Sports TV isn’t as innovative as it should be. There are two reasons for this. One, sports is one of network TV’s few remaining cash cows. Why screw it up? Just as important, network executives don’t get the time off afforded to the showrunners of a cable drama. “In sports TV, we don’t get an offseason to rethink those type of things,” said Brad Zager, the Fox Sports executive in charge of production. “We go right into the next sport.”
The coronavirus grounded sports producers for two months, offering them a rare chance to think. A bunch of them have put on their Roone Arledge mad-scientist togs to try to reshape the medium. They have to. Live games are crucial to TV networks trying to return to something like normalcy. And even crews that are showered with money and personnel will now work at a disadvantage: They almost certainly won’t have the fans that sweeten the broadcast, both in audio and visual terms.
“This provides the canvas to really rethink everything you’ve ever done,” said Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer of Sunday Night Football. Over the past week, I called around and got five ideas for how sports TV could adapt to a fanless universe. We’ve already seen some ideas rolled out, in slightly different form, during Bundesliga matches. Some will remain pure fantasy because the leagues or viewers will hate them intensely. I like both kinds of ideas, because they prod sports TV toward a more interesting future, even after the virus subsides. As noted producer Ivanka Trump said recently, “On the other side of this challenge lies the extraordinary!”
1. Borrow Crowd Noise From Video Games
Recently, the TV networks admitted they’re thinking of using fake crowd noise for fanless games. Some people think this idea is terrible. The other 85 percent have played Madden.
EA’s Madden franchise has been trying to produce an authentic-sounding fake crowd for more than 15 years. “The audio of the crowd noise is really the music track of the game,” said Madden producer Ben Haumiller.
“It’s the stock of the recipe, if you will,” said audio director Ryan Nawrath.
Haumiller said the NFL has shown early interest in exploring how Madden crowd noise might be used in TV broadcasts this year. (An NFL spokesman didn’t respond to an email.) This would mark an incredible reversal. For years, Madden was trying to create a crowd as realistic as the one you hear on TV. Now, TV is trying to create a crowd as realistic as Madden’s.
In the past few weeks, sports TV has taken its first, mincing steps into the fake-crowd frontier. “If you watched the Bundesliga games over the weekend,” said Haumiller, “the difference between a cavernous stadium with no crowd and that same cavernous stadium with crowd sound piped in made it feel natural, made it feel real.”
He added: “Your brain just clicks in. OK, this is a normal game now. Things are kind of normal here because it sounds right.”
In TV, the idea of fake crowd noise has ignited an argument between two types of producers: the traditionalists and the inveterate tinkerers. “It’s exactly the same concept as if you’re doing a sitcom and you want to put in a laugh track,” said former Fox Sports president David Hill, who’s in the latter camp. “The audio engineer will have a palette of audio, and that can range from a single giggle up to a guffaw up to an entire crowd laughing their ass off.”
Some producers, while not ruling out a crowd track, wonder if pandemic TV hasn’t already reset viewers’ expectations. “When Saturday Night Live did their first show from home, I was like, ‘Geez, I really miss the studio audience,’” said Gaudelli. “When I watched the season finale, I was like, ‘Man, this is fantastic.’”
When thinking about a fake crowd, the first thing to do is dismiss the objection that it’s excessively contrived. “Everything is contrived,” said Mike Weisman, who was the executive producer of NBC Sports in the 1980s. No NFL broadcast has “real” sound. Even if a network audio engineer sticks to the material at hand—collisions picked up by field mics, the quarterback barking out signals—he’s delivering a mix that isn’t available in any seat in the stadium.
Fake crowd noise can start small. “I do think you need to fill in at the base level to eliminate the awkwardness or the eeriness of complete silence,” said Ed Placey, an ESPN executive who works on remote production.
Such a “crowd bed” is part of every Madden game. When announcers Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis sat in a studio to record commentary for this year’s edition of Madden, EA producers piped that murmur into their headphones, which they thought had an almost Pavlovian effect on the announcers.
From a modest starting point, a fake crowd can go, well, wild. According to Haumiller, EA first got serious about crowds in 2003, when the company had its employees cheer and perform various chants, which were then used in the game. By 2011, EA was recording sound in football stadiums and striving for a greater level of realism.
According to Max Chamberlin, a Madden audio artist, the game has a “robust logic system that has thousands and thousands of particular scenarios in-game.” When Dak Prescott throws a long touchdown to Amari Cooper, the sound a player hears is a combination of basic crowd reactions (loud cheering), the crowd’s swell (“Ohhhhh”), and custom “sweeteners” like, “Yeah, all right, Dak!” Those sounds will vary depending not just on whether the Cowboys are playing at home or on the road but whether the roof at AT&T Stadium is open or closed.
“There’s a lot of variability that we can build in off different, individual situations,” said Nawrath. In a scenario when the home team scores a touchdown to go up by 14 points, a player might hear five to 10 distinct crowd reactions, so he’s not getting the same roar every time.
