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How two announcers will approach calling games with no fans

A home plate perspective of Globe Life Field,

A home plate perspective of Globe Life Field, the newly-built home of the Texas Rangers, in Arlington, Texas, on May 20, 2020.  Credit: AP/Tony Gutierrez

Athletes hope to be back at work soon. Fans know they will not be back to watch them in person anytime soon.

That leaves announcers somewhere in between — with the promise of games to call on the horizon, but the promise of doing so under normal circumstances nowhere in sight.

Opinions vary widely about what that will be like, whether they are forced to work off monitors from studios far from stadiums and arenas or are allowed to do so in person — amid relative silence.

Take Brian Anderson and Ron Darling, who during the regular season call Brewers and Mets games locally and for the past three seasons have worked together on Turner’s coverage of league championship series.

Asked this week by Newsday about the impact of calling games in empty stadiums, Darling said this:

“Huge. Tremendous. It can’t be understated how difficult it’s going to be . . . I think we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t really put a lot of thought into whether we decide to have [added] crowd noise in the broadcast, ambient sound.”

Anderson said this when asked the same question in a separate interview:

"[People are] making too big of a deal of it, in my mind. I did minor league baseball for nine years. I’ve called a lot of games with single-digits fans. The quote is: It ain’t no thing . . . I know I wouldn’t be affected at all by it, even though I’d love to have a crowd. It’s fun to lay out with the crowd going crazy. But it’s no big deal for a broadcaster.”

Do not read that sort of difference in opinion as a potential source of contention among announcers. Read it as a reflection of the great unknowns.

Joe Buck caused a stir last week when he talked on Sirius XM Satellite Radio about Fox planning to add simulated crowd noise to fans-free NFL games, then clarified he meant such concepts still are being worked on.

But television networks face a decision between two bad options, one of which might seem cheesy and the other of which might seem dull.

Either way, Darling believes the impact of empty stadiums will be greater on broadcasters than players.

"At some point, someone throws the ball at you and you’ve got to catch it,” he said. “All that stuff is inherent to the game, so you’re going to do that whether there are people in the stands or not . . . I think the playing on the field will not change too much; the game’s just too quick and physical.”

But as a broadcaster, he said, “I’ve already thought about writing on top of my scorecard every day some key words, whether it’s ‘energy,’ or I don’t know what the words are yet — I’m trying to come up with them — but something to keep the energy up.

“You can fall into a Wednesday afternoon game at 12 o’clock in Cincinnati, where you’re kind of just going through it. I’m not picking on Cincinnati. They might be an interesting ballclub. I mean just those types of games.”

There is another element of calling games without fans that concerns broadcasters — more so for basketball than other sports.

Without background noise, players are apt to hear what announcers are saying, especially if they are courtside.

“I was ready to do the Big Ten tournament [without fans] between Michigan and Rutgers [on March 12],” Anderson said, “and we were legitimately concerned about the things we were saying being heard by the players, even calling out a zone defense or talking about a guy at the free-throw line.

“So I would say basketball is the one sport that if there are no fans we’ll probably need to go into a studio or alter the location to call that game, just because you don’t want to impact the play. You don’t want to talk about a guy being a poor free-throw shooter when the guy is at the free-throw line.”

Even in baseball, the announcers’ words might be heard on the field.

“We’ve even thought of at home if we do it in the [SNY] booth, we might close the windows,” Darling said. “That seems really counterintuitive, but that might be the way to do it because you close the windows so no one can hear you, so you don’t have to say, ‘Against so-and-so pitcher hitters hit .500 with runners in scoring position.’

“It’s going to be so challenging to figure out the right way to do things, and I’m not even talking about the social distancing.”

Anderson said that when the Brewers’ Christian Yelich suffered a fractured kneecap in a mostly empty stadium in Miami last September, he could hear the training stuff discussing the situation on the field.

“It was painful to watch, but it was fascinating being able to hear the process of them trying to help this injured player,” Anderson said.

Overheard announcers might even help athletes inadvertently. It already happened at UFC249 earlier this month.

After winning their matches, Greg Hardy and Carla Esparza said they made adjustments based on what they heard from analysts nearby.

“Thank God for not having the crowd,” Hardy said after his unanimous decision win over Yorgan de Castro. “Shout out to DC [Daniel Cormier]. I heard him tell me to check [the leg kicks], so I started trying to check 'em. Game changer.”

Esparza, who won a split decision over Michelle Waterson, said she initially was taken aback overhearing criticism, then decided to take it to heart.

"It's crazy,” she said. “You were definitely able to really hear them in there."

Regardless of the challenges televising events without fans will present, there is little doubt sports will encounter that challenge for the foreseeable future.

Anderson will experience it when he hosts “The Match: Champions for Charity,” a golf tournament Turner will carry on Sunday that features Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

Eventually, he hopes to experience it calling Brewers games, the NBA playoffs and the baseball playoffs, with Darling.

“Would we rather have fans? Yes,” Anderson said. “You feed off that, the players feed off that. At the same time, it would be odd, but it wouldn’t be a big deal at all. You get into the process of calling the plays and your normal rhythm.”

Said Darling, “I’m confident we’ll figure it, but I think it’s going to be historically one of the more difficult times in baseball, ever.”

New York Sports