Event Previews

ESPN prepares for uncharted MLB season; Voices will be in studio; Network will pick up stadium audio

 

MLB’s local and network broadcast partners are about to delve into something so unusual that they don’t know exactly what to expect.

ESPN which produces more games than MLB’s two other network partners, Fox and Turner, has a plan but it’s fluid. (Yes, there’s MLB Network but it is owned by baseball and is not as such a partner. While MLBN produces it own broadcasts, it picks up many other games that are produced locally and carries them on its network.)

Last week, ESPN held a pre-season media call featuring Mark Gross, Senior Vice President of Production and Remote Events and the network’s two lead game broadcasters, Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez. Going forward, Jessica Mendoza who in recent years teamed with the latter two on Sunday nights will be assigned other games and duties. The former softball standout is now a consultant to the Mets. Buster Olney will be the network’s prime on-the-field reporter, joining Vasgersian, the play-by-player and Rodriguez, the analyst.

Vasgersian, Rodriguez, and Olney will call three national MLB games in the first four days of the revised 2020 season. The trio will call ESPN’s exclusive telecast of the New York Yankees at Washington Nationals on opening night Thursday, July 23, at 7 p.m. ET, followed by the Milwaukee Brewers at Chicago Cubs matchup on Friday, July 24, at 7 p.m. ET. The trio will then call the second half of the Sunday Night Baseball doubleheader on July 26, as the Los Angeles Dodgers host the San Francisco Giants at 10 p.m. ET. All three games air on ESPN and stream via the ESPN App.

To start the season, commentators will call games either from the ESPN studios at its Bristol, Conn. campus, or remotely via a “Live from Home Commentary” similar to its KBO League coverage.

Both Vasgersian and Rodriguez are expected to call national games, those on ESPN exclusively, such as Opening Night and Sunday Night Baseball, directly from the ESPN Bristol, Conn. studios. In addition, Karl Ravech and Jon “Boog” Sciambi are also expected to call the action from the ESPN studios when they’re assigned play-by-play. But additional analysts, such as Baseball Hall-of-Famer Chipper Jones, Jessica Mendoza, Eduardo Perez, Rick Sutcliffe and Tim Kurkjian will call games remotely from their homes using the “Live from Home Commentary” setup.

These are the key takeaways from the media call:

  • For game one in Washington this coming Thursday, Buster Olney will drive down to DC to provide reports. Matt and A-Rod will be on camera periodically in Bristol just as they would if they were working from a stadium. Gross says that they’re still sorting out where Buster will be situated on a week to week basis.
  • For exclusive national games like Thursday’s opener and all Sunday night broadcasts that follow, the video from each and all of ESPN’s stadium cameras will be fed separately and directly to its Bristol control room. As such, the broadcast will be produced and directed in Connecticut. ESPN calls this general technique, Remote Integration. The graphics and the K-Zone will be inserted in Bristol and replays will be managed there too.
  • Karl Ravech, Eduardo Perez and likely Tim Kurkjian will function using the same practice for the Dodgers-Giants opener this Thursday at 10pm, ET.
  • The following day, Friday July 24th, ESPN has three non-exclusive games. Gross says, “They co-exist in local markets and the home team RSN (Regional Sports Network) will essentially produce a clean feed that we will augment in Bristol with a couple cameras including K-Zone.” In these instances, Boog Sciambi or Karl Ravech will be in Bristol and the analysts will work out of their homes. Non-exclusive games are those that are produced by the participating teams’ regional rightsholders and carried nationally by ESPN.
  • As for audio other than the announcers’ voices, ESPN will take a clean feed from the ballpark which will include ambient sounds like fabricated crowd noise, the public address announcer and the organist. By having soft crowd noise, Gross says, “it doesn’t quite sound so hollow,” once it hits the air.
  • Rodriguez says that what he’ll miss most in Bristol is the chitchatting with the players and having off-the-record conversations with them about what’s going on in their lives.
  • As one of the bidders for ownership of the Mets, Rodriguez will not work Sunday’s Mets-Braves game (7/26). He’ll instead get the late game, Giants-Dodgers. Gross was asked whether Rodriguez will work any Mets games at all. He said that it will be on a case-by-case basis but added. “I think we would certainly shy away from having Alex do a Mets game, just so we don’t put him in a bad position; put the Mets in a bad position.”
  • Vasergian adds that in a quiet ballpark, “We’ll be able to hear the middle infielders talking to each other and we’re going to be able to hear guys on the bench as that extra coach, when a guy’s about to break on a stolen base attempt.”
  • Gross was asked whether the feed will be on a slight delay to avoid trash talking from the field, spilling out over the air. Because this season and experience are so new, different  and fluid, he says that ESPN is still working through that question.
  • There are no plans now, Gross says, to have cardboard cutouts in the seats but that too might change.
  • Asked about all the makeshift productions since Covid-19 dictated social isolation, Gross said: “We have never done games from people’s homes until months ago. So, I would say we’ve learned the technology that is out there and we have learned that things are changing, and we will continue to change when it comes to TV production. I think everybody is realizing that just because you did it one way for X number of years, doesn’t mean that you have to do it the same way.”
  • The NFL is planning to use digital advertising on the field. Gross didn’t dismiss baseball doing virtual advertising over empty seats.
  • No one on the call asked the question about the changed texture of the Sunday Night broadcasts, moving from a crew of three to two, now that Jessica Mendoza won’t partake. The fact of the matter is that I hope it will give Matt and Alex opportunities to tell a story or two or paint profiles of the players, sharing something personal about them. Baseball broadcasting is about storytelling and for Vasergian to ever grow into the same conversation that references Jon Miller, he should dig up entertaining anecdotes.

ESPN’s first week covering regular season baseball in 2020

Date/Time (ET)/Game:

Thu, July 23/7 p.m./New York Yankees vs. Washington Nationals

Thu, July 23/10 p.m./San Francisco Giants vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

Fri, July 24/4 p.m./Atlanta Braves vs. New York Mets

Fri. July 24/7 p.m./Milwaukee Brewers vs. Chicago Cubs

Fri, July 24/10 p.m./Los Angeles Angels vs. Oakland Athletics

Sun, July 26/7 p.m./Atlanta Braves vs. New York Mets

Sun, July 26/10 p.m./San Francisco Giants vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

 

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David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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