Listening In: How We Will Play The Audio Game

The power of live audio to enhance broadcasts and give fans a unique insight into the personalities they follow on the field, rink, court or pitch is not new.

That access was pioneered in the 1960’s by Ed and Steve Sabol at NFL Films with characters like Vince Lombardi and Hank Stram, and it grew from there through NBA Entertainment, MLB Productions and then into larger media partnerships and “all access shows” like “Hard Knocks” and “24/7.”

Then…we have the other aspects of sound…from the blaring noises and scripted chants that many love–and many hate. Vuvuzelas anyone?

Vuvuzelas remain banned in TMR world

Most recently, spoken word engagement has exploded for millions of commuters or fans looking to listen for a deeper dive on all sorts of topics. Also, let’s not forget the power of music, from walk-up music in MLB to pre-game and player intro anthems teams choose to get their players focused and fans engaged each and every game night.

The influence of sound in sport has been, well, very loud. Sometimes quite deafening even.

Vince Lombardi’s “What the hell’s going on out here?” clip from NFL Films is the stuff of legends

Then suddenly, a pandemic brings about a nearly total cessation of live sports…and with that went almost all of those audio tracks.

Now, as play returns around the globe, mostly in empty stadia, what role can sound–natural, spoken word, contrived, augmented–play in the fan and the athlete experience. Like everything else in today’s COVID-19-infused world, it is becoming a listen and learn experience.

We have seen media companies, teams and leagues wrestle with the presentation as it relates to audio as sports like soccer in Europe and baseball in Asia have returned to play.

So many great questions to consider: How much sound is needed and who needs it? Do we worry about foul mouth coaches influencing young ears, or is it part of the game? Can brands find ways to engage in the conversation through audio in game, and if there aren’t fans in the stands do, we still need all that chatter? What will consumers think is acceptable, and what will they crave? How much in-depth analysis is necessary and does it influence the integrity of the game?

All that, and evolving chatter, will be a topic of interest, cause, and concern as we see NWSL and MLS work to grow soccer’s presence, MLB take their swings, the NFL go to camp, and the NBA, WNBA and NHL give it a shot inside.

On audio, debate talk is on

“There is a broad consensus that actually some sound enhancement makes it a better viewing experience,” explained BBC Sport Director, Barbara Slater. The Premier League went with piped in sound, but has given fans the choice to watch with or without the artificial crowd noise depending on which channel. Meanwhile, crowd noise has been a feature of games broadcast on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Pick.

Korea’s KBO has tried faux chants with various levels of acceptance, and we have seen the largely silent matches of the Bundesliga give us just the authentic on field calls. On this side of the pond, listening in may be the rule.

On a call with media to discuss ESPN and MLS’s approach to broadcasting the “MLS is Back” tournament last week, Amy Rosenfeld, ESPN VP, Production, said they are trying to take the negative of not having any fans in the venue and make it positive by looking at how they can “lean into audio and all of the sounds we wouldn’t get the benefit of hearing because of crowds. That is our approach, creating an authentic immersive experience for the audience as if they were there and giving them access to dialogue, we would never get access to.”

The decision qualifies as fancentric, as MLS officials consulted their Independent Supporters Council, which urged the league to let fans clearly experience the sounds of the game. For MLS is Back, that includes burying multiple mics in the turf around the goals to capture sound, plus drone units to, as Rosenfeld said, catch “the beauty of the beautiful game from overhead.”

Ross Greenburg, the multiple Emmy-winning producer who helped pioneer the all access audio feature at HBO with shows like “Hard Knocks,” and “24/7” went a little deeper: “First, a smattering of crowds, as we have seen in NASCAR, will certainly help, because their sound can be amplified in the arena or stadium and worked into the broadcast. You can’t fake it and make it sound like there are 60,000 people when there are maybe a few thousand, but you can use technology to make even small crowds sound natural for both the viewers and the competitors. The ability to capture the sounds of the game using technology is always advancing.”

“We have seen what golf has done without crowds,” Greenburg continued. “Was it a little off putting at first? Yes. But we get used to it and after a while it feels natural, especially when that audio is mixed well into the broadcast. The biggest thing will be balance. It can’t be hokey or contrived or too over the top. That will feel flat and detract from the experience of the fan and can become a distraction to the players and even the coaches. We don’t need laugh tracks; we need the audio to compliment the pictures and drive that element of the production.”

We are also seeing broadcasters wisely adapting on a game-to-game basis.

“There was an initial fear [fake crowd noise] would just not be authentic,” said Mark Gross, ESPN’s SVP, Production & Remote Events, discussing the network’s plans for “MLB Opening Night” on Jul 23. “We saw from KBO games that a little goes a long ways. But keeping a little crowd ‘nat sound’ below announcers seems to work and not make the broadcast seem so hollow.”

