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Pandemic year transformed AFL broadcasting - maybe forever

Football

More football fans than ever before watched AFL games from home this season: the men and women who described the action on the field also were distant. Sports broadcasting has changed – perhaps forever – reports Michelangelo Rucci.

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Brian Taylor saw West Coast sensation Liam Ryan make his move from the wing at Perth Stadium while the Channel Seven director was tempted to go for the tight shot on team-mate Josh Kennedy taking a mark outside 50.

Taylor tapped the button to the production box seeking to stay on the wide lens – and then hit the spot with the moment now remembered as the AFL “mark of the year”. The vision carries the perfect sound bite, called by Taylor using the same perception he carried into 140 VFL-AFL games repeatedly finishing the plays as a key forward with Collingwood and Richmond in the 1980s.

It also is a timely reminder to media executives as to why they need their commentators where the action is – rather than thousands of kilometres away in studios.

COVID protocols demanded otherwise in 2020.

“Liam Ryan’s saying, ‘Kick it my way I want to jump over the pack’ … and here he comes. Ryan!  Wow, what about that. He would not have had much gas left in the tank because he was up the ground seconds before that. Worked back hard; wanted it kicked exactly where it was.”

Brian Taylor calling the 2019 AFL mark of the year

Alongside Taylor in the commentary box, Wayne Carey was just as much impressed with his colleague’s call as in watching Ryan soar like an eagle.

“Read it well ‘BT’,” was Carey’s first reflection as the expert analyst in the Channel Seven team. This applied equally to Ryan – and to Taylor.

This was sports broadcasting in 2019, before the COVID pandemic changed the game on and off the field – and in the commentary and media boxes around the world. This was before more and more fans, particularly in Victoria, were compelled to watch AFL games on television in record numbers.

“I would not have called it this year … I would not have seen that,” Taylor told InDaily. “I could not have seen that this year, not from a studio.”

Channel Seven commentator Brian Taylor in the empty stands in Geelong before the lockdown. Photo: AAP/Scott Barbour

Many television sports commentators call “off the monitor” – describing exactly what is on the screens, as seen on the big and small flat screens in bars, loungerooms and back verandahs and on laptops and mobile devices.

Taylor’s formula is 40 per cent from the monitor, 20 per cent from binoculars to look deep across the ground and into the stands searching for famous faces or fan reactions and 40 per cent from his eyes focusing to his sharp radar – as well noted with his “Flying Ryan” call.

In the AFL season just concluded, Taylor – from the restart after the 12-week COVID lockdown in April, May and June until the return to the commentary box at Adelaide Oval for the Port Adelaide-Richmond preliminary final – called the action 100 per cent off the screens.

“I lost 30-40 per cent of my normal input to a call,” says Taylor. And he was watching more screens than ever before – some tuned to a fellow commentator in another city.

There was Bruce McAvaney in Adelaide, Taylor and his fellow Victoria-based callers at the HSV7 studios in Melbourne’s Docklands and Hawthorn premiership hero Luke Hodge at ground level in Brisbane or on the Gold Coast. Passing the baton went from tapping the commentator sitting next to you – to hand signals seen on an in-house screen.

Fox Footy this year never put a commentary team in the booth of the Bradman Stand at Adelaide Oval, relying heavily on Brownlow Medallist Mark Ricciuto at ground level and by link to the production studio at Southbank in Melbourne.

Sports broadcasting certainly changed in 2020, not just in Australia but across the world.

American television network NBC kept its Tour de France team in a studio in Stamford, Connecticut. ESPN presented its NBA basketball coverage from a studio in Bristol, Connecticut, rather than courtside. Eurosport has been doing such for some time from the “Cube” (or bunker) in London for years to save costs, a theme that will spread while television networks balance the big money they paid for sports rights against declining advertising revenue.

“If you turn on the television and you can’t tell we’re not there, we’ve done our job,” says NBC producer Joel Felicio.

ESPN International commentators Matt Vasgersian and Buck Martinez were not so fortunate on Wednesday during the sixth game of the baseball World Series. They had to concede being in a studio rather than at the field at Arlington, Texas, had put them in the dark on the reasons for Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner being benched mid-game. He had tested positive for COVID.

Radio is more forgiving. The audience in the car, on the bus or in the back garden is totally in the hands (and eyes) of the commentators. And the art of radio sports commentary is to make the words paint a picture for a “blind” audience.

“Difficult, very difficult when you can’t see beyond the camera shot on a television screen,” says Carlton premiership captain Mark Maclure. After the AFL season opener, Maclure called out the premiership race from the board room in the ABC studios in Melbourne’s Southbank arts district.

“Calling off the screen, you can’t see what is happening off the ball,” adds Maclure, reinforcing the advantage Taylor had in watching Liam Ryan sprint from the wing to the goalsquare to grab the mark of 2019.

“You can’t see the matchups change; you’re not there at the ground to see how a play is building… all you see is what is happening on the ball. That makes it difficult to interpret the game as an expert commentator.”

The TV game

AFL football’s first night grand final was guaranteed to draw huge ratings figures with the competing teams – Richmond and Geelong – delivering “captive” audiences from locked-down Melbourne.

National viewing numbers averaged 3.812 million on Saturday night when Richmond won its third AFL flag in four years, this time in a night finale at the Gabba. This was the best television audience since the 2016 grand final between the Western Bulldogs and Sydney (4.121 million) and was up 30 per cent on last year’s figure.

Viewing figures from the shortened AFL home-and-away series averaged 4.2 million for a nine-game round each weekend – up 4.3 per cent on 2019 figures.

It is not surprising that the greatest jump – by 12.7 per cent – was in Melbourne where fans were forced in front of their televisions after being denied matches at the MCG and Docklands while the 10 Victorian-based AFL clubs moved to quarantine hubs.

