NFL games could look different on TV without fans, but how? We asked NBC, ESPN execs


The look and feel of NFL games on television might be drastically different in 2020 if conditions related to the coronavirus pandemic continue into the fall. If fans are prevented from attending games — or if attendance is considerably limited — games are sure to look and sound noticeably different.

Could they somehow be better? Or will football without true fan noise inherently be a less exciting product?

That’s the challenge facing the broadcast networks as they continue to brainstorm ideas of how a fan-less (or sparsely populated) environment affects the watchability of NFL games. 

We reached out to the NFL’s four major broadcast partners, not counting NFL Network, for their perspectives on planning that’s going into this season’s broadcasts and spoke to executives from ESPN and NBC on how they’re approaching this challenge. (CBS declined an interview, and Fox did not respond to our request.)

Will there be pumped-in crowd noise? More prepackaged segments with graphics to cover the screen? Fewer shots of empty seats? More mic’d-up players and coaches for in-game usage?

Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer of NBC’s Sunday Night Football, and Stephanie Druley, ESPN’s executive vice president of event & studio production, helped us piece together what games might look like this season on your TV screens.

The good news: Both executives believe this unique offseason and the unknown days ahead might lead to developments that most people will enjoy.

“So many things that have become rote when you produce football are going to have to be rethought,” Gaudelli said. “Which isn’t a bad thing. I don’t look at that as a negative.”

Safety measures, recommendations from the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and restrictions from one city and one state to another have been in flux almost from the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Will conditions change for the better by the time football season arrives? Will there be an environmentally induced second wave of the virus? Could recent protests around the country cause more spikes? No one really knows, even if the NFL appears to be projecting confidence on fans being in seats come fall.

That’s why everything must be written in pencil for broadcast executives and producers making plans for games in September and beyond. Very few ideas can be rubber-stamped or scrapped at this point.

There might be packed stadiums by then. Or empty ones. Or somewhere in between.

“Right now, I am of the opinion of we keep everything on the table, and as we get closer and have a better idea of exactly what we’re dealing with, I think we’ll have some options to either utilize or not utilize as we present these games,” Gaudelli said.

Both network execs said they’ll also be communicating more in-depth with the league itself as the NFL season draws closer. Druley said that ESPN has had some “initial conversations” with the NFL but added: “We’re not, in full candor, far down the line there.”

But the good news is that the NFL and its broadcast partners are in a better position than other sports. With some isolated sports leagues opening up overseas — such as Korean baseball and European soccer — a playbook on how to handle broadcasting games without fans is being written for football. And there will be more pages added with the expected return of American baseball, hockey and basketball that the NFL can draw from.

“We have the distinct advantage of going last,” Gaudelli said. “So we’ll be able to see what everybody has done, what we feel works, what we feel doesn’t work. And the league is in the same position that the broadcast networks; they’re going to have that advantage as well.”

“But,” Druley said, “there’s a lot to figure out. … It’s going to fundamentally change. There are so many things you wouldn’t even think about. We’ve got a lot of stuff to get through.”

NFL broadcasts could look vastly different this season if fan attendance is curtailed.(Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)

MoreHow NBC’s ‘Sunday Night Football’ is embracing a new-look (and new-sounding) approach

When it was first clear that fans attending games this year might not happen, Gaudelli and the other “Sunday Night Football” executives made lists of all the elements of their broadcast that might be affected. Then they started prepping for the idea of calling games in empty stadiums — and wondering what the heck that might look and sound like.

“There are definitely some unknowns,” Gaudelli said. “Al Michaels and I have talked about it this year. There is going to be some trial and error for what it’s going to be if we don’t have fans.”

You might want to brace yourselves, but a cherished NBC institution is at risk.

“This Collinsworth slide that has become an internet sensation, if we’re going to do a game right now, it can’t happen,” Gaudelli said, citing social-distancing recommendations. “We have to figure out how we’re going to shoot the open.”

The same goes for sideline reporter Michele Tafoya — running off the field with a coach or player might need to look and feel differently if she must maintain six feet of distance.

But Gaudelli’s biggest concern right now appears to be how NBC treats the sounds of the game. He also reached out to Michaels’ former wingman, John Madden, for advice on how games should be called. At this point, Gaudelli said he’s embracing the idea of change — much in the way that he felt the refigured 2020 NFL draft telecasts were, in some ways, maybe the league’s finest hour.

