwhile, those who have returned often found their jobs had changed if not expanded, working in surreal environs to create a broadcast that looks as close to traditional as possible. Then again, that’s hardly new.
“This new ‘normal’ has always been normal for us,” production coordinator Pam Chvotkin said in an interview, a day after returning from a shoot in Puerto Rico and two days before she left for North Dakota. “We’ve been equipped in our jobs to expect things to be constantly changing.”
New cameras are constantly being added to the mix. Broadcasts evolve from 720p to 1080p to 4k. 3D suddenly becomes a thing, only to disappear. Streaming has emerged, requiring an entirely new set of capabilities. “I’m thankful that I was already conditioned to adapt,” Chvotkin said. “I thrive in organized chaos.”
Budgets have become a particular challenge. COVID-19 precautions alone, from testing to PPE, can cost $1 million, according to Chvotkin. Productions also often have to hire extra workers as backups because testing and quarantine turnaround times make it difficult to get last-minute help. Some money is saved thanks to improved remote production tech that requires fewer crew members to travel, with some events needing 40 on site when they might have had 250 in the past, Chvotkin said. But still, “The at-home production aspect isn’t always the cheapest,” she said.
Chvotkin spent 94 days in the NBA’s Orlando bubble, assisting the team who oversaw the networks’ work for the league’s broadcast operations department. Only designated members of the so-called “dirty crew” could shop for needed supplies (or even groceries), which had to go through a rigorous cleaning process before anything could be allowed into the bubble. “I’m happy to be working and happy to be back in the swing of craziness,” Chvotkin said. “But with all that said, it’s a lot, mentally, emotionally and physically.”
“Looking back on it,” IBEW international representative Neil Ambrosio said, “it’s a miracle that we were able to put TV shows back on the air.” IBEW reps negotiated with partners at CBS and FOX to establish health protocols as technicians returned to work. Given the social isolation now required, both networks agreed to extend counseling services to freelance staffers.
“There has not been a standoff yet,” Ambrosio said. “It has shown us there’s not as much daylight between labor and management as people may think.” The biggest labor confrontation might have come last fall, when the IATSE union alleged that Golf Channel was not properly protecting the workforce. At the time, a network spokesperson said the production was following “all recommended guidelines.”
As remote productions became more common pre-pandemic, Ambrosio said the concern was that those who did not live in hub cities would be left out. However he said anyone with a fast internet connection has proven to be employable. “If tech turns five jobs into three, as long as those three jobs are union paying jobs with benefits, I’m fine with that,” Ambrosio said, “because the tech is always going to come.”
When the NBA returned for this regular season, regional sports networks employed a world feed model that the NHL and MLB also used. Normally side-by-side crews would work a game, with one producing the home broadcast and one staffing the visitors’ side. Now, instead, one feed serves both the home team and a skeleton away crew working remotely, adding its own announcers and tweaking the broadcast for its own audience.
That meant that New York-based audio mixer Greg Calvin, who also serves as IATSE chapter president, often showed up for work at a dark Citi Field when the Mets were on the road. One night, the large fans that dry the field turned on and could be heard on air until the production was able to get the field crew to turn them off.
Previously, most staffers primarily worked on either home or away feeds. Without away feeds, some networks have rotated members of those teams through its home crew to spread out the gigs. Few freelancers are back to a full workload, even as a busy stretch of the sports calendar returns this spring.
Given the myriad challenges, broadcasters have put on remarkably high quality shows. One element that has been hard to replicate is the close-ups that hand-operated cameramen can get on the field. They’ve been replaced by robotic cameras and camera operators stationed farther back (which might be why FOX’s new cinematic mobile camera made such an impression last football season).
Experts might also spot momentary delays and the camera angles that just aren’t available right now. Most in the field expect broadcasters to return to the dual-feed model once COVID concerns dissipate. “If they continue with this because they’re saving money, they would be doing a disservice to their fans,” Calvin said during a phone interview as he quarantined at the Mohegan Sun before working a boxing match. “We were all out of work for months, so we were happy to do the extra work. Now we’re thinking … if they want to continue this model down the road, they have to come up with more people or more money, because it’s a burden.”
In Detroit, Ricky Gopigian is still at home. A 61-year-old, third-generation stagehand who has helped light the town’s arenas and manage their sound since 1977, he remembers his father telling him about how his people kept working through the Depression. “Stagehands were the fortunate ones,” he said. But now, his team at Red Wings and Pistons games has shrunk from as many as six down to two, and he’s been content letting colleagues with kids continue to work as he cares for his 94-year-old mother and watches TV, waiting out the pandemic. “God knows we don’t want to remember this year,” he said.