Voice of the fan
Carey while managing his Strat-o-Matic AL All-Star team

And speaking of laugh tracks, a voice of the fan, as well as someone who is involved in the ownership side of soccer and knows about fan reaction is actor/comedian Drew Carey. This week Carey and Stray Cats drummer “Slim Jim” Phantom “managed” the AL and NL All-Stars as part of Strat-o-Matic’s data driven daily presentation of the 2020 MLB season. While the two provided commentary over the live feed and video–Carey’s AL team lost 7-2–Carey was pretty clear on his views for what he will want to be watching, and hearing as MLB joins MLS back on the field.

“I have watched soccer, both MLS and the matches in Europe, and frankly, from a fans perspective I love hearing all the yelling and the grunts and the strategy,” the longtime Cleveland Indians fan and “Price is Right” host noted. “It makes me feel more connected to the game. I think all the squeaks of sneakers and the bouncing of the balls in basketball will be the same, as a fan I love it, we don’t need dolls in the stands or fake crowd noise to make us watch and enjoy.”

The other factor will be how silence plays out in the competitive mind of the athlete. We have already seen WWE and UFC stars and boxers instinctively turning away from the ring or the octagon and playing to a crowd they forgot was not there, and have witnessed soccer superstars doing dances and waving to an audience made of either cardboard or disguised as empty seats.

Does hearing your own voice echoing off miles of plastic and metal impact the quality of the game? The jury is still out, but stadium experts think a middle ground can help cure the ills of what the athlete may be missing.

“From a venue perspective the knowledge that in stadium audio has to keep improving has been in the works, and this process will probably bring some innovative sound concepts to the forefront much faster,” added Bill Squires, a longtime stadium and event operations executive who has worked with teams like the New York Yankees, the New York Giants, the NFL and many others in venue operations, a class he has taught for over a decade at Columbia University as well. “While I think fans at home will adjust to hearing the players and coaches, I do believe that the players are the ones who will thrive off of some form of targeted in game audio, as they are used to feeding off the crowd. Striking that balance is going to be key but I think just silence might be pretty deafening for elite athletes, at least at first.”

Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez will call MLB’s return on Jul 23–supplemented with fake crowd noise ESPN

Alex Rodriguez, the three-time AL MVP and 14-time All-Star who will be calling ESPN’s MLB Opening Night game with Matt Vasgersian, was asked about fake crowd noise and he sees it from both sides, “I’ll have conflicting answers here because as a player I would want some type of sound, just kind of the white noise that as a player, playing for almost 25 years, you just get used to. As a fan…I think the sounds of the game of baseball are so unique, are so cool, have never really been heard. I’ve always thought that, you know, Major League Baseball Hard Knocks would be so enticing because they are so reflective of what happens in our everyday life.”

And that is a big reason why all MLB teams are planning to have some type of crowd noise piped in, along with walk-up music, PA announcer introductions and for teams that have one, their live organist.

Storytelling filling the gaps

While game audio is so much a focus, one element around that has not been lost, but fine-tuned, is also audio storytelling. From the NBA “bubble” to the NHL practice rink we have seen a bigger investment in audio storytelling and podcasting away from the field of play, as thousands of athletes go through what will be a once in a lifetime experience. That audio play has resulted in a surprising rise in brand and consumer engagement in audio as a compliment to the coming games, at a time when many experts thought listening would be waning.

The truth is just the opposite. With MLS and NWSL successfully returning to play, storytellers are seizing the opportunity.

“Orange Slices,” co-hosted by Mark McKenzie and Heath Pearce, will be one of the first For Soccer Ventures podcastsFor Soccer Ventures

This week For Soccer Ventures, the $50 million fund started by Philadelphia Union owner Richie Graham, announced the launch of an audio platform dedicated just to soccer storytelling, a niche that the pandemic has opened up into a chasm.

“Gen Z and soccer fans in general are hard to reach in this country, they’re young, diverse–always on the go. Podcasting is similar to radio in many respects. The qualities that make radio so popular–radio still remains one of the most consumed media platforms today–are its mobility, that it goes with you; its rich/intimate storytelling as “theater of the mind”; and its companionship from a deep connection to hosts. Those are the same in podcasting,” added Marc Horine, FSV’s Chief Business Officer and an industry veteran in the business of spoken audio from his days at ESPN. “Podcasts are easy to find; on-demand; low barrier to entry–production costs are low; publishers can go far/wide from a content perspective–news, sports, entertainment, culture, episodic, etc.–and have ubiquitous distribution.”

“As it relates to soccer, we live in a fragmented soccer country. Our goal at For Soccer Ventures is to be the organizing principle and trusted platform that connects all the diverse communities–from youth participants, to the American soccer family to professional ranks. Podcasting provides us a platform to engage these communities and tell their stories in meaningful and substantive ways.”

And according to PwC’s IAB Podcast Advertising Revenue Report issued earlier this week, podcasting still makes business sense, projecting podcast advertising revenue will grow 14.7% in 2020, despite the pandemic.

So where will we be listening? And how and to what?

Adjustment in the volume it seems will be the norm as we go from the intimate confines of Disney’s Wide World of Sports to cavernous buildings in MLB and beyond. Fluid sound, and an authentic experience, whatever it is, will be what we will be listening to–and watching for–as we start tuning back in to the stars we love.