Madden isn’t stadium-specific in the sense that it can render the particular sound of a Seahawks crowd versus, say, a Chiefs crowd. But when the Seahawks play home games on Madden, you hear the first-down hawk screech over the PA. At the Super Bowl, you hear cheers from a quieter, corporate-patron kind of crowd.
“It’s not beyond the wit of mortal man to be able to do this at all,” Hill said of importing such sound onto TV broadcasts. But Madden producers can pick out a few challenges their TV counterparts will face.
One is on plays like contested catches. “That ball’s in the air, and that crowd’s got that ‘Ohhhhh’ feeling,” said Haumiller. If David Tyree’s helmet catch was tricky for Joe Buck to call, it will be even trickier for an audio director to call up the right crowd track.
Madden producers also know the headache of not having the right crowd reaction for a particularly wacky play. “It could be a tie game in the Super Bowl, and the guy could be on the 1-yard line,” said Haumiller. “Instead of trying to rush it in, he might just scramble back to get a safety and lose the game, just to see what would happen.” Madden producers fear that if their crowd reaction is way off, a clip will get posted and everyone will make fun of them. That’s the reality the networks are about to face.
The argument in favor of a fake crowd is that we rely, almost subconsciously, on a crowd to tell us the gravity of what just happened—to cue our emotions. “If it’s done well,” Weisman said, “it’s just like a movie.”
2. Give a Game a Movie Score
Let’s push that idea further. What if you gave a fanless game a full-blown movie score? When he was running Fox Sports, Hill played with the idea for years. “Right now, the fact that there’s no crowd, it would be a perfect time to do it,” he said.
As Hill points out, we’ve reached a point in the history of man when almost every moment of our existence has an instructive music cue, “from the moment we get up to the moment we go to bed.” Think of the bruised-but-hopeful chords of a Taco Bell coronavirus ad. Why couldn’t a football game be scored like that?
In 2010, Hill got permission from Roger Goodell to score a handful of NFL games with the help of Fox engineer Richie Becker. “We got 50 different pieces of music ranging from exultant to sorrowful, and he had them recorded on what effectively looked like a piano keyboard,” Hill said.
The live game action went off like normal. The music played during slow-motion replays, in the classic style of NFL Films. If the replay showed a touchdown pass, Fox might play “exultant.” If the team threw a killer interception, viewers would hear “sorrowful.” Just like the “sad” Fox bumper music that plays after an injury, the score directed the audience’s emotions. “It’s like listening to a theme that’s been composed by Hans Zimmer or James Newton Howard,” Hill said.
Weisman scored a Major League Baseball game for Fox in the late ’90s with a dozen cuts on cassette. He said the problem was that the music didn’t leave much room for improvisation. A true game score, he said, would require a live musician who could whip up music for every situation.
After his experiment with scoring games, Hill got bored and moved on. “What was funny was that we didn’t get any reaction whatsoever from the public,” he said. “Not one person. It was perceived as being so natural that no one thought to pick up their pitchfork and light a torch.”
3. Outsource the Fans
Earlier this month, Joe Buck started a wildfire when he suggested that Fox might look at digitally adding fans to the stands. The matter was hardly settled, but it provoked the same questions about contrivance versus reality.
The usefulness of fan shots—real or not—is a matter of debate among producers. “I have always felt reaction shots are the greatest waste of time,” said Hill. “I don’t want to see what other fans are doing. I know they’re going to be jumping up and down.” He suggested directors shoot a fanless game more tightly, removing the empty stands out of the shot.
But networks have been recruiting off-site fans for years. Think about how many games have featured the obligatory shot of a sports bar when a team is clinching a championship on the road, or troops from military bases participating in an overseas sports communion.
In the past few weeks, producers have thought about expanding that device: What if distant fans could stand in for stadium fans? When the coronavirus moved the NFL draft from Las Vegas to Roger Goodell’s basement, a Culver City–based company called the Famous Group delivered remote fans, who booed Goodell or cheered their team’s picks on cue.
Famous fans could be imported to just about any broadcast. If fans at Yankee Stadium will stand up and wring their hands during a tight game, it figures that a Yankee fan would do the same thing in front of a webcam.
Placey said one of the drawbacks with off-site fans is the time delay that comes with those shots. That’s why you often see shots of the sports bar or the troops as the network goes to commercial, instead of in real time or even in the initial replace sequence. I’m not sure Surrender Cobra works quite as well two minutes after a college football team craps the bed.
The other problem with outsourced fans is that their ranks will be filled with saboteurs. There’s a 100 percent chance someone will try to sneak a naughty sign or gesture into an NFL broadcast. As Don Meredith once said, “They’re no. 1 in the nation.”
But the idea of a single fan’s reaction standing in for the collective is no different than the idea Arledge had when his Monday Night Football cameras scanned the bleachers for interesting specimens. The fan at home would become an emissary for the 60,000 whom the coronavirus barred from the gate. Anyway, it beats calling Bill Murray and Donald Trump.
4. Make Everything a MegaCast
I love ESPN’s MegaCasts. I love the nerdery of coaches treating the college football national championship like a regular afternoon of film study. After a few minutes, I miss the noise of the crowd and flip back to the regular broadcast.