“Whenever you have to throw out the canvas you’ve been painting on for 25 years and replace it with a blank slate, that forces you to rethink everything,” he said. “And I think there are going to be some really good things that come out of this. I’ll be surprised if there isn’t.”

Madden’s advice was that the sounds of the game — the stuff viewers are seldom treated to in a live setting — must be embraced. But is there a happy medium where fans can be treated to the ambient crowd noise they’re used to hearing while also receiving the bonus of the behind-the-curtain banter?

NBC execs went to work to dig on any and all sporting events to seek potential answers. 

“If I told you the stuff that I’ve looked at lately, you’d be laughing,” Gaudelli said. 

In addition to European soccer matches, Korean baseball and “The Match” golf broadcast, he’s dipped into his past for inspiration for how to produce NFL games if the fans are no part or not a big part of the broadcasts. When he was at ABC, Gaudelli helped produce Pro Bowls, which often were pretty good dry runs for this potential NFL season, it turned out. The games typically had quieter crowds (or fewer fans than a typical game) and lot of players miked for sound.

“It was something you had to be a little more on your toes with,” Gaudelli said, pointing to the seven-second broadcast delay that allows the networks to bleep out any unsavory language.

But Gaudelli said he sees opportunities in picking up sounds of the game that normally are not caught live. The crunch of a big hit. Coaches and players interacting. A quarterback’s audibles. The defensive players’ communication. Sideline banter.

Gaudelli said he is fascinated by the idea of “maximizing sounds” even if the broadcasts aren’t buoyed by a “crowd at full throat.” He was inspired by the playful give and take of Charles Barkley and Tom Brady at “The Match,” with Barkley giving Brady an earful after a bad shot and Brady returning the favor when he drained a long iron seconds later. 

The give and take between Tom Brady (pictured) and Charles Barkley during The Match: Champions For Charity has inspired some possible changes for NFL broadcasts if fan attendance is affected. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images for The Match)

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Players have even begun to examine how broadcasts might be different, with Eagles players Lane Johnson and DeSean Jackson suggesting on a recent podcast that all players should be miked up if fans aren’t there.

“They should give the fans the insight to really see what goes on in between the white lines,” Jackson said. “I know in the trenches it gets crazy, and I know out there on the outside, it gets crazy, too — the conversations we (are) going back and forth on.”

But even if players and others are miked up, both network execs say they are open to the idea of pumping in artificial crowd noise if it comes to that and that the two can work in concert. Neither ESPN nor NBC have ruled in or out the idea of artificial crowd noise yet.

Gaudelli’s instincts as a live producer make him anti-anything artificial, he said. But given the landscape, he’s also open to the idea of manufactured crowd noise to a certain degree. He even mentioned the fast-track manufacturing of smart-phone apps that can channel fans’ real-time reactions into the actual stadium PA, although that might not be something that comes to fruition before games are kicked off.

For a Pepsi challenge of sorts, Gaudelli watched various Bundesliga games — one with no fans and natural sounds, one with cardboard cutout fans and natural sounds, and one with artificial fan audio pumped into the broadcast.

“It didn’t bother me,” Gaudelli said of the third version. “I kind of liked it.”

He also added that there is a huge difference between a game with zero fans and a stadium that’s only partially full.

“Even if we have 10,000 people or even 5,000 people, they generate enough noise,” Gaudelli said. “But the benefit is, you get the fan noise, but you can also hear the field a lot better. Even if we have partial stadiums, to me that would negate the need for artificial sound.”

But what about artificial sights? If there are tracts of empty seats, don’t expect cardboard cutouts filling the stands. Gaudelli said NBC is “going to do everything we can to make sure our shots don’t include empty seats” while admitting that the task is nearly impossible “without any type of artificial enhancement.”

“Punts, field goals, extra points — there’s just no way you won’t see that,” he said. “But is there an artificial enhancement that’s authentic? And would that be less of a distraction than seeing empty seats?”

That could include a darkening of part of the stands, something the NFL would first have to sign off on.

“That’s one of the things we’re working on,” Gaudelli said, admitting that those conversations with the league also have yet to formally take place. It’s another item added to the network’s wait-and-see list.

ESPN’s ‘Monday Night Football’ playbook: Drawing on the XFL experience

Druley and ESPN executives never could have known it at all, but partnering last year with the now-shuttered XFL might have contained a hidden benefit that could help prepare them for NFL games with limited fan attendance.

