The NFL's TV partners are doing everything they can to make sure game broadcasts in 2020 look more like what viewers are accustomed to and less like reality. But the reality that is a pro football season being played amid a global pandemic can't be completely hidden.
Fans in the stands at NFL games will be a rarity for at least the first few weeks of the 2020 season, and as other sports leagues have realized in their returns to live action, crowd noise is a massive factor in terms of how a TV audience consumes a game. So yes, of course the NFL is going to get fake crowd noise into your living room even if no fans are at the stadium where your game is being played.
And the networks are going to attempt to deliver the information you need while watching a game even though some of the NFL's COVID-19 related restrictions make that process a unique challenge. For example, the networks' sideline reporters won't have field access, so it'll be tougher for them to find out why your favorite team's running back was taken into the injury tent.
In an interview with Sporting News this week, Fox sideline reporter Shannon Spake raised an important point when it comes to the unfamiliarity TV viewers will experience while watching NFL games in 2020. All of this remains fluid.
"It's going to be ever-changing," Spake said. "I do think, and I should say I'm hopeful, that as we progress, maybe when fans start to show back up if teams start to allow fans in the stands, maybe things will change. We just kind of have to hold on and be patient and just be willing to adapt to whatever they throw our way."
Below are all of the notable changes for NFL game broadcasts as the league navigates football through the pandemic. They start with the element that will be the most noticeable for TV viewers.
Fake crowd noise on NFL broadcasts and inside stadiums
With empty sports venues during the COVID-19 pandemic, some leagues have piped fake crowd noise into the stadium and let broadcast networks choose whether to feature that sound on TV. Others have simply featured the fake crowd noise as broadcast-only elements and left it out of the stadium.
At least to start its 2020 season, the NFL is doing both. Those inside the stadium will hear a steady stream of fake crowd noise from the public address system, and those watching on TV will hear a different feed of fake crowd noise on the broadcast.
The NFL laid out the entire plan in a memo sent to teams on Sept. 3. Below is the memo, obtained by NFL Media, in its entirety. (We've highlighted the most important aspects for fans to know.)
"The 2020 Game Operations Manuel sets forth the League’s audio policies, including when music can be played, and public address announcements can be made, while the play clock is running. The following additional audio policies will apply for the 2020 season and will be reviewed on a weekly basis by NFL Football Operations.
"These policies have been reviewed with the Competition Committee to ensure competitive equity while COVID-19 related restrictions on fans attending NFL games are in place."
Fake crowd noise on NFL TV broadcasts
"NFL Films sound engineers have developed club specific audio pallets (crowd noise) for each NFL club. A trained audio engineer hired by the League office will work collaboratively with network personnel to incorporate the audio into the in-game broadcast feed. This audio will by dynamic and reactive to game situations within the game broadcasts.
"This broadcast audio is League-controlled; therefore, NFL Football Operations and NFL Broadcasting will monitor its use throughout the season. Use of this audio in the stadium is prohibited."
Music and other audio in NFL stadiums
"Audio that has always been permitted to be played during approved times will continue to be permissible. However, for this season, music and other audio prompts can only be played by your game presentation personnel up to a certain decibel level. The maximum decibel level for music and other audio prompts is 75 dBs.
"This maximum decibel level will be monitored by NFL Football Operations and may be adjusted in the future. This decibel level limitation is new for this year and applies to stadiums with or without fans. PA announcements for down and distance must be made (with or without fans). Playing music and other audio prompts above the maximum decibel level will be a violation of League policy and will subject your club to accountability measures."
Fake crowd noise in NFL stadiums
"In addition to music and established club audio prompts, the League office will provide your club with an audio file that contains a loop of pre-recorded crows noise (“curated audio”) that is specific to your stadium. The purpose of the curated audio is to create an audio landscape (i.e., a baseline “murmur”) that masks some field-level audio typically not audible in a stadium with fans.
"This curated audio is different than the dynamic club and stadium specific audio that will be used in the broadcast. Your club’s game presentation staff will be responsible for implementing and managing the curated audio feed into the PA system. The following polices for curated audio have been approved the the Competition Committee to start the season:
- "League-curated audio must be played in all stadiums that do not admit fans. To begin the season, curated audio (also) must be played in stadiums that admit fans. NFL Football Operations will re-evaluate the use of audio in stadiums with fans as the season progresses."
- "The curated audio must be turned on by kickoff and remain on whenever the play clock and/or game clock is running. The game presentation representative must turn off the curated audio during game breaks (including injury timeouts, quarter breaks, halftime and commercial breaks). Music should be played during those breaks."
- "Your club’s game presentation staff must play the curated audio through the stadium’s PA system at 70 dBs."
- "NFL Football Operations will monitor the decibel level throughout the game to ensure that the volume does not go above or below the required decibel level."
- "During approved times to play audio in the stadium, the designated music/audio prompts must be played simultaneously with the curated audio provided by the NFL; however, the combined audio cannot exceed 75 dBs."
- "Clubs are prohibited from implementing any additional remote fan crowd noise, including from the parking lots or other areas outside the stadium."
The NFL also warned teams that failing to abide by the policies listed above could result in fines and/or suspensions of those involved.
The fake crowd noise inside NFL stadiums has been met with mixed reviews from those who have experimented with it during practices. For example, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said the steady stream of artificial cheering is "a form of human torture." His team's quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, said it was "not bad."
NFL broadcast changes for 2020
This will be business as usual for the most part, with Fox, CBS, NBC and ESPN announcers calling NFL games from broadcast booths in the stadiums. (None of the networks have announced otherwise.)