But if there’s no crowd, then a coaching room’s lack of ambiance may not matter so much. In fact, it may become an advantage. In a fanless time, you could imagine the networks creating more MegaCasts and using commentary to compensate for the lack of a crowd.
Since ESPN started MegaCasting with the 2014 BCS national championship game, a few things became clear about the art form. One is that coaches—or whoever is enlisted to talk over a game—should be their typical, un-broadcast-y selves. As Turner’s failed Players Only bit proved, non-announcers should never, ever try to be Mike Breen.
“The dynamic of the room is important,” said Placey. Even among a bunch of type A coaches, there’s a pecking order. Placey noted that during ESPN’s MegaCasts, coaches tended to defer to older, credentialed types like TCU’s Gary Patterson. A younger coach barely spoke at all. At first, no coach wanted to be presumptuous enough to command the clicker.
That’s the kind of status anxiety the networks can use to create interesting TV. Imagine Charles Barkley and, um, anyone—Barkley is status anxiety in human form. Imagine a bunch of ex-baseball players, some conversant in advanced metrics, some not, some just interested in telling stories. Imagine Billy Packer returning to call a “legends” feed of a college basketball game. Some MegaCasts might be really bad. But now is the time to experiment.
5. Go Full McGloin
Matt McGloin, a former Raiders quarterback, isn’t really the future of anything. But on February 15, when McGloin was playing in the XFL, he unburdened himself to sideline reporters in a way that pointed to a future for sports TV. If you empower sideline reporters to get more stories, you make the games more interesting.
Much of the talk about fanless games has focused on putting mics on players. It worked great during “The Match 2,” as Kevin Clark noted here. But it was pretty stilted during NBC’s skins game. Sooner or later, networks run into the Sam Darnold “seeing ghosts” problem. Players and coaches don’t mind TV eavesdroppers, so long as what the mics capture is boring as hell.
A compromise is to let reporters interview players during games. When ESPN’s Dianna Russini and Tom Luginbill were set loose on the XFL sidelines, they discovered a few things about unlimited access. Viewers wanted to hear from players after bad moments more than good ones. (One team dubbed Russini “Black Cloud.”) Viewers wanted the player who screwed up to face one question, not several. With McGloin, one was usually all it took.
On February 15, the New York Guardians were playing the D.C. Defenders. McGloin threw an interception in the second quarter. Luginbill interviewed him. McGloin rattled off the clichés he’d usually hold for the locker room: “just a poor decision on my part”; “it’s only a one-score game.” Whatever.
But things got better. Before halftime, Russini’s producer told her to interview Kevin Gilbride, the Guardians’ head coach. Russini’s spidey-sense told her she ought to go back to McGloin. It was a wise decision, because McGloin was ready to vent. “We need to change the whole entire game plan at halftime,” McGloin said.
“Wow!” Steve Levy, the play-by-play announcer, said on the broadcast.
Next, Russini honored a tradition that’s usually reserved for the postgame. She took McGloin’s spicy quote to Gilbride. The coach’s reaction—sadly, delivered off-camera—was that McGloin needed to do a better job protecting the ball.
It’s worth mentioning that Guardians vs. Defenders was a lousy football game with 15,000 fans. It hardly mattered. You had a coach and quarterback divorcing on the air! In the second half, McGloin’s misery continued. He threw a pick-six. McGloin told Luginbill he had to learn to take a sack. Then, ESPN cameras captured McGloin complaining to Gilbride on the sidelines.
After McGloin was benched, Russini returned to McGloin for the crew’s fourth bite at the apple. Amazingly, McGloin was still in a giving mood. “To be honest with you,” he said on camera, “this is probably one of the worst games I’ve ever been a part of, offensively.”
“There’s a lot of stuff going on behind closed doors,” he continued. “I think we need to clean that up … At no point did I think we were comfortable out there. At no point in time did I think we were in a position to try to be successful.”
A few things about this. As self-deprecating as Tom Brady was about his golf game during “The Match 2,” he probably won’t submit to interrogation when he throws an interception in Tampa. NFL stars deign to “talk” only once, after the game; it’s crazy to think they would talk five times during it. And that’s if the NFL even allows it.
A good start is expanding the home range of sideline reporters, whom the NFL currently banishes from the bench area. What if she or he could ask a question to a head coach during a timeout to better understand a decision? What if she or he could grab a player for an interview a certain number of times per quarter? If you give a sideline reporter more agency, you might scrape off some of the decades of sexist junk that has accumulated on the job. If nobody hates the new access, it could become industry standard, even after the coronavirus.
A player doesn’t have to go Full McGloin to be interesting. In the XFL’s first week, a kicker named Ty Rausa, a veteran of the National Arena League, missed a field goal. “I just got to simple it down,” he told Russini on the sidelines. In the final seconds of the first half, Rausa hit a 55-yarder, the longest field goal of his career. “You would have thought he kicked the winning field goal in the Super Bowl,” said Russini, who quickly moved to interview Rausa again. If the fans aren’t helping the networks tell a story, why not let the player tell it himself?