The network conducted a pair of XFL rehearsal telecasts in Houston in mid-January about three weeks before the league debuted in February. All the XFL teams were in training camp at the University of Houston, and that league embraced an aggressive approach to connecting viewers with the teams on the broadcasts.

“I’ve said this a number of times now: We learned a lot from the XFL,” Druley said. “That sort of prepared us for this.”

What they found was that you could pick up quite a bit of interesting sounds from the sidelines in a mostly empty stadium, given that the network had planted effects microphones in different and new locations. And that was even before they conducted colorful in-game interviews with players and coaches in the real games, ones with attendance figures ranging in the 15,000-to-20,000 range.

ESPN’s in-game interviews during XFL football games has provided the network some experience that could aid its NFL broadcasts this fall. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

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It led to some wild moments on air.

“I think it was Steph Curry who said you’re really going to hear stuff now, and you better have someone on that mute button,” Druley said. “With the XFL, we’d have 32 beeps per half.”

It’s hard to imagine ESPN and the NFL going full-bore in on a highly bleeped-out broadcast. But Druley said she “clearly” believes that audio is the network’s biggest production concern. She’s pushing for innovation and open-mindedness when it comes to a refigured broadcast sound.

“Our initial thinking is to be very aggressive about audio and working with our partners to … lean into the audio that is more naturally going to be more apparent,” Druley said. “Whether that means moving microphones around or potentially miking more players or coaches or officials, all kinds of things.”

There also could be camera angles that are new and innovative.

“I think it opens up opportunities for us in terms of where we place our cameras,” Druley said “We might be able to put our cameras in places where they’ve not been before because it would obstruct fans.

“It’s a cool opportunity, and I think it will bring something interesting and new to the fans that they normally don’t watch at home.”

But ESPN hasn’t been content simply relying on its XFL experience to guide the network’s plans for “Monday Night Football.” After first addressing their own internal production concerns, Druley and her senior staff looked outward at other games and events for inspiration.

Like their NBC colleagues, they watched the recent wave of fan-less sporting events and drew from those broadcasts. But they also went back and watched the 2015 White Sox-Baltimore Orioles game that was played without fans because of civil unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray.

That was a game where players said they could hear media conversations and announcers’ calls as the game was in progress. That’s not as big a concern for football, where those stadiums’ press boxes are farther away from the action. 

But it reinforced the idea to Druley that each game has its own cadence, and what works for baseball — or soccer or golf or auto racing — might not be ideal for football. 

Druley started by watching one of the first fan-less games after the pandemic, the Valencia-Atalanta Champions League tilt, and has drawn from more recent matches as well. She said she thought the pumped-in audio for the German Bundesliga matches last week audio “really worked” and “felt organic to the venue” and to the sport. That audio included songs and chants that are specific to soccer.

But does it work for football? She’s still trying to determine that.

“It depends on the sport. It depends on the venue,” Druley said. “I think if you’re in a big arena, and you have sound that’s organic to what that might sound like, then yes (it can work).

“I don’t think anyone wants the equivalent of a laugh track. Right now, all options are on the table as far as what football will sound like.”

One potential disadvantage for ESPN is that the network has yet to name its replacements for announcers Joe Tessitore and Anthony “Booger” MacFarland. But Druley believes that it’s been more important that ESPN has its production leadership in place, having named Jimmy Platt as the show’s director last year and Phil Dean as the new producer this April. Alongside senior coordinating producer Steve Ackels, that trio being in place now “is vital” and “more important at this stage right now.”

Druley has leaned on some “veteran announcers” for advice on how to handle specific situations — “Like when a touchdown is scored and there’s no fans to react,” she said — and is confident that whomever is tabbed for the MNF booth jobs will rely on their instincts to make the right situational calls.

And like NBC, Druley said ESPN is embracing the idea of change. The network deserves hearty praise for adopting this mentality in a smaller window of time with the NFL draft, and it will approach “Monday Night Football” with the same idea that new ideas can be true game changers for the networks and audiences alike.

“We’ll try a bunch of things,” Druley said. “Some things might be successful, and others we may scrap after one try. You never know. Look, it’s really exciting because we’ve done this the same way for a long time. 

“Necessity being the mother of invention, it’s a chance for us to try new things and see what works.”

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