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Fake Crowd Noise Isn’t The Innovation Broadcasting Needs

“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.”

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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. 

Canceled Games and Empty Stadiums: Will the Coronavirus Spread to ...

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. 

Bundesliga | Borussia Dortmund celebrate with absent fans after ...

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. 

Yonhap News Agency reporter appears on ESPN telecast of KBO game ...

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.

BSM Writers

Kevin Burkhardt Is Broadcasting’s Most Unlikely Success Story

“To go from a car lot to the main NFL on FOX booth in less than 20 years is about as likely as one quarterback leading his team to seven Super Bowl wins.”

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There is always something appealing about the 50-75% off rack in a clothing store. It is the hope against hope I can find a shirt in my size that doesn’t look like a 1980’s Bill Cosby sweater and a velour tracksuit had a baby. That is not where FOX went shopping for Tom Brady.

Nope, FOX paid top dollar for their newest NFL analyst. Though the actual number first reported by Andrew Marchand of the New York Post (ten years, $375 million) hasn’t been confirmed by FOX, it is safe to say Brady will be the highest paid sports analyst in television history. “Will be” because he has that pesky little roadblock of finishing the greatest NFL career we’ve ever seen first.

I’m glad Brady could finally catch a break, looks like things are turning around for the poor guy.

The reason Brady is even being hired is that FOX is in the relatively unique position of having an entire booth opening for their top NFL game telecast with the departure of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to ABC/ESPN. The closest thing we’ve seen to this situation was the 2006 move from ABC to NBC of Al Michaels and John Madden. Of course, ABC was moving Monday Night Football to ESPN at that time and the break felt a little more natural.

As another side note, that was the Al Michaels/Oswald the Lucky Rabbit trade. Yes, one of the greatest play-by-play voices in television history was traded from ABC to NBC for some Ryder Cup rights, an Olympic highlights agreement and the rights to a cartoon rabbit. Oswald, of course, was the forerunner to Mickey Mouse. That must be the cartoon equivalent of what it was like being the opener for The Rolling Stones. The house lights are up, the single guys are hitting on the single ladies and everyone is coming back from the concession stands ready for Oswald to shut up so Mickey can take the stage.

What this has created for FOX is the search for the play-by-play partner for Brady, the role 46-year-old Kevin Burkhardt has earned. You’ll notice I said “earned” instead of “was given”. No, Burkhardt has absolutely worked his way to the top of the FOX ladder, starting by covering local high school football in New Jersey. In fact, my favorite part of this story is Burkhardt, not Brady. 

Burkhardt is as good an example of perseverance paying off as you will find in sports broadcasting. As Richard Deitsch once profiled for Sports Illustrated, just 15 years ago, seemingly having given up on hitting it big, Burkhardt was selling cars for Pine Belt Chevrolet in New Jersey. His silky smooth voice has been one of the reasons Burkhardt has climbed the FOX ladder but can you imagine him describing what is under the hood of a 2005 Chevy Suburban? Or him saying, “We have cars for every price range starting as low as $10,000. From ten to 15 to 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50…”

To go from a car lot to the main NFL on FOX booth in less than 20 years is about as likely as one quarterback leading his team to seven Super Bowl wins. Maybe that is why this pair will work. Brady, himself, was fairly close to using that business degree from Michigan. If not for a fortuitous draft pick and a Drew Bledsoe injury, the car salesman-sixth round pick broadcast team may have never happened.

Burkhardt’s climb is a lesson for young people looking to break into the sports broadcasting field. I’d be writing this from my summer home in Santorini, Greece if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me how to get on the air in sports radio or TV. My answer is the same every time: go to your local radio or TV station that carries high school sports and tell them you’ll volunteer to be part of the production. Trust me on this, local stations make good revenue on high school sports and are looking to produce it as cheaply as possible.

I did that when I was in college at Jacksonville State University and worked my first football season, 14 weeks, for a free game of bowling and a free meal for two at a local bar-b-que joint. I can’t calculate now how much that bowling and bar-b-que has been worth to me since. I was able to get on the air, learn the craft and make all my early mistakes in a very forgiving environment.

