NBA broadcast partners face new challenges in a season without a bubble

ESPN and ABC are scheduled to air 49 games during the first half of the season.

Michael Ainsworth
Doris Burke and Mark Jones called the Celtics-Nets game on Christmas Day live at TD Garden.

ESPN, and Turner Sports too, did a remarkable job during the NBA bubble of producing normal-seeming game broadcasts under the most abnormal of circumstances.

There were differences, such as fresh courtside camera angles, made possible by the absence of fans, giant screens showing some of those fans watching from home, and of course the fake crowd noise, which generally was unobtrusive but too often got the spirit of the moment wrong (remember the roars of the crowd during made free throws early on?).

But once we got used to the necessary differences, sitting down to watch a game felt more or less … well, normal. Kudos to the networks for getting Bubble Basketball broadcasts as right as we could have hoped.

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Now comes an even greater challenge as the new NBA season begins: Do it again, but outside of the security of the bubble, while the COVID-19 pandemic still rages, James Harden parties mask-less at strip clubs, and the possibility of outbreaks hover over a schedule that has only been released for the season’s first half because of the logical concern it will be necessary to find open dates for postponed games in the second half.

The logistics of the bubble were rudimentary math compared to this calculus, which includes variables that simply cannot be predicted. The entire league, including its broadcast partners, is fretting about what’s to come, said Adrian Wojnarowski, ESPN’s preeminent NBA reporter.

“Nobody quite knew how impenetrable [the bubble] would be, which it turned out to be almost a force that just allowed the league to play the postseason, the final eight games, and then the playoffs without any positive tests,” said Wojnarowski.

“That’s not going to be the case this year, and I think teams are really feeling that reality now. There’s great concern among organizations and the league, Players Association, about what happens when teams really start traveling and start getting on the road and the impact it’s going to have on lineups and the health, not just players but staff.”

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ESPN, which began its live game broadcasts Wednesday and had five Christmas Day games — including Celtics-Nets — in conjunction with ABC, allows for significant caution in its production plans.

While the broadcast team of Mark Jones, Doris Burke, and Ariel Helwani called the Celtics game live from the Garden, the network will have several situations this season in which the broadcast teams will call games from home, or with only part of the broadcast team at the arena.

“As we’ve approached this with the league, health and safety has been No. 1,” said Mike Shiffman, ESPN’s vice president, production, for its NBA coverage. “We continue to want to document these games to the standard that we believe we’ve set at ESPN. But given these unique times, health and safety is our top priority.”

ESPN and ABC are scheduled to air 49 games during the first half of the season. Shiffman said approximately half will feature on-site production trucks, while the rest will use what’s known as the enhanced world feed, which is taken from the home team’s regional sports network broadcast. ESPN will use its own broadcasters on the EWF format, but they won’t be in the building.

Rather, they’ll call the game from their homes. ESPN also enhances the EWF format with its own graphics and a couple of unique angles from its own cameras inside the arenas.

For example, when ESPN tipped off its Christmas Day coverage with the Heat-Pelicans matchup at noon, play-by-play voice Ryan Ruocco and analyst Richard Jefferson called it from their homes, while reporter Israel Gutierrez was in the building at American Airlines Arena.

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“Each situation is going to be different based on the team and based on the state,’’ said studio analyst Jalen Rose. “We’re just excited that the season is starting and that basketball is going to happen. I anticipate like in the NFL you will see players missing games, missing practices, and whatnot, failing tests because there isn’t a bubble situation, so it won’t be as flawless as the bubble was clearly, but I think the goal is to try to do what you can to entertain the fans and get back out there on the floor and hopefully get to a champion.”

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