There has been other confusion, too, including when the Nationals’ MASN booth appeared confused over Victor Robles entering a game this month. And there have been technical difficulties, such as when Orioles broadcaster Melanie Newman’s voice didn’t match up with the picture during a pregame show and when the picture was lost during a Nationals game in Pittsburgh.
Nationals spokeswomen Jen Giglio declined to comment, referring questions to MASN. (The Nationals’ radio team is traveling.) MASN spokesman Todd Webster wrote in a statement: “The global pandemic required all of us to learn new lessons in innovation, resourcefulness, and resilience. MASN is carrying forward some of those lessons.”
MASN is not alone in keeping broadcasters home. The San Francisco Giants TV broadcasters are not traveling to all road games this season. Neither are the Red Sox broadcasters on the New England Sports Network. And the Los Angeles Angels had plans to be remote on Bally Sports SoCal, but that may be in jeopardy, according to the Athletic, after the telecast’s trouble last weekend with the Angels playing in Texas.
Play-by-play man Matt Vasgersian was calling the game from Secaucus, NJ, with the rest of the crew in California. A call of a Mike Trout home run was visibly behind the picture on TV, and then Vasgersian initially called a home run by Jared Walsh a foul ball.
The troubles on MASN and the Angels’ broadcast highlight two phenomena: the complications of calling a game off a screen vs. live at the park and the way regionals sports networks are hoping to use new technologies deployed during the pandemic to cut costs.
Brian Anderson, a Milwaukee Brewers broadcaster who also calls the baseball playoffs for Turner, said in an interview that to call a game off a monitor requires an announcer to rethink years of muscle memory.
“In the stadium, you see contact and you can immediately react,” he said. “But on the monitor, you would have to wait two beats,” he said. “You fight every instinct to say something because you have to sit there in silence and wait for the next frame because you can’t be wrong. And two seconds can feel like an eternity.”
At the park, Anderson would normally look at outfielders to help gauge a flyball, for example. “My eyes can travel 300 feet in a split second,” he said. “But on the monitor, batted balls can look like a foul ball. You can also use your ears at the park, how the ball sounds off the bat. That’s one thing I really lost — how it sounded and how the player reacts when he hits.”
Anderson, who also calls basketball games, said baseball is the most difficult sport to do off a monitor because of the flight of the ball off the bat. “The ball could go anywhere,” he said. “It’s not just moving toward a basket.”
Steve Berthiaume, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ TV play-by-play man, said he used the flags in the stadium to talk about the wind and is constantly watching players’ body language to offer clues about how they are feeling. He also emphasized that a three-plus-hour baseball telecast needs to offer storytelling.
“There’s a lot of time to fill,” he said. “So to feel that connectivity with the team is so important. You’re supposed to introduce viewers and listeners to the team on the field, to the people playing for your team. And being on the plane, in the hotels, in the locker room really helps that.”
There is also an element of fun in the job.
“Who wouldn’t want to spend a beautiful day at the ballpark?” Berthiaume asked.
For most teams, travel became less of an issue last year. Vaccine doses were widely available, and going on the road was safer than during the 2020 season, when everything was remote. Most announcers remained grounded, but Berthiaume described a sense of desperation among some. Some radio folks, he was told, drove to away cities.
“There would be rumors coming through the press box,” he said. “’Did you hear so-and-so went here or so-and-so was driving there?’ We were all feeling it.”
The pandemic also opened the door for production crews to stay home. For much of sports TV history, there was one way to produce a game: a production truck parked on-site at an away venue, staffed with a producer, director and perhaps another crew. The picture and sound were sent via cable wires back to a studio and then disseminated to viewers.
During the pandemic, those capabilities were forced to go virtual, and most productions got by. Now networks are continuing to use some of those less costly approaches, including cloud production, which sends the picture via the Internet instead of cable. That allows a network to keep the entire production team at home even if it still sends announcers. The Diamondbacks, for instance, sent announcers and a production team to Washington this past week but will keep the production team home for their next road trip.
That production technology, while improving all the time, is far from perfect. The Angels tried to send a feed from Texas to California to New Jersey back to California before it went out to viewers with announcer commentary. One MASN production staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said the issues MASN has experienced show the limits of the Internet feed.
“I liked the old way — everyone was there,” the person said. “It’s a concern for the on-air product because the tech we’re trying to use isn’t bulletproof. It’s still immature.”
How much it actually saves networks is unclear. Some production workers said cloud production offered significant savings for networks. But Ed Desser, a longtime sports media consultant who has worked closely with regional sports networks and teams, said a network still has to pay most of the people on a telecast to do their jobs. The average cost of production for one game in the pre-coronavirus world was around $50,000, Desser said.
But the savings for just keeping announcers at home was fairly minimal, I believed, because networks were probably saving only on some travel and meals. And many announcers already travel on team charters.