The local high school broadcast teaches you how to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. You will, at some point, call a game from a booth shared with a member of the home team’s quarterback club, a man who lives for the free pizza and cookies in the Friday night press box. He’s certain the game officials are either blind or on the opposing team’s payroll and doesn’t care if your crowd mic hears him yelling it.

That’s if you are fortunate enough to have a spot in the actual press box. When I was in college, doing high school play-by-play on WHMA-FM in Anniston, Alabama, we once were told there was no room in the home team’s press box for a state playoffs semifinal game. We convinced the station’s sales team to go to the local equipment rental store and negotiate for us to use a scissor lift at the stadium. They delivered it for us and it became our perilous mobile broadcast booth for one Friday night. 

The lessons learned in those years shaped my career. Those same types of lessons were also the building blocks for the man who is now slated to call the biggest games on FOX, including the Super Bowl, for the foreseeable future.

It is crazy to think a man drafted 199th is now paired in one of the biggest jobs in sports TV with a man who once tried to convince people to add on things like the Platinum Level Pine Belt Chevy Service Agreement. Those are the stories we love in sports. Now, those two will tell us those types of stories for years to come.

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BSM Writers

Patrick Beverley Announced Himself As the Next Sports Broadcasting Star

ESPN shouldn’t have let Beverley leave its studios without signing him to a contract that put him in an analyst role as soon as his playing career is over.

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@ESPN on Twitter

Last week, Fox Sports announced the signing of what the network hopes is the next sports broadcasting star in Tom Brady. More dazzling headlines came from Brady’s mega-deal with Fox, though the network disputes the 10-year, $375 million figure reported by the New York Post‘s Andrew Marchand.

This week, however, viewers may have seen the emergence of another future sports broadcasting star. And unlike Fox, ESPN didn’t tell us NBA player Patrick Beverley would be an impactful commentator based on name recognition and contract size. The network showed us Beverley’s talents and capabilities with sharp, biting opinions on its Monday daytime studio shows.

Beverley, who played this season for the Minnesota Timberwolves, has long been known as one of the NBA’s most provocative and irritating defenders. Coaches regularly task him with checking the opposing team’s best player.

He obstructs opponents physically with quick footwork and hands that result in steals, blocks, and rebounds of missed shots. But he also throws players off their game verbally and mentally, getting in their heads and forcing them to think about matters other than the game at hand.

That talent for highlighting weaknesses and insecurities in opponents serves him well as an analyst, which Beverley demonstrated by skewering Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul during appearances on Get Up and First Take. On the Monday morning after the Suns’ shocking 123-90 Game 7 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Playoffs, the NBA guard went beyond stating that Paul had played badly.

Appearing with JJ Redick, Beverley could’ve said something obvious and safe like the Suns needed their leader to score more than 10 points with their season on the line. Paul needed to elevate the rest of the team and make them better. But given a national platform, Beverley pushed harder than that.

“They benched the wrong person,” Beverley said, referring to center Deandre Ayton playing only 17 minutes (and less than four minutes during the second half) in what Suns coach Monty Williams called an “internal” matter.

“They should’ve benched Chris… Once you see they started attacking Chris early and that might become a problem later on, you need to see how my team works without Chris in the game.”

On First Take, Beverley continued his criticism of Paul, especially his defense.

“There ain’t nobody worried about Chris Paul when you play the Phoenix Suns, nobody in the NBA,” Beverley said to Stephen A. Smith. “He’s finessed the game to a point where he gets all the petty calls, all the swipe-throughs at the end.

“We wanna be really honest? He should’ve fouled out. The last game, too. You see the replay against [Jalen] Brunson, hit him on the shoulder, hit him on the mouth, ref don’t call anything. If that’s me, ‘Oh, review it! Flagrant 1!’ If that’s him, they don’t call it.”

Beverley went on to say Paul can’t guard anyone and called him “a cone” that stays still while opponents run around him. That is scathing commentary coming from a current NBA player, criticism not typically heard on a studio show.

Yet if Beverley sounded bitter and resentful toward Paul, it’s because he is. The 10-year veteran holds an intense grudge against the Suns guard going back to when they faced each other in high school and college, which he explained to Redick earlier this year on his podcast, Old Man and the Three (via Awful Announcing).

