“I’m here for all the chatter tonight,” said Doris Burke, who was calling the game for ESPN.
It was the kind of action that, as much as the tight score, suggested an extra weight to the game. Championship aspirants doing a little early-season mettle-testing. But the attentive viewer might have noticed that the mood was incomplete, and not only because the game, like most in the NBA this season, was held in front of empty stands.
“I miss being close enough to the floor to maybe catch a word or two,” Burke said from her coronavirus-protocol-compliant perch high above the Wells Fargo Center floor while Davis shot free throws.
“You’re not kidding,” agreed Mike Breen, who was handling play-by-play duties..
The sequence summed up the challenges the pandemic has introduced to their profession — first in last season’s bubble and now across 29 arenas. Broadcast teams either call games remotely (as TNT has done all year to this point, and ESPN has done with a subset of its games) or whisk quickly in and out of buildings, with Zoom interviews replacing pregame stop-and-chats and sideline views giving way to faraway workstations. And as network executives suggest that some of the new logistics may remain even after a return to normalcy, announcers search for the best way to call a game away from the court. How do you make an audience feel close to the action when you aren’t particularly close to it yourself?
Habit and hesitation
The best announcers, at heart, are hosts. Breen’s “Bang!” — delivered when a player caps an escalating series of high-difficulty buckets with a late dagger — gives fans on sofas a dose of the in-arena thrill. Burke’s breakdowns of after-timeout plays and pivot-foot placement offer the advantage of having a seat close enough to see such nuances, and a basketball mind keen enough to pick them up.
The realities of the pandemic, though, have made the illusion harder to maintain. The Disney World bubble introduced certain types of distance, with no fans at games and announcers working from walled-off booths high above the floor. This season has brought more still. Cavernous home arenas, with scatterings of spectators at most, emphasize the emptiness.
Technology has helped minimize the issues for remote broadcasts. Networks have goosed up their talent’s at-home Internet, keeping signals as clear as possible, and direct video feeds between the play-by-play announcer and analyst help compensate for the loss of in-person glances and shoulder taps. Constant communication among directors, producers and camera operators helps get announcers the shots and intel they need. At-home mixing boards let broadcasters manipulate the volume of their partner’s voice or the piped-in crowd noise in their headsets, to best approximate the real thing.
“It’s way different, but honestly, I’m enjoying the collaboration,” said Brian Anderson, who has spent the season working games for TNT from his Wisconsin home.
The demands of the new normal have caused industry veterans to rethink the basics of the trade. In the bubble, they would gather for meals and swap strategies; techniques had to be tweaked and habits adapted. Anderson has drawn on his experience calling minor league baseball, where fans often numbered in the hundreds, not thousands.
“I wouldn’t dare lay out” — stop speaking to let the crowd reaction come through — “because it just sounded sad,” Anderson said of those midweek games in Wichita.
Breen, decades into his NBA career, has found himself studying his own tape more than he has in years, gauging how his approach fits the current environment.
“I’ve always used the fans as part of my calls, and now that’s gone,” he said.
In place of the crowd’s roar is a vacuum that now needs to be filled. The 30-second pause that might have followed a “Bang!” in years past has been trimmed to five. It falls to the broadcasters not only to frame the excitement but to generate it, a task better suited to 20,000 attendees than one voice and a microphone.
“Sometimes you walk away and wonder: ‘Was I screaming too much? Did I not have enough energy?’ ” Breen said. “You’re just so used to the background music.”
While play-by-play announcers recalibrate their voices, analysts retrain their eyes. When they call games from home, their views of the court are beholden to the angles obtained by camera operators.
“When you’re there, you can see things — interactions between player and player, player and coach, officials — that you can’t see now because the camera is focused somewhere else,” ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy said. Running dialogues with production teams, in which broadcasters request certain shots, help matters but can’t match a quick turn of the head for efficiency. Details are in shorter supply.
“When you’re there in person,” TNT’s Grant Hill said, “you’re watching the game, not the monitor. You’re watching facial expressions, body language — the court action can be on one end, and you can look over to the coach on the other end. You take it all in. … That’s different, as great as the views are that are provided for us.”
Loss of connection
Technical issues can largely be elided by craft and character. Burke’s deft shorthand for Kevin Durant’s scoring prowess on Christmas Day — “range and release point” — was worth waiting for. Van Gundy’s idea of requiring masks permanently to cut down on technical fouls fit in nicely alongside his pre-pandemic takes. The hardest thing to re-create, broadcasters agree, is the least tangible aspect of the NBA’s appeal: the sense of interconnectedness and community that animates it.
“When we cover games, we feel like part of a fraternity,” said Ryan Ruocco, who calls national games for ESPN and Brooklyn Nets games for the YES Network.
Layup lines and chance encounters in the hallways outside the locker rooms once afforded chances to check in on the league’s glut of meta-narratives: player movement, the arrival or departure of coaches, responses to political upheaval. As Kyrie Irving’s absence and the trade for James Harden made the Nets the league’s most talked-about team, Ruocco missed approaching players and staff for casual comment.
“When you have personal access, you’re able to glean so much more,” he said. “The second I make a phone call or shoot a text, that’s already more formal than just passing someone in the hallway.”
Malika Andrews, an ESPN.com journalist who began her broadcasting career working as a sideline reporter in the bubble, and who passed along some of the first on-the-scene reports from the Milwaukee Bucks’ strike in August, credits her work as a print journalist with readying her for the laborious process of pandemic-era info-gathering.
“It’s funny, when people talk about the lack of access, I’m like, ‘Wow, a player is supposed to sit down before the game for 35 minutes, just with us?’ ” Andrews said. “I’m leaning more into my instincts as a print reporter than into the luxuries that, occasionally, broadcast reporting can bring.”
Still, proximity has irreplaceable perks. Andrews wonders if the story of Big Face Coffee — Jimmy Butler’s ad hoc espresso shop that came to emblematize a strain of stir-crazy humor running through the bubble — would have remained players-only knowledge had it taken place in this season’s setup. And when the Bucks declined to play following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., Andrews stationed herself outside their locker room, relaying the tension, grief and gravity of the conversations happening behind the doors.
“What you could capture by being there was so much more than what you can capture through Zooms,” she said.
Producers and executives are, as yet, unsure what form post-pandemic broadcasts will take. The financial effects of the pandemic have spared neither major sports leagues nor their televising partners, and remote work offers the twin appeals of greater flexibility and lowered costs.
“When you’re innovating, you learn things out of necessity,” said Tim Corrigan, a coordinating producer for ESPN’s NBA coverage, “and you realize, ‘Hey, this could be valuable for us moving forward, in other ways.’ ”
Burke sees a different silver lining to the pared-down travel schedule.
“I’m watching maybe more basketball right now than maybe ever,” she laughed, “and I watch a lot of basketball.”
But she still considers the simple act of being there tantamount.
“We’re finding our new normal; we are doing the best job possible with our profession,” Burke said. “But it’s unequivocally different.”