As the months go by, more and more live sports are returning, learning from their predecessors and adapting to the heightened new conditions of the moment. With each returning league, we’ve witnessed a host of innovations and a showcase of the power of remote production, which has dominated the conversation surrounding live athletics. While there are still a number of popular franchises that are still looking to come back in July, recent discussions have centered predominantly around Major League Baseball (MLB), which kicked off with a July 25th opening day. In many ways, MLB’s return to the diamond resembles a number of other case studies from the summer; but, we’ve also had the opportunity to witness a league looking to continue to improve the approach of others that came before.
MLB has perhaps had the most complex return narrative of major US sports leagues, with conversations about how best to start a new season stretching back for months. As reported back in April, Major League Baseball’s original solution,envisioned by Dr. Anthony Fauci, was to reopen under what is referred to as a bubble league: restricting the entire organization and season to a single location. The idea was that every single MLB game would be played in Arizona in a pop-up city designated, “Baseballville.” Containing the entire league apparatus within one spot quickly began to look unfeasible, however, as Baseballville would have to house thirty teams, each with roughly fifty rotating players and assorted coaching and medical staff. At the end of the day, 3,000 people, with some estimates as high as 10,000 when including camera crews and clubhouse staff, would be quarantined in one location. With this in mind, many quickly pointed out that that concentration would make the spread of the virus more potent should anything go wrong.
Following internal blowback against the idea, MLB went back to the drawing board, determined to devise a strategy that would not only satisfy fans, but keep players, production crews, and staff safe from COVID-19. What they came up with — and what we’re beginning to witness — is the product of months of preparation, and a chance for America’s favorite pastime to display its ingenuity.
The most obvious change to MLB for this season (besides the lack of fans in the stands) is the abbreviated season. While a typical baseball season consists of 162 games, this year the thirty teams that compose the league will play a little over a third of that: sixty games in total.
Production-wise, the league has also had to take major steps to limit the number of personnel present at any event. As a result, while previous seasons would have “home” and “away” crews — with each team’s fans essentially receiving their own broadcast of a game — this season will only feature what production teams are calling a “world feed.” Whereas major broadcasters such as ESPN would normally have their own teams on the ground to construct a teleplay for their viewers, for this season they will rely entirely on regional sports networks (RSNs) to produce a given game, and provide them with the footage. With a single crew in charge of each game, broadcasters don’t have to worry about overcrowding onsite, and a channel like ESPN can devote its time to preparing the graphics and supplemental content that will accompany their own broadcast of the games for their Sunday Night Baseball programming, and local “in-market” networks (like NESN in Boston) can construct in-house effects to play over the neutral feed they receive.
Much like with the leagues that have returned before MLB, broadcasters are implementing a host of new technologies to buttress their live production strategy. While announcers will predominantly be in the stadium, taking advantage of the lack of fans, there remains a desire to limit personnel as much as is feasible (additional commentators will work off-site, as well). This mix of on and off-site production has proven to be immensely beneficial to broadcasters covering the return of other leagues, and the decision to continue in that vein for MLB (bolstered by the assistance of AT&T sports) is heartening.
Because the bleachers are empty, production teams have already been experimenting with a host of new angles, taking advantage of the ability to spread out throughout a given venue. According to SVG, these teams have also begun to deploy robotic cameras. Low-positioned personnel, SVG reports, will be further from the field than in previous years, and these cameramen will additionally be stationed behind plexiglass to help distance them from players and coaches.
Even elements as basic as signage are seeing a substantial overhaul. While certain teams have opted to install standard advertising in their stadiums, the majority of franchises have partnered with their RSNs to create entirely virtual advertising to be slotted in — much like other graphics — over the course of the broadcast.
While MLB has already demonstrated a profound readiness to innovate in the face of COVID-19, it’s likely that the league and the broadcasters who cover it will continue to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances of the moment. Already, we’ve seen organizations like Fox Sports experimenting with virtual fans, while other teams have spoken with the league itself about the possibility of miking players during games. These small announcements, even if they don’t become the norm, are indicative of the spirit that production teams have displayed during these tumultuous times. While we still have much to learn and continue to discover newer and better ways to approach the return to sports, it’s clear that those invested in live production know the stakes of the game, and don’t plan on striking out.