The last time Marc Zumoff called a game without fans was back in 1969, when he used television static as a stand-in for fans cheering an imaginary Wilt Chamberlain hook shot. He was 14.
Zumoff, now in his 26th year as the Sixers’ play-by-play announcer on NBC Sports Philadelphia, will call an NBA game remotely for the first time in his career on Friday, when the team takes on the Memphis Grizzlies in an exhibition game held at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney World Resorts outside Orlando, Fla. It’s one of three exhibition games NBC Sports Philadelphia will air before the season officially restarts on July 30.
“I’m just thankful to be doing games,” Zumoff said. “I’m going to do my best to make it as entertaining as possible because I think people are really hungry for this.”
The return of the NBA, MLB, and NHL is being greeted as a milestone towards normalcy, even as the coronavirus pandemic continues to plague the country. As a result, NBA teams will be playing in a quarantined “bubble” in Florida on courts surrounded by LED screens that make it look less like an empty area and more like a television studio.
The video feed will come straight from Orlando, and NBC Sports Philadelphia’s broadcast team — Zumoff, analyst Alaa Abdelnaby, and sideline reporter Serena Winters — will call the games the network carries off monitors set up in a broadcast studio inside the Wells Fargo Center.
“You’re limited in your perspective. We’ll be limited to whatever the feed brings us,” Zumoff said. “But there’s an opportunity now to bring people parts of the game they don’t normally get because there isn’t a crowd. Those things will unveil themselves, but I’m excited to see how all that stuff manifests itself.”
Even now, just a day before their first game, the announcers and producers at NBC Spots Philadelphia don’t know exactly what to expect. The NBA might turn to using crowd noise from “NBA 2K” video games, or it may send a clean video feed to producers here in Philadelphia, where effects microphones are free to pick up more shoe squeaks, net swishes, and in-game chatter between players. There also likely will be a delayed feed to prevent foul language from making it into the broadcasts.
NBC Sports Philadelphia vice president Shawn Oleksiak, who is in charge of managing live events, said he has spent the past four months planning and working with all the various leagues to determine the best way to bring sports back to fans clamoring for a bit of normalcy. Outside of teasing some type of “fan integration” during Sixers games, Oleksiak said the network is basically going to figure it out as it goes along, and a lot will depend on what the video coming from various feeds will look like.
“I think everyone is trying to determine what will be their new normal,” Oleksiak said. “Normal as we knew it changed in mid-March, and how we step forward will change daily.”
According to Oleksiak, the games will mostly seem familiar to Philadelphia sports fans, aside from the empty arenas. The network is sticking with its same Sixers, Phillies, and Flyers crews from last season, and will continue to air pregame and postgame shows for all three sports, even if programming space gets a bit crowded. Overall, the network said it will air 56 Phillies games, eight Sixers games, and two Flyers games, with some ending up on NBC10 and NBC Sports Philadelphia+. The schedules for the NBA and Stanley Cup playoffs have yet to be released.
As far as the Flyers are concerned, all NHL games will take place in Canada. So like their Sixers counterparts, announcers Jim Jackson, Keith Jones, Bill Clement, and Taryn Hatcher will call all their games remotely off monitors from the Wells Fargo Center. So far, the NHL hasn’t released a full schedule, but NBC Sports Philadelphia will air the team’s exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on July 28.
The Flyers, along with the rest of the Eastern Conference, are playing their games in Toronto, where the world feed is being produced by NBC Sports. Games played in Edmonton, the league’s other hub city, will be provided by SportsNet. Outside of that, the NHL has remained closed-lipped on what the television experience will look like, including whether it also will lean on canned audience noise to replace the missing fans. The league is reportedly considering mirroring the NBA’s approach by placing LED screens behind the players’ benches to distract a bit from the empty seats.
No sport is more impacted by the absence of fans than baseball, where the ambiance of the stadium so often becomes the soundtrack of summer. We got a peek at what crowd-less Phillies broadcasts will look like this season thanks to the two exhibition games NBC Sports Philadelphia aired this week.
For starters, there will be canned crowd noise during games this season, but that isn’t coming from NBC Sports Philadelphia — the Phillies (and every other MLB team) are pumping sounds from the “MLB: The Show” video game directly into the stadium. At first, it is a little jarring, and there is a disconnect when the camera pans to reveal an empty stadium. Even Phillies play-by-play announcer Tom McCarthy called it “weird” several times during Sunday’s broadcast.
But by the third or fourth batter, the canned crowd does recede into background noise and prevents the game from sounding hollow and empty.
“I did find myself letting the pop of the glove and the crack of the bat amplify a little bit more because I do think that’s so cool,” McCarthy said after calling Sunday’s exhibition game. “I’m also excited to hear a loud umpire. There are loud umpires in Major League Baseball, and I’m excited to hear them call a strike.”
During home games, McCarthy will continue to broadcast from the booth at Citizens Bank Park. The only difference is he will be forced to socially distance himself from analysts Ben Davis, John Kruk, Mike Schmidt, Jimmy Rollins, and former Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. — who will call a handful of games for the network this season. The crew also will call road games off monitors from a broadcast compound set up inside the Wells Fargo Center.
They’re not alone. Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez will call Sunday Night Baseball games on ESPN remotely from the network’s studios in Bristol, Conn. They will broadcast MLB’s first official game of the season — Thursday night’s matchup between the New York Yankees and the World Series champion Washington Nationals.
“I’m not sure if on this day, what would be weirder: Calling a game from the studio or calling a game from a completely empty ballpark,” Vasgersian said. “We are removed from the strangeness of the atmosphere. We have our own strangeness to deal with being in a completely different location . . . You just have to adapt.”
Despite all the planning, there are bound to be a kink or two to work out. During Sunday’s exhibition game, the Phillies mistakenly pumped NBC Sports Philadelphia’s feed into the stadium, creating feedback loud enough to distract Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen. It’s something that easily could have happened during a regular game, but with no fans in the stands to drown out the noise, the snafu ultimately resulted in the distracted McCutchen striking out.