Empty Stands Driving Innovative TV Broadcasts That Focus on the Game

Let’s start with the fact there are no fans in the stands right now watching professional baseball, basketball and hockey games. That means there’s no value-added entertainment in ballparks and arenas all over this land.

In the era of the coronavirus, there are no cheerleaders, half-court shots by fans during National Basketball Association timeouts, pee-wee games in between periods of National Hockey League playoff games, no Cotton Eye Joe replays on the video board at Yankee Stadium.

What the television audience is watching is the basic games played in their traditional form without all the accoutrements. And that’s refreshing.

“I agree, I agree,” said Dave Kaval, the 44-year-old president of the Oakland A’s, “and finding the joy and spectacle of what’s happening on the diamond. I think there actually could be some benefits of that, focusing people’s attention back to the sport.”

And this is from the president of a team that helped invent value-added entertainment in the early 1980s when Billy Martin was the manager, Billy Ball was the product, and a fan dubbed “Crazy George” once banged his drum in the stands of the Oakland Coliseum. George authored “The Wave,” urging fans from section to section to rise up with arms outstretched in sequence around the ballpark.

There’s been adjustments everywhere. Now, cutouts of fans in seats can’t do “The Wave” or much of anything else. Crowd noise is pumped in and modulated without boos or heckling toward the opposition, but the effort is “trying to create some sort of atmosphere,” according to Ken Korach, the long-time play-by-play radio broadcaster for the A’s.

“It seems like anything goes this year,” he said. “We have an old Philadelphia A’s player down the left-field line.”

But that only goes so far. Players must psyche themselves as they play the games without live stimulus.

Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon said there’s not a player on his roster who isn’t pining for the recent days of old when fans swelled the stands.

“The entertainment is superfluous,” he said. “What we miss are the fans. It’s more obvious than ever. The fans are the No. 1 reason why we do this. They make the whole world go ‘round.”

Broadcasters have felt the pinch, too. They’re not traveling this year, meaning they’re situated at night in dark and empty home ballparks calling games played elsewhere via television monitor. That’s spooky enough, but twice so far during this 60-game season, long-time Yankees analyst Suzyn Waldman has been stuck in the booth at Yankee Stadium during two-hour rain delays, first in Washington, then in Baltimore.

“I’m so used to feeding off the energy of fans and players,” said Waldman, who has been working Yankees games with John Sterling since 2005. “We’re all trying to do our best.”

Matt Gangl, the senior show director for Minnesota Twins games on FOX Sports North, sometimes feels like he’s directing two games at once. Basically, he is.

Home broadcasting teams this year are responsible for providing a so-called world feed to away stations. That means that if Gangl wants the camera to follow what his announcers are discussing, he first has to figure out what shot to provide for the visitors. He then has to come back smoothly to a shared viewpoint, all while communicating what’s coming to the other production team so they can respond. Sometimes it’s simply too much to accomplish too fast, Gangl has learned, so keeping the composition simple works better.

“Directors are being more patient,” he said. “We all like to push and go 100 miles per hour as hard as you can, but sometimes you have to step back and make sure things are clean.”

Empty seats have also forced Gangl’s hand. “I’ve made a conscious effort of keeping the game tighter,” he said. That means turning to close-ups of players to build tension and stakes rather than wide shots that pan from foul pole to home plate.

Fans have responded positively to the adjusted approach, with Fox Sports North ranking in the top 10 in both viewership and viewership increases from 2019 as of earlier this month.

Count TNT NBA analyst Kenny Smith among the fans who are fine with the purer product as the NBA plays its postseason in the Orlando bubble.

“Basketball lends itself to being filmed with no fans because the idea is everything is on the 94 feet. You rarely see the sideline and things going on,” Smith said.

After he heard ESPN commentator Mark Jackson decrying how weird the atmosphere was for the Orlando games, Smith called him. “I said, ’Bro, you’ve got to stop saying that. I’m watching the game, and it doesn’t look different.’”

Without fans courtside, the NBA was able to offer an innovative TV presentation by using sideline rail cams that offer new perspectives to viewers.

The NHL, though, may have the best fanless offering with two bubble facilities in Toronto and Edmonton, providing nonstop playoff action throughout the day and night. To bring it all together, NBC Sports senior coordinating producer John McGuinness has relied on experience earned covering marathon Olympics sessions from afar.

In addition to audio from EA Sports, NBC has enhanced sounds of the game coming from the ice. They’ve also added new cameras that allow for sweeping shots, showing plays developing and tracking spacing for strategy aficionados. One other unexpected treat has been the addition of Mike Tirico to the company’s announcer rotation as he’s able to do more events than his normal travel schedule would allow.

With so many live games to show, NBC has aired fewer feature packages than normal, partly due to the extra complications added to its editing workflow.

Describing his typical audience, McGuiness said: “It’s really people who are very passionate about hockey.” For them, he added, “being able to sit at home and watch six elimination games starting at noon and going until 1:00 a.m.? It doesn’t get better than that.”

Korach, an author and baseball broadcaster who’s been calling A’s games since 1996, echoes that sentiment, saying just reaching out to those diehard fans who can’t go to the games is what motivates him. He’s doing every game home and away from the visiting TV booth at the Coliseum sitting by himself.

During road games, he said it’s disconcerting to look down at the field “and nothing’s happening.”

“It’s really bizarre and a little bit lonely,” he said. “There’s nobody there. You’re alone among 48,000 empty seats. It’s surreal, really. There’s nothing real about it.”

As far as baseball without all the entertainment tumult, Korach agrees with Kaval, his club president: It’s a good thing.

“I’ve been saying that for years,” he said. “Baseball by its nature is contemplative. There’s a laconic nature to it that’s beautiful. They were over-the-top trying to appeal to the shorter attention spans. You didn’t need to be bombarded with all this music and entertainment stuff. I’ve always enjoyed the fact you can spend a quiet day or night at the ballpark.”

Perhaps not this quiet.

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