It’s Time to Redesign the Sports Broadcast
Our favorite pastimes are about to look and sound much different. And that’s a good thing.
For all its outsized presence in normal American life, sport is designed to be a diversion. It offers purpose for the young, nostalgia for the old, and for everyone in between, a hard-earned escape from reality.
When that reality escalates into crisis, so does our need for distraction. And when said crisis makes games unplayable, that absence strikes at the core of our identity. With so much time to pass, the hunger for our pastimes is profound.
National morale must be boosted. Seasonal rhythms have to be restored. And the coffers of billion-dollar franchises, however deep, still need replenishment.
So it’s no wonder that major American sports leagues are desperately seeking ways to carry on, even amid a pandemic. A novel virus demands novel approaches, and pro athletes are being elevated to essential workers.
As of this writing, leagues and players are hammering out the final particulars of resuming basketball, finishing hockey, and beginning baseball. Football’s overlords lie in wait, their season advantaged by timing but still awash in uncertainty.
While many variables appear in play — including tournament structures, viable locations, and regimens for testing and sequestering players — one conclusion seems all but certain. In the near future, we’re likely to see our greatest athletes contend in empty venues, forcing us to consume our pastimes remotely from the safety of our couches.
Picture a game inside a silent, fanless stadium, denuded of the rush and spectacle that we associate with spectators. Many would consider such a scenario to be surreal, or off-putting. Perhaps unbefitting of our great American institutions, and even a little sad.
But with a dose of the ingenuity we expect from our sporting-industrial complex, it needn’t be so. A few bold design decisions could turn our pastimes into an experience that still delivers the diversion we seek, the social bonds we crave, and — believe it or not — the lessons we need.
American athletes are duty-bound to report that the roar of home fans amps up their adrenaline, while opposing jeers prime their competitive instinct. In the language of bloodsport, they “feed off the crowd,” cannibalistic overtones be damned.
While Major League Baseball remains in suspended animation until July, professional baseball in Asia debuted on schedule this spring, benefiting from a coronavirus headstart. But the stands in Taiwan contain cardboard figures and robot drummers, while South Korean ballparks feature modest troupes of cheerleaders. Fans remain conspicuously absent.
Yet among these odd surroundings, a striking discovery has been made. Without the din of a crowd to contend with, the true sounds of the game have come to life like never before.
Dan Straily, a former Chicago Cubs pitcher now hurling for the Botte Giants in South Korea’s KBO league, reported experiencing a teammate’s defensive effort with a heightened clarity.
“My shortstop dove for a ball. And he missed it by, like, an inch,” Straily said. “It was an incredible effort. When he hit the ground, I heard the air leave his lungs. And we’ve talked about that in the dugout. Because I’ve never once in my life heard that.”
Baseball contains a universe of sound. We’re accustomed to hearing the crack of the bat, or the slap of a ball finding purchase in leather. But under normal circumstances, much of the game’s sonic landscape — the thud of a body against turf, the chatter of a mound visit, and the vulgar riot of a manager arguing with an umpire — has remained hidden from our ears.
But now, it won’t.
Once American baseball resumes next month — likely without fans, probably without cheerleaders, and definitely without robots — broadcast networks could default to the sound design they’ve used for decades. But what if empty stands offered an opportunity to reveal a bigger sonic canvas, reshaping how we hear a game?
Coupled with well-placed, high-fidelity microphones, might relative silence become not a surreal distraction, but a chance for fans to hear more? To experience any of our favorite sports on a deeper level? One that’s less sanitized, more authentically human?
Sounds promising in theory. But if you asked play-by-play announcer Joe Buck, he might consider the possibility small enough to fit inside his chin dimple.
Buck, who works both baseball and football for Fox Sports, made headlines by suggesting that his employer might try a different approach for the NFL’s empty stands next season — assuming one is played. Specifically, incorporating fake crowd noise and computer-generated virtual fans beneath his own dulcet tones.
“I think Fox and these networks have to put crowd noise under us to make it as normal a viewing experience at home,” Buck said. “I know they’ll do it.”
Sure, we’ve grown used to “enhanced” broadcasting techniques over the years. Older sports footage now looks naked without a never-ending scroll of stats and scores. And the digital on-field line marking a first down is considered by this writer to be one of the last century’s crowning technological achievements.
But pumped-in crowd noise and CGI fan avatars? That may cross the line into actual fake news — from, of all outlets, Fox Corporation.
Yes, we’re all hungering for normalcy. But instead of draping a sport in false comfort, fans are better served by experiencing a deeper reality of the game’s sights and sounds.
Baseball has experimented lightly with inviting on-field players to wear microphones during play. These “Mic’d Up” sideshows are typically light fare, but they have revealed a few memorable moments of sportsmanship, such as Anthony Rizzo apologizing to a home plate ump following his reaction to a call. That adds a warm layer of humanity and authenticity to the proceedings.
Football broadcasts have amplified selected players as well, and while their spoken exchanges are largely encoded gibberish, the amplified sound of bodies clashing at close range does deliver a more visceral effect to the fan at home.
Still, such sonic tinkering has remained a trifle to be enjoyed during breaks of the main event. And it’s highly curated to project the games’ positive aspects. One wonders what an uncensored audio feed could add to the viewing experience, from the profane lunacy of trash talk to the barbaric yawps of victory.
That’s enhanced broadcasting based not on a fantasy of “normal” sport, but on what’s really happening. It’s making up for what we’re missing with something more, rather than fooling us into having what’s gone.
For that same reason, sports should leave the stands completely unfilled — and broadcasters must depict them as such. It’s one thing to forget our troubles for a few hours, but quite another to be lulled into pretending they are behind us.
Seeing empty seats can provide us with a necessary reminder that these are not normal times. So much of our public health crisis has transpired out of our collective sight. The insides of overcrowded hospitals have remained unseen. The numbers of afflicted and dead are so high as to feel purely abstract — or worse, even doubted.
Seeing an empty stadium might help make that loss more concrete. A wide shot could remind us that the 50,000 people who would normally be here represent less than half of the lives our country has lost.
Depicting otherwise sends the same wrong message as the image of a Memorial Day celebration in a crowded pool. It suggests we’re in the clear when we most certainly are not. And that further divides an already cleaved nation, contrasting those willing to sacrifice their freedom and comfort for the common good with those who casually—and often recklessly—snub such responsibility.
Sports, as we’re often reminded, have a unique power to bring us together. They reveal our commonalities in spite of our differences. In an increasingly on-demand world, they still draw us to pay collective attention to the same thing at the same time. They force us to live in the moment.
A more authentic approach to sports broadcast design won’t solve the larger problems we’re battling. But it could help us build a new skill we’ll need in the future: taking the good with the bad.
It can say yes, we deserve a diversion. But no, our troubles aren’t over. Yes, we can slowly emerge into our old routines in time. But no, we can’t break the rules ourselves and still expect to get through this together.
Our sports masterminds have the technology and the creativity to give us not just the diversions we crave, but the reminders we need. Even if only for a season or two.
Hopefully, before long, we can resume our traditional sporting experience in safety. After all, the roar of a crowd is beautiful to the ears, and our kitchens offer no substitute for a tailgate barbecue or ballpark hotdog. The grass never looks as green as it does in person, even with 8K high-definition.
And when normalcy resumes, we’ll look back on a strange time when sports brought us not just a distraction, but the lesson we needed to survive. Even while no one was there to see it.