NBC, though, is planning to give veteran play-by-play man Al Michaels a few "bye weeks" since the 75-year-old "is in the age group at most risk of COVID-19," according to Sports Media Watch. Mike Tirico will fill in for Michaels on those bye weeks.
Fox will go through the season without play-by-play announcer Thom Brennaman, but not because of COVID-19. Brennaman was pulled from Fox's NFL broadcasts last month after he was caught using a gay slur during a regional broadcast of a Cincinnati Reds game.
Below is the updated list of announcers and sideline reporters for each NFL TV partner in 2020.
|Play-by-play announcer||Analyst(s)||Sideline reporter(s)|
|Joe Buck||Troy Aikman||Erin Andrews, Kristina Pink|
|Kevin Burkhardt||Daryl Johnston||Pam Oliver|
|Adam Amin||Mark Schlereth||Lindsay Czarniak|
|Kenny Albert||Jonathan Vilma||Shannon Spake|
|Kevin Kugler||Chris Spielman||Laura Okmin|
|Chris Myers||Greg Jennings, Brock Huard||Jennifer Hale|
|Play-by-play announcer||Analyst||Sideline reporter|
|Jim Nantz||Tony Romo||Tracy Wolfson|
|Ian Eagle||Charles Davis||Evan Washburn|
|Kevin Harlan||Trent Green||Melanie Collins|
|Greg Gumbel||Rich Gannon||Amanda Balionis, Sherree Burruss, A.J. Ross or Michael Grady|
|Andrew Catalon||James Lofton||Balionis/Burruss/Ross/Grady|
|Spero Dedes||Adam Archuleta||Balionis/Burruss/Ross/Grady|
|Tom McCarthy||Jay Feely||Balionis/Burruss/Ross/Grady|
|Beth Mowins||Tiki Barber||Balionis/Burruss/Ross/Grady|
NBC ("Sunday Night Football"):
|Play-by-play announcer||Analyst||Sideline reporter|
|Al Michaels||Cris Collinsworth||Michele Tafoya|
|Mike Tirico||Cris Collinsworth||Michele Tafoya|
ESPN ("Monday Night Football"):
|Play-by-play announcer||Analysts||Sideline reporter|
|Steve Levy||Louis Riddick, Brian Griese||Lisa Salters|
When ESPN broadcasts its "Monday Night Football" doubleheader in Week 1, the network's No. 1 college football announcer trio of Chris Fowler (play-by-play), Kirk Herbstreit (analyst) and Maria Taylor (sideline reporter) will work the first game, Steelers at Giants.
ESPN's new "Monday Night Football" broadcast team listed above will work the second game, Titans at Broncos.
Sideline reporters for Fox, CBS, NBC and ESPN will not be able to access the field at any point during NFL games in 2020. Which obviously creates a unique challenge for reporters who are tasked with interviewing players and tracking key stories before, during and after games.
Instead, the sideline reporters will be stationed in the first few rows of the stands and, in the stadiums completely void of fans, free to roam the perimeter of the field from that distance.
As of the Wednesday prior to Week 1, Spake was not yet sure how she would conduct interviews with coaches, noting that a headset was a potential solution. But that's only one of many challenges.
"For me personally, the busiest time of my week is the 11 a.m. ET - 12 noon ET hour on Sundays," Spake told SN of her typical NFL game coverage routine. "I'm able to kind of walk around the field, talk to any players who I want to talk to based on conversations that I've had with my crew on Saturday and on Friday, things that I maybe saw at practice, things that I read over the weekend and can follow up with those players one on one. That's obviously not going to happen anymore.
"I have spoken with some teams and said, 'Hey, if I get you a list on Saturday night, do you think maybe you could bring a player closer to where I am, obviously distanced, and maybe scream down and ask him a quick question?' So those things I'm interested in learning day-of are going to be a lot different to get that information."
Added CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson in an interview with The Athletic: “Each stadium is different, so the logistics of getting from one sideline to the other are tricky. It may take you longer, and the fear of missing out on information is a big concern. In addition, the communication with the PR rep will have to be even more important because we are not on the field with them, so reaching them in a timely manner will be key.”
Only a handful of NFL broadcasts feature the singing or playing of the national anthem, but for those that do, TV viewers will not watch a live performance of "The Star Spangled Banner" from the stadium.
The national anthem will still be sung or played before each game, but the performances will be either remote or pre-recorded and piped into the stadium.
"The objective is to strictly limit the number of people on the sidelines who can potentially infect players and coaches with COVID-19," Front Office Sports' Michael McCarthy reported last month.
It's also worth noting that the national anthem before NFL games might be shown more often in 2020 if players continue protesting racial injustice during the performance.
"We will cover the anthem obviously Week 1. We'll also cover 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' that the NFL is doing, at least in the opener," ESPN executive vice president of event and studio production Stephanie Druley said on a recent conference call when asked whether her network will cover protests during the anthem. "... Our policy has been to cover the anthem when it's newsworthy, and that's not going to change. We are going to continue, as we've done with the NBA as they've played, and the WNBA, we will cover social justice movements, actions as they happen. We're not going to shy away from that.
"But look, we're going to keep our main rule, which is when it intersects with sports, we're going to cover it, and look, we don't see the social justice movement as being political. It's social justice. We will cover as need be, and we'll see
"I can't tell you that that means we'll (air the national anthem) the half of the season or we'll do two out of 10. I don't know. But we'll make a judgment call every week. But I can tell you Week 1 that first game you will see the anthem and you will see 'Lift Every Voice and Sing.'"
This another part of the game that is rarely shown on broadcasts, but when NFL coin tosses are shown on TV, they will look a little different.
According to ESPN, teams were told they can send only one person to the opening coin toss for each game this season. And all who participate in the coin toss, the referee included, will be required to wear masks.