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Going, Going, Gone: The Return of the Remote Sports Broadcast

Games may come back this summer, but the announcers won’t necessarily return with them. After NASCAR restarts with a remote broadcast booth, could more leagues adopt the same approach?

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In a normal time, Fox announcer Mike Joy would be standing in the booth at Darlington Raceway this weekend, his eyes focused on the track. The monitor below him might show the race leaders. But Joy’s eyes would be gliding clockwise around turns 4 and 3, then sweeping across the backstretch, before bending right at Turn 2. If Joy picked out an anomaly—a puff of smoke, a car contacting another—he would say, “Crash!” or “Trouble!” For NASCAR viewers, the effect is subtle yet important. Joy is showing them something before they see it with their own eyes.

When NASCAR returns to Fox on Sunday, Joy won’t be in the booth at Darlington. He won’t even be at the track. Thanks to coronavirus social distancing guidelines, Joy and his partner Jeff Gordon will call the race from a studio 100 miles away. Though Fox will give the broadcasters 85-inch monitors, Joy, like fans, will be watching the race on TV. His vision will be bound by the edges of a screen. “We’re kind of stepping off into the great beyond here,” Joy said this week.

Nobody can predict what sports TV is going to look like over the next few months. But it’s a safe bet that Sunday’s race will kick off at least a mini-boomlet of announcers calling games from afar. Joe Rogan may have entered the UFC Octagon last weekend, but Fox is committed to having Joy and Gordon work in a studio for at least two weeks. Last month, Mike Breen said on Real Sports that he expected many NBA games to be called from a studio, too. ESPN executive Stephanie Druley told Sports Business Daily, “If you told me that 90 percent of NBA or MLS had to be done via Bristol, I’d have no issue with it.”

Remote broadcasting will probably outlive the coronavirus, too. TV executives, who are entering a period of recession and cost-cutting, are entertaining questions like: Why do the announcers need to go to stadiums, anyway? And what would viewers lose if they didn’t? Announcers will tell you the difference is like talking to your family in person versus talking to them on a Zoom call. It’s subtle yet important.

Remote broadcasting is actually an old form of trickeration. For a big chunk of the 20th century, a radio announcer sitting in a distant studio, grabbing baseball results off the wire, and “recreating” a game was such a common occurrence that Philip Marlowe heard a recreated game on his detective rounds. When the wires conked out, announcers conjured up rain storms and injuries to preserve the effect. Once, Jack Buck fibbed that a baseball player had been injured by a foul tip. When the player’s wife called to check on his condition, the player demanded that Buck pay his long-distance bill.

The practice sounds like a product of a more innocent age. But remote broadcasts—which ESPN calls REMI broadcasts, for “remote integration model”—are still around today. Hannah Storm and Andrea Kremer call Amazon’s Thursday Night Football feed from Stamford, Connecticut. In 2018, Fox sent one-third of its soccer announcers to Russia for the World Cup. Four years ago, Fran Fraschilla called Olympic basketball games from an NBC studio in Connecticut. Though Fraschilla never left New England, several friends texted to ask how he was enjoying Rio. “I think that’s more of a badge of honor that someone couldn’t tell,” Fraschilla told me.

For a network, remote broadcasting solves logistical hurdles. In the early 1980s, Charley Steiner sat in a stateside studio and called Japanese baseball for the USA Network, just like ESPN’s Karl Ravech and Eduardo Pérez are calling Korean baseball from their homes today. Remote setups allow Fraschilla, who estimates he has called 60 or 70 games long-distance, to reign as the godfather of international hoops.

Mostly, networks employ remote broadcasting to save money. In the past decade, ESPN began using remote setups for low-wattage college games. Sometimes, the network sends announcers to the stadium but keeps a producer in a studio; other times, both the producer and the announcers stay home. “That was becoming the new normal anyway, and now this is going to push this idea of remote games, I think, further along,” Fraschilla said.

The first thing announcers will tell you about remote broadcasting is that it changes their pregame rituals. “It would affect the preparation more than the actual execution,” said Sean McDonough, who calls college football and basketball for ESPN.

For example, Joy typically arrives at a track three days before a Sunday NASCAR race. He wanders the garage area, trying to glean nuggets from drivers and crew chiefs. At a college basketball game, Fraschilla will bend the ears of assistant coaches 90 minutes before tipoff, maybe asking which player will be guarding another. Nearly every basketball announcer will say they get a better look at a player’s soul during shootaround than they do during a game.

Paranoid football coaches tend to be more forthcoming with announcers who sit in their presence before a game—they like to see who’s in the room. “No coach is going to be half as good over the phone as he or she is in person,” said Kevin Brown, who works for ESPN and the Baltimore Orioles.

“Everybody wants to be gracious and courteous in person,” said McDonough. “It’s easier when you get on conference call to be like, ‘I’ve got eight minutes, so go ahead.’”

Some announcers more or less double as reporters. During baseball season, Chicago White Sox play-by-play announcer Jason Benetti will visit the clubhouse like a beat reporter, looking for information. “We don’t write it,” said Benetti, “but we definitely need it for our telecast to flourish.”

