I’m not sure what to expect to be honest. I have no idea what it will sound like, no clue what it might feel like. I know it’s going to be strange.
I’m talking about doing a radio broadcast with no fans in the stands. As I write, I think to myself, ‘if that’s what it takes to get us back to playing baseball, I’m on board’. No offense to the fans. They are a vital part of the experience for sure, but if it means sports gets back going, it’s probably a fair trade off.
The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing everybody to pivot and figure out ways to get through this thing with as much “normalcy” as possible. Sports has been directly affected with shutdowns, layoffs, furloughs and anything but business as usual. This is the new reality at least now. It’s uncharted territory. Leagues and networks are feeling their way through the unknown and are doing what they feel is best for them and for the players. Safety is the biggest concern and why fans are not going to be in the seats when we get back underway.
Now comes this from Fox play-by-play man, Joe Buck, taking to Twitter last week saying that his network is considering “pumping in fake crowd noise and maybe even show virtual fans if NFL stadiums are empty this season.” It’s a couple of several options they are considering apparently.
Are we talking something like a “laugh track” like in your favorite TV sitcom? Please no. I think I understand why this is being considered, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Buck continued on Twitter last week, “some ambient crowd noise under a broadcast is a simple, necessary tool to normalize the viewing experience at home.” In a second tweet Buck wrote, “There is no ‘traditional’ take on this topic. It’s new territory. Hoping stadiums are full and all is normal. If not, then it’s a blank canvas. All networks will try to make it look and sound as normal as possible. It could lead to unprecedented, thrilling access. Who knows?”
FOX Sports 1 took to the air with a “test” run during a Bundesliga soccer matching between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. I didn’t personally hear it, but according to those that did, the sound seemed natural, with the dull white noise and some chants. Apparently it sounded good until the cameras panned to reveal an empty stadium. What a contradiction.
The fake crowd noise just nags at me. I love hearing ambient sound in my headphones when doing a baseball broadcast, don’t get me wrong. At the same time, its ACTUAL ambient sound from whatever type of crowd there is. If there are no fans in the stands, it will create a challenge for broadcasters, but I think the fake stuff will too. You’ll know it’s fake, so will your audience. It may become a very overused “punchline” to a “listen to the crowd” commentary. I’m not into that one bit.
Same can be said for “virtual” fans. Can’t the networks just tighten up those high home, or 50-yard line cameras to show us a little more action? Is it really a big deal to show an empty arena? They’ll ALL be empty so what’s the big deal? Why even invest in the labor of faking it, both in person hours or money?
The KBO (Korean Baseball) is piping in crowd noise at the stadium for players to feel like it’s a little less strange. During the broadcasts on ESPN, that noise is barely audible. That seems like a better alternative for the viewer who again knows that nobody is there. The KBO even went as far as having fans send in photos of themselves, then they are made into cardboard cutouts and placed in the stands. That’s fun once, maybe twice. After that I don’t see the attraction.
UFC fights without fans in the stands have gotten a lot of positive commentary on social media. Fans said that crowd noise helps build the drama for a major fight, but it’s not the end all, be all. UFC viewers actually say they liked hearing the kicks and punches land making them feel like they had seats in the front row. They also enjoyed hearing the coaching that was going on, almost like a behind the curtains view and sound.
In sports, or should I say “entertainment” events like the WWE, no fans equal a big 180 from the way things need to be. The WWE needs the crowds to be involved and into it.
There was an occasion a few years ago, in 2015 when the White Sox and Orioles played a game in Baltimore with the gates locked and no fans in the stands. There was some unrest in the city and the decision was made to play the game as scheduled but without an audience. It was a bit of a different feel for sure.
The Orioles telecast had a little fun with the situation. Gary Thorne put on his “Masters voice” for a brief moment, giving the play-by-play as Adam Jones took his at-bat in the top of the seventh. The approach was tested immediately when Jones hit the first pitch of the at-bat. Thorne’s call: “Jones will whack the son-of-a-gun to center field. That’s very deep, it’s deep and it’s off the base of the wall. … Adam Jones has a double, and that green jacket is well within reach, Jim.” Thorne providing a light-hearted moment that was well accepted. He didn’t do the whole game that way, just the one at-bat.
I do realize that networks are going to have to do what they can to make it the best broadcast possible. The virtual fans and pumped in crowd noise are a couple of ways to go, but again, to me not the desired direction. I say we embrace this and try some things that are REAL and could have some meaning and staying power. This is a great opportunity to “switch up the normal” because this is not going to be normal.
Some broadcasters across the country echo those sentiments. Cardinals play-by-play announcer Dan McLaughlin told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that any potential bumps in the road for networks wouldn’t compare to the games coming back to our screens and radios.
“We’d have baseball and sports back,” he said. “If this is how the game is to be presented, then let’s do it. Let’s give the viewing audience the best product we can under the circumstances. Let’s enjoy it and embrace it, no matter if it’s different than what we’re used to.”
In other words, steer into the skid, embrace the chaos, blazon new trails and create something out of nothing. The piped in crowd noise, cardboard cut outs and virtual fans are what you might call “low hanging fruit”. Easy fixes. Again, are you enhancing the broadcast with these maneuvers or are you creating a mockery? I say it a lot, but it’s true, time to think outside the box. Come up with some solutions that may in fact carry on, once the pandemic is over and we get back to “near normal” conditions.
What am I talking about? How about ESPN’s broadcast of KBO games? Not only are the broadcasters doing the games from their own houses (for obvious reasons) but they’re using a rotating “third voice” in the “booth”. Whether it be a former player, a Korean baseball expert or even an MLB insider. It’s an interesting idea to provide some information and some entertainment, especially since most people tuning in are just ‘jonesing’ for some baseball. They likely don’t know who the players are on most of the teams, with a few exceptions. Why not tune in for some KBO games and hear about what is going on with MLB? I like it.
Dave Flemming who calls Giants games in San Francisco told the folks on KNBR radio it’s ok to experiment during these weird times. “I think there could be room for, OK, the Giants are playing the Cubs in one of these weird games,” Flemming said. “Let’s have Will Clark on and let’s show some highlights from that playoff series and let’s show the Maddux moment. I think there is some room to do a little bit of that while still actually covering the game.”
“When there’s no crowd and no ballpark atmosphere, there is a huge part of what we’re used to watching missing,” Flemming said on KNBR. “That void probably does need to be filled somehow. I wouldn’t do it all game every game. But I think there is a spot for some stuff like that without fans and ballpark atmosphere to lean on. It is going to be tough on those directors and camera operators. It’s like, man, you can only get so many facial closeups of the guy on the on-deck circle.”
Maybe this will be something that continues past the pandemic when fans are allowed back into stadiums and ballparks. Sometimes telecasts and broadcasts fall into predictable habits, especially in the case of baseball, because the sport is such a repetitive thing. Daily broadcasts basically for 6-7 months can force that.
I’d love to see this crazy time turn into positives that we can take as we move through this pandemic and back to some type of normal. Fake crowd noise and virtual fans? No thank you. Ways to grow the game and grow as broadcasters as a result? Yes, please. There’s nothing wrong with a little inventiveness now and then.
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.