Mike Tirico called it the biggest event in American sports in four months – since the Daytona 500 and NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 16.
Perhaps, but there is no debating this: The 2020 Belmont Stakes certainly is the biggest athletic event in New York since the COVID-19 pandemic brought sports to a halt in mid-March.
And NBC has an elaborate plan to chronicle it, albeit with the now-familiar challenges caused by social distancing and on-air personalities scattered across the continent.
Producer Rob Hyland said it will be “new and different than anything we’ve ever done before.”
Still, the expectation is that once the starting gate opens late Saturday afternoon, the race itself will look like any other Belmont – though at 1 1/8 miles rather than 1 1/2.
“The actual coverage of the sporting event should look no different,” Hyland said, “other than the fact that there are no fans in attendance.”
NBC will use only seven of its own cameras, down from the usual 25 or so, but the New York Racing Association will supplement that with a couple of dozen more, its production crew working closely with Hyland’s on all aspects of the telecaset.
The only on-air personnel on site will be race announcer Larry Collmus and reporters Britney Eurton and Kenny Rice.
Host Tirico, analyst Randy Moss and Hyland will be at NBC Sports headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut. Analyst Jerry Bailey will be at his home in Florida. Handicapper Ed Olczyk will be at his home in Illinois.
Eurton and Rice will have to follow special procedures, including using a six-foot boom mic to conduct interviews.
There will be no on-track interviewer after the race to talk to the winning jockey, but the NYRA outrider will wear a microphone attached to a high-powered radio, allowing Tirico, Bailey and Moss to speak to the winner.
Three jockeys will wear microphones to provide added access amid the quieter-than-normal surroundings.
And, Rice and Eurton said, it will be easier to locate the winning connections after the race without having to fight through the usual crowds.
The broadcast will integrate fans from virtual watch parties. Owners who are not on site will appear via remote cameras for reaction and interviews.
Hyland said a total of about 50 people will work the Belmont this year for NBC, compared with more than 200 on site last year.
This will be the 10th Belmont Stakes that Collmus has called for NBC. In the past, he has been in the track announcer’s booth far above the action, mostly isolated from the sound and feel of the crowd.
This time, he will be on the third-floor camera deck, where NBC usually has its host and analysts, and which under normal circumstances would put him right in the middle of the madness.
Will the lack of crowd energy affect his call?
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think the main difference is the lead-up to the race, where you hear the crowd . . . It sort of pumps you up and gets you into that feeling. But once the race starts, you’re in your own zone.”
Bailey said he does not expect trouble following the race from his home, since he is accustomed to tracking action on a monitor. “I basically watch races on television anyway,” he said.
NBC is hoping the star power of favored Tiz the Law will draw casual fans, as will the welcome return of what Tirico called a “classic” American sports event.
“Heck, I’m just happy to get back in the saddle again,” Moss said. “It’s really going to be fun to get the band back together again on Saturday, even if we’re going to be at a minimum six feet apart and at a maximum 1,200 miles apart.”