The romantic image of an announcer is a figure standing in the booth, gazing at the field through binoculars. In fact, announcing is really a mix of watching the field and watching the TV. How much of the call relies on being in a stadium varies from sport to sport.

During a basketball game, an announcer who’s sitting courtside often has a better view than someone watching on TV. The announcer watches how coaches talk to their players, how players react to each other. Last season, when a Los Angeles Lakers player screwed up, ESPN’s Dave Pasch would study the expression on LeBron James’s face. Pasch may not have used what he saw, but it informed his call just as a beat writer’s observations inform an article.

“I can count five or six times this college basketball season where in a break I’ve just yelled at one of the Big Ten officials, ‘Hey, can you come over?’” said Benetti. He might ask why they ruled a penalty a flagrant 1 instead of a flagrant 2.

“The thing that is most lost is if there’s anything that happens behind the play,” said Chuck Cooperstein, who calls Dallas Mavericks games on the radio. Say two players get tangled up at the other end of the court, or a coach charges off the bench to argue with the refs. “You can describe it for people before they look at the replay,” said Pasch. Like Mike Joy picking out a wreck on the backstretch, it makes a call sound crisper and more agile.

“In college football, I call most of the game off the monitor,” said McDonough, noting that booths are often so far from the field that his monitor offers a better view. (His spotter’s eyes are trained on the field, however.) Announcers like to be in the football stadium so they can watch a coach talk to a player on the sideline or watch a long pass develop—their eyes often shift downfield faster than the TV shot can.

A lot of baseball announcers glance down at the TV monitor in front of them during a pitch, because they find it easier to make out the pitch on the monitor than from the high angle of a booth. Sometimes, TV announcers will glance at the TV to see how a pitch was identified; they don’t want to contradict what the graphic says, even if they disagree.

Baseball radio announcers are the spiritual heirs of the old recreators. They aren’t fabulists, but indulge in theater of the mind—riffing about a shadow stretching across the outfield, about fans congregating in certain sections of the bleachers. If they’re not in the stadium, they can only riff off what they see on the monitor.

NASCAR is a different and more difficult animal. “I’ve done a lot of different sports,” said Joy. “Boy, it sure is easier when there’s one ball to follow.” In racing, an announcer follows 40 different balls because, often, the best racing is somewhere behind the front of the field. That’s why Joy spends about 60 percent of a race looking directly at the track rather than a monitor.

Joy called Formula 1 races off a monitor in the late 1990s. This Sunday, he said it will be harder for him to figure out whether a car is moving up or back in the field when it’s not on screen. When Joy’s eyes can wander around the track, they also prompt anecdotes. “I might have a story in my hip pocket about Brad Keselowski,” he said. “But if I never see Brad Keselowski, that’s probably not going to tip me to remember to tell that story.” To assist him, Fox is setting up cameras in the Darlington booth with feeds that will be stitched together to approximate the view Joy would have if he were standing there.

In thinking about remote games, every announcer worries about what would happen if they were faced with an injury like Kevin Durant’s in last year’s NBA Finals. Though Fox isn’t sending its race announcers to Darlington, the network will send a pit reporter, Regan Smith. In remote announcing, sideline reporting is more indispensable than play-by-play.

“Would these things be doable with, I think, minimal inconvenience?” McDonough said of remote broadcasting. “Yeah, I think they would be. Would the viewer notice? Maybe occasionally.” That’s the rub. Because the announcers are pros, remotely-called games will sound good. To untrained ears, probably almost normal. After the coronavirus pandemic, announcers could face the same dilemma as a print journalist who writes a game off TV, and does such a good job that his editor stops putting him on planes.

It’s hard to imagine Fox not sending Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to a Sunday afternoon NFL game, or the network not sending Joy to a NASCAR Cup Series race. But there’s a tier of pro and college games for which the networks might decide remote calls will suffice—not to mention a racing series like NASCAR trucks, where they’re already happening.

“The best way to look at these last couple of months is that we’ve never had to rethink producing live sporting events,” said Brad Zager, the Fox Sports executive in charge of production. Asked about a future in which more events are handled remotely, Zager said, “That wouldn’t surprise me at all.”

“Believe me, I worry about it,” said Cooperstein. “I’ll be the first to say, my job is a hell of a way to see North America.” Announcers can grumble about air travel as well as any campaign reporter, and they’ll tell you certain stadiums are miserable to call games in. But to be great at their jobs, they like to have all the available tools. “For those of us who approach this creatively—and it’s a lot of us—you never want what you’ve touched to become a factory-made widget,” said Benetti.

“I can say if that ever happens,” Joy said of remote broadcasting, “I hope it’s long after I’ve hung up the headset. The thrill of being there is just that, and that’s a hard thing to replicate or fake.”

Every announcer said they’d call games from afar as long as the coronavirus demanded it. To be an announcer involves a certain bravado. You look at a busted monitor or malfunctioning Telestrator and say, “I got this.” As Steiner explained, “For those of us who are the court jesters in this pandemic, when it’s time for us to go do it, it’s important to tell as complete a picture as we can.”