Richmond was the most-watched team on free-to-air television this season with an average audience of 399,000. Collingwood drew the most viewers – an average of 234,000 – for pay-TV broadcaster Fox Footy.

In Adelaide, where fans could go to Adelaide Oval, minor premier Port Adelaide averaged 101,000 television viewers for its home-and-away matches. Wooden spooner Adelaide drew 86,000 on average.

These extraordinary television numbers do need to be set against the dramatic fall in attendance figures while the season played out with restrictions on venue access in Adelaide, Perth, Darwin, Alice Springs, Brisbane, Cairns and the Gold Coast and lockouts in Sydney and Melbourne.

AFL attendances at the shortened home-and-away season (17 rather than 22 games for each of the 18 clubs) crashed from a record 6,954,187 in 2019 to 826,368 this season – an 81 per cent drop.

Remote coverage can be done – but is it good?

Despite a few technical difficulties at the restart in June, Channel Seven and Fox Footy this year produced 140 home-and-away games and six major round matches – between the restart and the preliminary finals – without full commentary teams at the venues.

In some cases, the networks were forced – while borders were closed – to work with directors who had not pushed the buttons on an AFL telecast for more than a year, if at all. There were just as many challenges behind the cameras as in front of the lenses focused on the football field.

“From a technical point of view,” says Taylor, “the television networks and radio stations proved it could be done.”

They knew this from 1934 when Alan McGilvray launched on radio the “synthetic cricket broadcasts” of Ashes Test matches, reading ball-by-ball accounts sent from England by telegraph cables. Sound effects, in particular with a pencil striking a desk to leave the impression of bat hitting ball, were added to the broadcasts to enhance the impression of McGilvray being at the cricket ground.

The technique was not faultless, as McGilvray’s counterpart in American baseball, Jack Buck, learned whenever the telegrams from a ball park were interrupted by a signal failure. Buck once covered the gap by suggesting a time out had been called to deal with a player injury. The sting was when the player demanded Buck pay his long-distance telephone bill to reassure his concerned wife he had not been hit and injured by a stray foul ball.

Taylor, voted the fans’ most popular radio and television caller several times, is at ease with how he and his colleagues presented the game amid the limitations imposed by the pandemic.

“We called it to a reasonable level. Putting the colour with some creative description was quite hard,” said Taylor who added “choo choo train” to his kitbag when back at the Gabba for the Brisbane-Geelong preliminary final.

“We couldn’t flag to the director when we wanted the wide shot (à la the “Flying Ryan” mark). Knowing what was happening in the crowd or on the bench was out of our sight. If there was an important person in the crowd, the binoculars were not going to pick them up from the studio in Melbourne.

“So we were more conservative in our commentary.

“But we proved we could do it technically… and the networks are aware of that.”

I was really nervous as a viewer about inserting something fake into coverage of a game.

At Southbank, Maclure and his ABC radio commentators were needing to be creative.

“It’s hard to have fun: you can’t have fun calling a game off a screen,” Maclure said. “And you need to get the audience having fun too.”

So the ABC football team added cooking escapades into their call – and a weekly quadrella from the races in honour of the late Drew Morphett.

“We needed a giggle, a laugh to bring some enjoyment into the home of thousands of Australians, particularly Victorians, needing a distraction during the lockdowns,” said Maclure. “And we uncorked a bottle of red after every match for a hard-earned red… we needed it, we bloody well needed it after a game.”

While Perth-based Dennis Cometti ultimately tired of crisscrossing the nation, Taylor has felt almost lost while trapped in a television studio.

“I’ve missed the excitement of hopping off a plane, spending an hour in a hotel room going over my notes before getting to the ground – and onto the ground to watch the players warm-up,” Taylor said. “You feel if the wind is going to affect the game, you ask the players a few questions, you pick up some pointers to add to your call, you chat to the umpires… you miss all those extras when you are not at the ground.”

Now the question – more pressing for financial reasons – is will all the commentary teams return to sports venues post-COVID?

“I don’t think so,” answers Maclure. “Certainly less likely for radio than television. There is money to be saved, particularly in sending commentary team interstate.”

Taylor asks: “How far do you go? How do you measure the best possible product against the bottom line? Where is that comfortable middle ground? We’ve proved we can do it from the studio, but it is difficult and time-consuming… it certainly wears you out more than travelling does.

“The real question to be asked and answered: is the coverage good enough?”

Empty venues do rob television and radio of the background noise and atmosphere that makes for a good broadcast. When the AFL resumed behind locked gates, Channel Seven – setting a trend picked up elsewhere in world sport telecasts – tested adding crowd effects spliced from old matches.

“They are mundane affairs without the crowd noise,” said Taylor. “At the start, when I was in quarantine (after returning from filming a reality show Holey Moley in California) I was really nervous as a viewer about inserting something fake into coverage of a game.

“But after one or two weeks it was not bothering us. It became a great addition to what we were bringing to people. It needed that little bit of what we know as football atmosphere: just a little bit, you can’t overdo it.”

Maclure adds: “People make the game. The players know that. You don’t want to play in front of no-one. The crowd, even a small crowd, is fantastic… and if we have certainly learned how the game is not the same without the fans.”

Taylor calls it the “biggest lesson” from the COVID test on sport – appreciating the fans.

“All of us, the league, the clubs, the players and the media have been reminded how important the crowd, the supporters, the fans are to the game – and what they bring,” said Taylor. “Anyone who thought they were not critical to a game has just learned this year that the fans are as important as the players.”

Now the cash-minded executives deal with the big question: How will those fans stuck at home be presented their favourite sports on television and radio, even when COVID is cleared away?

You can read news and insights from Michelangelo Rucci – SA’s most experienced and credible football writer – on Fridays in InDaily.

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