“Chris, he does slick s**t,” Beverley told Redick. “People don’t know, that’s a little dirty motherf***er, man. Chris know that too, man. I know you don’t want to say it, but I’ll say it for you, though. I know he was your teammate.”

Paul wasn’t the only Suns player targeted by the guest analyst, however. Besides saying the entire Phoenix team was “scared,” especially of Mavericks star guard Luka Dončić, Beverley had plenty of criticism for Ayton, saying he was “OK” after Redick called him “fantastic” on First Take.

“I’m all about greatness,” Beverley said (via the Arizona Republic‘s Duane Rankin). “What would Wilt Chamberlain do? What would Shaquille O’Neal do? Get it off the rim. Y’all don’t have him in the pick-and-roll, I’m going to get it off the rim. I’m going to go get it. I’m going to go get it.”

Ayton only scored five points in Phoenix’s Game 7 loss. By “get it off the rim,” Beverley meant that there were plenty of opportunities for offensive rebounds and putbacks with all of the shots that Paul and Devin Booker missed. (The two shot a combined 7-for-22.)

ESPN shouldn’t have let Beverley leave its South Street Seaport studios in New York City without signing him to a contract that put him in an analyst role as soon as his playing career is over, as Fox did with Tom Brady. Actually, the network should make sure Beverley appears across its daytime schedule while he’s still an active player, as Turner Sports does with Draymond Green. And why not on NBA Countdown as well?

Fox drew the headlines last week for signing Tom Brady to its top NFL broadcast team without having any idea if he will be good at calling football games. He received a reportedly massive contract to prevent him from going anywhere else after he retires, and Fox is banking that casual fans will tune in out of familiarity and curiosity.

Patrick Beverley doesn’t have that kind of mainstream recognition. The NBA isn’t as nationally popular as the NFL. And studio analysts aren’t typically as well-known as game commentators. But maybe that’s more true of football. Who is the most famous basketball analyst? It’s Charles Barkley, by far.

Barkley is known for his candor and pointed opinions, which stand out in a studio setting far more than they would during a game broadcast as the action keeps moving. His jokes and jabs can be easily captured in video clips that play well on social media and have a shelf life on YouTube. ESPN has never had that kind of personality for its NBA coverage. No matter how hard it’s tried, the network has never produced anything close to Turner’s Inside the NBA.

But ESPN, whether realizing it or not, may have found its guy in Beverley. Put him on NBA Countdown and it instantly becomes a better program. Let PatBev argue with Stephen A., as he did on Monday’s First Take, and the pregame show is something that generates buzz and conversation.

Maybe Beverley, Redick, and Stephen A. would make for a good post-game show, something ESPN has never done while Inside the NBA shines in breaking down what just happened. Yes, there’s SportsCenter and Beverley could appear with Scott Van Pelt afterward. But a strong NBA postgame show could become a key part of the overall package. What if SVP played moderator as Ernie Johnson does with Barkley, Kenny Smith, and Shaquille O’Neal?

Doesn’t that already sound better than what ESPN is doing now? Don’t let PatBev get away! He could be the network’s next big, must-watch star. Especially if he has grudges against more NBA players besides Chris Paul.

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BSM Writers

Mike Raffensperger Examines The Business of Sports Betting

“McAfee asked some outstanding questions, as he often does, while Raffensperger pulled back the curtain on a lot of things listeners and customers of the book were wanting to know.”

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Pat McAfee has built quite a following since the end of his playing days. Last December, the former Indianapolis Colts punter signed a four-year, $120 million deal with FanDuel to make it the exclusive sportsbook of The Pat McAfee Show, where he seamlessly blends gambling talk with football talk every weekday. 

Last Thursday, McAfee welcomed Mike Raffensperger to the show for a very insightful and informative segment. The Chief Marketing Officer for FanDuel touched on numerous topics during the interview, ranging from how likely it is that each state will eventually have online gambling, to which show member was having the worst gambling run per their account history.

