by John Shrader @johnshrader, 7 hours ago
Three of Fox Sports' five broadcast teams, including Jacqui Oatley and Lori Lindsey, have been calling games from the stadium.
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Nearly all Americans watching the FIFA Women’s World Cup have been experiencing it on television. Same story for the men's. Many people no doubt recorded games played in the middle of the night U.S. time and watched them when they could. The television audiences for the U.S. matches played in prime time were in record territory. The round-of-16, which kicked off at 5 a.m. ET drew an average of 2.5 million viewers on Fox, peaking at 4 million at seven o’clock in the morning, according to Fox Sports. That’s a good number of people watching one program at that time of day.
A handful of Fox Sports broadcasters have also also been watching the game on the television monitors in the U.S. in the wee and not-so-wee morning hours. Such is the world of global sports events.
Fox Sports had five sets of announcers assigned to the tournament. Two of the five groups were announcing from studios in California. Jenn Hildreth was joined in a Los Angeles studio by her partner Warren Barton, and Kate Scott and Danielle Slaton called games in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Fox Sports did not tell the audience. I’m sure there are plenty of good reasons not to tell the audience. It’s not a secret but it’s not worth shouting it to the world, either. Scott had to prep for 13 teams in 13 days calling games sometimes at 3 o’clock in the morning, Pacific Time. Two people standing or sitting in front of the monitor in a studio, often with a 30- or 40-inch television screen, not the 60- or 70-inch used by some people at home.
It's not an easy gig, but it is a way of life in broadcasting, especially in international sporting events, and increasingly in American sports. The Pac-12 Networks have been doing these kinds of setups since their beginning. Many of the announcers who work the Olympics do it from their homes, or at NBC studios in Stamford, Connecticut, or in some other city. Some two-person announce teams in many sports on many networks are in different places and their producers or researchers or sound people are all in other places as well. It requires technological mastery and a special broadcast talent and attitude.
Adrian Healey might have done more studio soccer than just about anybody in American sports broadcasting. I felt like I needed to get his perspective: “Probably 90 percent of the games I’ve done I’ve called off the monitor.” His international game announcing for ESPN at times included four games in a weekend from Spain and Italy: The games being played in Spain and Italy; he in a studio somewhere in America.
Healey has done World Cup games in person for ESPN. Among his work now are MLS games on Apple TV. These things are flexible, but for now, they do all those games in the stadium. “It’s very different for the two commentary roles,” he said. Much easier for the play-by-play announcer than the color analyst who needs to ‘see’ the entire field.
I asked the U.S. Hall of Fame player Cobi Jones, who did color analyst work for Men’s World Cup games in the stadiums in Qatar for Fox Sports, how to overcome the lack of a panoramic view of the field, which is needed to be a good analyst. “You use a little of that peripheral vision and skill set you had as a player. You use your knowledge of the game to understand that not everything that needs to be conveyed to the audience happens right where the center of the camera is.”
That’s the technical stuff. How about the ability to ‘feel the game’ when you are thousands of miles away? Sure, you get the natural sound piped into your headphones. You get graphics and you get the same camera close-up shots as the people at home. In fact, the announcers and the people at home are always getting exactly the same view. But anybody who does this will tell you it’s important to ‘feel the game.’
“Any fan will tell you there is a big difference between watching a game on TV and actually being there,” Jones said.
Kate Scott has been working her first World Cup but has done plenty of games in front of a monitor, including four years at the Pac-12 Networks. She says there are some tricks of the trade, including pumping a lot of game sound into your headphones, and watching the national anthems on the monitor to help get in the mood. She jokes that she was running up and down the halls of the studio yelling, “soccer, soccer” to help get her pumped up minutes before kickoff. And would even chest bump her partner, Danielle Slaton.
Healey said there is no way, despite all the tricks announcers can come up with, to replace being there. “It’s still just as much of a thrill to see this game played in the place. You see some of these athletes from 40 yards away as opposed to 4,000 miles. It still feels like a privilege to be there calling it.”
“It’s different when you’re in the stadium and those anthems are reverberating in your chest,” Scott said. “You can feel the music and the players are crying and you are 20 rows up from them. You can’t replicate that.”
Healey said sometimes the crowd is a big part of the game story, and it’s difficult to get that sense from being, “thousands of miles away in a broom closet.”
The key to success in this “do-it-in-the-studio-and-pretend-like-you’re-not” sports broadcasting world is the professionalism of the announcers. I’m confident in saying that most people in the sports broadcasting business fear that calling games in the studio could become more of a standard.
“I will use that word fear,” Scott said. “It’s a Catch-22. You as a broadcaster don’t want to do it. You want the other option. But you take such pride in your work that you’re going to do the best you can.” But you don’t want some executive to say, “you sound like you’re there.”
The million-dollar question (probably much more valuable than that): Do the viewers know? Jones says those who are really paying attention almost certainly know. Healey says, “I think most of the public who do take a sort of interest in these things probably know by now. It’s a reality of the business, even at the highest levels.”
The billion-dollar question (maybe overvaluing it): Do the viewers care? “I know that my expectations for broadcasters are pretty high because I am one,” Scott said. “So, I think more people notice than not. But I’m not sure.”
Maybe two questions that fall into the category of not asking a question for which you don’t want to hear the answer.