ESPN's Remote Broadcasts Cheat Viewers

The worldwide leader looks to save some money.
The worldwide leader looks to save some money.

ESPN broadcast select first- and second-round games of this year’s NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament remotely. This means there were no broadcasters on location, just some camera guys and some technical people. The broadcasters instead announced the game from Bristol, Connecticut, ESPN’s headquarters, while watching the games off of TV monitors.

This is not a new thing for ESPN, which says that it usually does remote broadcasts only for what it calls low-profile games. And over the past several years, many of those low-profile games have included the Houston Cougars basketball team. It has become a common sight to walk into Hofheinz Pavilion and find the broadcaster seats at the press table as vacant as the arena stands.

It’s also familiar to sports fans who watch events that take place overseas. Most Formula One races broadcast on the NBC Sports Network are basically the official Formula One television feed with commentary from announcers in the U.S. NBC has also handled some of the Olympics events by remote. ESPN has done this with soccer games from Europe, and with WNBA and Major League Soccer games.

It’s a way for broadcasters to cut costs, which is a big deal for companies like ESPN, which has been laying off staff because of declining subscriber numbers. The basic thinking is that it’s the video that is important, thus there's no need to waste money sending highly paid talent to the scene of a game when it’s cheaper to keep them in Bristol.

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“The broadcast business is an expensive one,” an NCAA exec told the media. “It costs a lot to move those trucks around. All broadcasters are looking for an opportunity to be more efficient on how they do the broadcast programs. This is a wave of the future for not just women’s basketball, but broadcasts in general.”

This might be no big deal to most fans. What’s important is actually being able to view the game, to watch the action and see what happens. As long as there’s video, replays and a graphic with the score, most folks are happy. But what if something happens? What if there’s an injury to a player? What if there is a problem in the arena?

During the first round of the NCAA Men’s Tournament, Virginia basketball coach Tony Bennett collapsed on the sideline shortly before the end of the first half. CBS Sports was able to put the sideline reporter on the case to find out what had happened so that viewers could be informed. But this doesn’t happen if it’s a remote broadcast.

And it’s become commonplace during college basketball games for officials to confer after a play, to view replays and then to walk over to the scorer’s table to explain what’s just happened. It’s also commonplace for one of the officials to walk over to the opposite side of the court where the broadcasters are, where they’ll give a quick explanation of why the clock’s being reset, why a flagrant foul has been called or why the bucket didn’t count. Unless, of course, there are no broadcasters, in which case viewers are left puzzled by what just happened.

This is not the worst thing in the world. Fans still get the score. Fans still see the basics of the game. But what the fans don’t get is the atmospherics: What’s the crowd like; is there a problem with the playing surface? People who watch Formula One are often left wondering what’s going on for most of the course as the announcers can only talk about what they see on the monitors, and those images are controlled by Formula One.

Nothing’s happening anytime soon with the big events. Fans are still stuck with Jim Nantz being on site and putting viewers to sleep with the Final Four this weekend. NFL games will have full-on broadcasting crews as will the NBA and probably Major League Baseball for the foreseeable future. But with subscriber rates dropping and broadcast costs rising, the use of remote broadcasts will grow, and it’s not hard to believe that at some point in the future, cheaply produced remote broadcasts will be the norm for even the Super Bowl.

It might end up getting worse in other ways. There’s talk that with the rights fees that college conferences and professional sports could start dropping — this is already happening with Conference USA, where it is reported that rights fees for conference schools will drop about $500,000 for this upcoming season — that could mean less money for the schools. It also means a continuing situation like the one with Rice in which a large number of the school’s televised games can’t even be seen in Houston because one of the rights holders, the American Sports Network, does not have an affiliate in this city.

In the short term, this is probably all nothing. But subscriber costs are not going to drop, no matter how cheaply the games are produced, no matter how much money the networks save by doing games remotely. And eventually, something’s going to happen at one of the remote events and because there is no reporter or analysis on site, nobody is going to have any idea what happened.

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