The other day, as the Sportsnet executive Rob Corte mused over the phone what sports broadcasts might look like if and when games return, without fans in the stands, he spent a few minutes describing something that sounded to me like an artifact from an ancient civilization.
“If you look at a goal sequence in hockey – normally, you know, the goal happens, you cut to a tight shot of who scored, then you might quickly cut to the goalie, and then you’ll cut to the fans, and then you come back to the goal scorer or you’ll go to a coach.”
His description, in these sports-starved times, had an almost Proustian power: You could practically smell the sweat on the players bursting through the TV screen.
But that would be unhygienic! And therefore dangerous! And who would want to risk death for the mere enjoyment of a hockey or basketball game?
And so, we’ve got a long way to go before we get to experience the televisual sports equivalent of that exquisite petite madeleine that sent Marcel Proust into shudders of joy. But maybe we can replace it with something else? Something less literary and refined, but still awesome? Say, a double-chocolate-fudge layer cake topped with an industrial-grade Roman candle firework, delivered to my backyard by drone?
I’m just spitballing, of course. (Which is also unhygienic! Sorry, I can’t help myself. But at least I’m wearing a mask as I type this!) But in the realm of the new world, there are no bad ideas. Not yet, anyway.
This week, as the pro sports world began to think more seriously about returning to play, and some desperate baseball fans even tuned into the early morning airings on ESPN of the Korean Baseball League’s new season, North American broadcasters started to talk more openly about what the future might look like – including both the possibilities, and the (let’s be honest, the potentially very entertaining) pitfalls.
“Every idea is on the table,” said Corte, the vice-president of NHL and Sportsnet production.
A few weeks ago, Sportsnet unintentionally served up what was perhaps the best argument against sports coming back without fans, when it re-broadcast the infamous Game 5 of the 2015 American League Division Series. That was the Jose Bautista batflip game, you’ll recall, in which the Blue Jays finally triumphed over the Texas Rangers after a totally bananas seventh inning in which the usually restrained Toronto fans ripped off their Dr. Jekyll masks and unleashed their inner, primal Mr. Hyde. Even more than four years later, it was a thrilling show.
The broadcasters know the challenge they have. If they want any reminder, all they need to do is watch one of the Serie A matches from early March, when Italian authorities banned fans from stadiums, making the broadcasts feel like something beamed in from a post-apocalyptic landscape.
“The fan impact on sports is immense,” Corte acknowledges. “After a big play happens, you want to see the fans erupt, you want to hear the fans erupt, and that’s not [going to be] there anymore.”
“I think what [will end] up happening is [producers] will now focus more on the individuals and the people that were part of the big plays, focus more on what’s actually happening and how those people are reacting to what happened. A lot more facial reactions.”
Still, he noted, there are endless possibilities. “One of the reasons you have only so many cameras is, there are only so many camera positions [available] in a building. With no fans, you could pretty much put cameras everywhere.”
He and Paul Graham, his counterpart at TSN, don’t yet know what sort of access their crews will have to the venues: It may be that those extra cameras, if they are deployed, will be robotic, remotely operated by someone tucked away in a far corner of the building, or in a truck outside.
But there are wild possibilities, too. Technicians are going to pick up a lot more of what the players, coaches, and officials are saying. Which means that, after years of slow progress toward trying to make fans at home feel as though they’re really at a game, broadcasters may be about to make a big leap. Whether they’re ready for it or not.
“We have microphones near the field of play, and it picks up all the game sounds, and at times it will pick up commentary from players,” Corte said. “Our ‘A1s,’ which are our lead audio operators, are tremendously talented, and they mix the show as it goes. So when something big happens, they can push the crowd. For example, if you have an effects mic in a corner and a puck goes in the corner and two players are racing for it, the audio operator will raise the level so that if there is a huge bodycheck, you’re going to hear that at home. So they’re riding the levels of all of those effect mics.”
But there will also be a challenge in the mixing, when the crowd noise isn’t there to mask some of the sound. “One of the things that’s interesting about audio,” said Graham, the vice-president and executive producer of live events for TSN, “is that, actually, a bit of a fear for some of the leagues is, now that the building is far more quiet, you’re going to pick up a lot of the audio that you don’t normally hear. So, you’ll hear some swearing and personal insults, and what have you. So there’s some concern about not having that transmit over the air.”
Dead air is another challenge: Do they pump in crowd noise? If so, how do they make it sound authentic?
“Most of the time, crowd noise comes in anticipation of a play or following something that’s a key moment in a game. How do you replicate that by just putting in crowd noise?” Corte noted. “You take a sitcom: we all know the difference between the sitcom with a laugh track and without a laugh track. You automatically notice the difference. But a laugh track is put in after the fact, in post-editing. You can’t do that with a live sporting event.” So, when someone scores a goal in hockey, “do you hit a crowd track of celebration? It’s almost impossible to get it exactly as it would happen live. So there are some pitfalls with that.
“You want a broadcast that is authentic as possible. But you’re also going to find that different sports are better.”
Hockey has rink sounds – “the skates on the ice, the pucks and the sticks,” Corte said. For basketball, “there’s always music playing. You’ve got sneakers on the court, the ball hitting the rim, all that stuff.” Baseball, though, has a lot of dead air. “So I don’t think you’re going to have a similar approach for every single sport.”
Graham noted that some things that help make the game feel more immediate will have to be scaled back. Over the past couple of years, TSN has sent camera operators into CFL huddles, which seems unlikely now (even if the league were to hold its season, which seemed more in doubt as this week came to a close).
“Yeah, we can try a whole bunch of new things, but then what’s the safety part of this? And what’s the comfort factor for the athletes that have been quarantined and taken care of that way?”
Graham unfurls a wry story about the way safety of crews has become more of a consideration since he began in the business. One of the chief concerns for him, and Corte at Sportsnet, is how their crews are going to operate within the tight confines of the mobile trucks, which serve as hubs for all broadcast signals coming out of an arena or stadium. An average trailer, which might measure 16 metres long, could have 20 to 25 people working elbow-to-elbow. So broadcasters are working with their suppliers to figure out whether they can reconfigure the trucks.
“Those environments are cozy. I remember back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, you would work in a control room in some of the older-model TV trucks, and they were small. You would jam six to eight people in there, and half of them would smoke. And I remember, when you go home afterwards, you smell your clothes and you think you were at the bar all night," he recalled.
“Interestingly enough, that situation finally changed, but it wasn’t because they were worried about the health and safety of the people working there. They were worried about smoke damaging the expensive equipment."