While some questioned the decision to give McAfee such a high amount of money in the deal, it appears to have paid off handsomely for FanDuel. In a report put out last week by their parent company, Flutter Entertainment, the book signed up 1.3 million active new customers in the first quarter of 2022. In addition, their 1.5 million active customers on Super Bowl Sunday was the highest single-day total ever, and the 19 million bets they processed during the NCAA Tournament signaled the most popular betting period in the book’s history. 

Raffensperger discussed some of the challenges that have been overcome with getting the FanDuel online service up and running in states as they slowly begin to legalize it. He stated that 15 states currently offer online services, but that getting all 50 will never happen.

He cited Utah as an example, as their state constitution clearly outlaws gambling, but stated that many states have legalized it because it is “pretty common sense legalization.” He does believe we will see many more states, including California, legalize sports wagering in the coming years, however. “You will see a continued, steady pace for the next few years, and then you will get close to a critical mass, but you will never get to 50.” 

McAfee asked how much of a role COVID-19 played in the legalization of sports gambling, and Raffensperger said many states were forced to explore new ways to recoup tax revenues lost during shutdowns. “From a state, municipal budgets, they needed tax revenue,” he said, while also discussing how it went from being something done in the shadows to commonplace. “It is taking a black market that is unregulated and unsafe, into a safe and regulated environment, and creates tax revenue for the state. It’s very common sense.”

One of the more informative discussions came when McAfee asked what Raffensperger would say to listeners that complained they were unable to take advantage of odds boosts or promos that FanDuel offered through his show, yet were not available to listeners in every state. This is a common issue for radio stations throughout the country that have gambling ads in multi-state markets.

“It tends to be a little more restrictive,” Raffensperger said regarding how states tend to regulate what can be offered in the months following legalization. “Then over time, as states get comfortable, we build a good relationship with our regulating partners.” He added, “it does tend to open up a bit more over time” as they build that rapport within a state, but fully understands the frustration for customers and listeners. “At the end of the day, we gotta own what the customer experience is, and it’s FanDuel’s job to work through those regulatory challenges to make it as easy on customers as possible.”

When McAfee asked him about whether more brick-and-mortar book sites might be coming in the future at professional stadiums, Raffensperger was quick to point out it was also impacted by state regulations. Stating that 90% of all their bets were made online, he also questioned to what end a physical site would be a prudent investment.

“Beyond a physical teller and placing a bet, what is a super premium or luxury experience that would make being at a sportsbook different than what you have in your mind of a Vegas sportsbook,” he asked theoretically, “but being at a retail stadium?”

He also said that physical sites, like online apps, are tied to regulation on a state-by-state basis. “You’re either allowed to take a physical bet in a sports facility or not. Most of the time, and in most of the laws, you have to have already been a gambling establishment, either a race track or a casino, to have a physical book.” 

They also touched on the McAfee same game parlay for Super Bowl LVI, which Raffensperger confirmed was tailed by more than 200,000 of his listeners. Paying out nearly eight-to-one, the wager was for Cooper Kupp to score a touchdown and to have more than 60 yards receiving, in addition to Odell Beckham Jr scoring a touchdown, and Joe Burrow rushing for 12 or more yards. Raffensperger said the parlay, which needed just nine rushing yards from Burrow to hit, may have been “the biggest parlay liability in the history of gambling,” and would have cost the book nearly $50 million had it come through. 

One final interesting fact was the rise of women in the sports gambling space. A report over the weekend from Global Wireless Solutions stated that the growth rate of women signing up with sportsbooks is 63% higher than the rate of men during the same time frame. They also reported that in 2021 FanDuel added almost 1.7 million new female customers, with DraftKings adding close to 900,000 in the same span. As sportsbooks look to bring in higher market share and look to find new ways to advertise their services, women are likely the next major demographic the books fight over. 

All in all, it was a terrific interview from all sides. Entertaining and enlightening, McAfee asked some outstanding questions, as he often does, while Raffensperger pulled back the curtain on a lot of things listeners and customers of the book were wanting to know. The partnership appears to be greatly beneficial for all parties involved, and hopefully the positive reception to the McAfee interview will lead to more transparency and open dialogue from sports book executives to their consumers.

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