March Madness will look and sound very different this year — not just for fans and players, but also for broadcasters who have navigated empty stadiums, remote video feeds and, on occasion, iffy internet connections to call games for fans at home this season.
“It’s not like anything I’ve ever been through before,” said Dave Eanet, who has been the voice of Northwestern University football and basketball on WGN Radio for over three decades. “It’s been a big adjustment, I think, to just get used to being in an arena without fans in it and also just getting used to calling games off of a video monitor instead of being in the arena.”
During the pandemic, while most of us have dealt with the annoying Zoom glitch here and there, a split second dropped video during a live sporting event is a lot more consequential.
“I think the biggest challenge has just been the inconsistency and the video quality of the picture that I’m working with to call a game,” Eanet said. “There’ve been a couple times where the video actually freezes in the middle of a play, and then you’re really up the creek.”
More From NBCLX
Working offsite also made Eanet’s job more difficult, and as a seasoned radio pro, there are some game calls from this basketball season that he’d prefer to erase.
“There’ve been a couple of instances where actually a guy has taken a shot and the ball has been in midair, and all of the sudden the picture freezes. I’m in midsentence, you know, ‘And the shot is…’ and then it’s frozen,” Eanet said. “So, at that point, I kind of have to guess…and hope that people understand that all of us are operating at a little bit of a disadvantage here."
Lisa Byington, a veteran sports broadcaster and play-by-play announcer, is also coping with this new reality.
“I think you just get used to it,” she said. “This is our new normal now.”
In a normal year, by the time March Madness rolled around, the toughest challenge Byington typically faced was travel fatigue.
The former Division I athlete racks up her fair share of frequent flyer miles covering men’s and women’s sports for a variety of networks.
This season, she's a bit more well-rested, but not by choice.
“Eighty to 90 percent of what I’ve done hasn’t been on site,” Byington said. “You’re not feeling the atmosphere, but you’re also not in the atmosphere, and that just adds kind of a new challenge to being a broadcaster this year.
“It’s just not as ideal to not be there, and certainly you can control what you look at when you’re at the arena, whereas when you’re doing it remotely, you have to rely on what the camera feeds are shooting.”
Eanet has converted his office into a makeshift studio for calling games.
“I have two big video screens in front of me, and that’s replacing being in the arena,” he said. “It’s been very odd, to say the least.”
“You feel detached from it. You feel like you’re not really part of the event,” he said. “Normally when you’re broadcasting in an arena or in a stadium, you feel the energy from the crowd – of course there’s no crowd to provide that energy now anyway.”
So what’s it like calling a game with no fans? This season, it’s meant the magic of audio special effects, with fake crowd noise pumped in on broadcasts and in arenas.
“It’s kind of part of the landscape,” Eanet said. “You kind of become immune to it, and quite frankly, I’m glad they have it.”
For sports broadcasters, that silence, at times, has had its advantages.
“You can hear player communication on the court. You can hear the coaches call out plays, so all that stuff is actually better to try to tell the story,” Byington said.
Sometimes, though, that crystal clear court noise from a college game isn’t exactly family friendly.
“The only issue for us has been that sometimes when the coaches yell something, we’ve picked up a few f-bombs from the mics that are behind the baskets. So sometimes you get some words on the air that you’re not necessarily looking for,” Eanet said. “So that’s been a little tricky to navigate.”
With March Madness now underway, it’s hard to forget that around this time last March, the sports world completely shut down. Byington herself became a part of history as a crew member on what became the final college basketball game of the 2019-2020 season.
“I was the sideline reporter at the Big East Men’s [Conference] Tournament at the time when all the other conference tournaments are shutting down, and I keep looking at my phone, and it says, ‘Big Ten Tournament: cancelled. ACC Tournament: cancelled. SEC Tournament: cancelled. And then I’m doing sidelines for St. John’s and Creighton, and on my phone, it says, ‘In the first half, Creighton is leading St. John’s,'” she said. “It was just such a surreal thing that I had to take a screenshot on my phone to remember it, and I still have it.
“We always do a coach interview as they’re walking off [the court] at halftime, and I remember thinking, ‘This could be my last interview that I do for the rest of the year,’” she said, “and they canceled the game at halftime.”
Byington said March 12, 2020, is a day she'll never forget — and neither will most sports fans.
“It was very strange. I kind of waited around the arena for a little bit just because it’s kind of like it’s settling in, like, ‘Are we done? Really? Is everybody else?’ And you see the Madison Square Garden employees picking up all their stuff and leaving. All these thoughts are racing through your mind. I just sat there by myself at Madison Square Garden staring at an empty arena,” she said.
“I didn’t do TV for a while after that.”
Now, a year later, with the return of March Madness and the Big Dance, the NCAA Tournament will look a bit different.
Fans will be allowed at tournament games, but attendance will be capped at 25% capacity at men's games and up to 17% for the women's games. Instead of host sites all over the country, the tournament will take place in a bubble at sites in Indiana for the men’s tournament and Texas for the women’s tournament. In the past, during the opening rounds of the NCAA women’s tournament, the higher seeded team usually hosted games on their home court.
“It’s more of an even playing field if you talk about the women’s tournament,” Byington said. “[The] UConn [women], for example…they barely had to travel until they got to the Final Four, and that’s not going to be the case now for the one seeds and the two seeds on the women’s side.”
A little over a year after Byington made history as part of the crew on that final college basketball game, she’ll make history once again during this year's March Madness as the first woman to do play-by-play in the NCAA men’s tournament on national TV.
It’s one bright spot amidst the unusual courtside quiet this season, although when it comes to the upcoming NCAA tournament, trying to make a prediction about what it will be like without a completely packed house is like trying to fill out a perfect bracket.
“I can’t even project what it’s going to be like because part of the March Madness is the fans being there. There’s some freshmen on these teams [who] don’t know what it’s like to play in front of a sellout crowd yet,” Byington said. “Though we’ve been through this whole year without fans, this will be a new experience.”
Eanet said even a smattering of real faces in the stands is a welcome reminder of what sports looked like pre-pandemic, and also might provide the X-factor in a down-to-the-wire game during the magic of March Madness.
“We’ve had some games where I’ve thought, ‘If the fans were here, this might have pulled [the players] through,’ because they really do feed off the crowd noise and the excitement,” Eanet said. “I think the players will respond to that, and they’re so hungry for it because it’s been a year since they’ve played in front of any fans.
“It’s gonna help everybody. It’s gonna help the coaches, it’s gonna help the players, it’s certainly gonna help the announcers.”