The 2020 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament was lost to COVID, the first major event to bear the brunt of a reality that made sporting events unviable for far too long. It returned last season in altered form, never leaving the state of Indiana. The reliable unpredictability and tension were still there, and a worthy champion emerged in Baylor, but it was a far cry from normalcy. This year, for the first time in three long and challenging springs, it will exist in its more traditional atmosphere.
CBS and Turner wore the difficulties of losing the event entirely and responded 12 months later by creating a makeshift experience as close the previous editions as they possibly could. But their impressive efforts still butted up against some real-world impracticalities. Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery, and Grant Hill shared their outlook for the upcoming tournament today on a conference call with reporters, flanked by Clark Kellogg, Tracy Wolfson, and Rex Chapman, who will be making his debut as a studio analyst — a plan that also had to be scrapped back in 2020.
You could hear the excitement in their voices. Because it will certainly be a more enjoyable experience to cover — Nantz recalled 27 consecutive days of hotel life last season in which all his meals were delivered to his room and an inability to meet his broadcasting "family" for a drink.
During the 45-minute call, though, something else emerged. An idea that the process of storytelling will be made much easier. March Madness is known for its ubiquitous crowd shots. New charismatic stars brimming with youth and personality. Legendary coaches who wear it all on their sleeves while facing elimination.
Past protocols that built barriers to telling those stories with maximum impact have been placed in the rearview mirror. CBS and Turner plan to capitalize while creating a more intimate and personal product bringing the viewer closer to the locus of action.
"We're going back to normalcy where we get to interact with the coaches," Wolfson said. "We're going to be doing interviews in-game, something new this season is we're going to have interviews with the coaches in the first half, whether it's the under-12 or under-8 [timeouts]. I think it's going to be really exciting to see these coaches at those pivotal points being interviewed."
This wrinkle was originally announced for the lost 2020 Tournament and, obviously, was unavailable last year. Now sideline reporters will be able to get into and listen in on team huddles and provide so much more from the court. They'll be closer to play as well, returning to their usual positions instead of the designated areas of 2021.
More importantly, with attendance opening back up to capacity, players' support systems will be front and center to paint a more vivid picture.
"One of the things we love to see is not only the fan engagement with these teams but the parental engagement," Wolfson said. "How they interact and how excited their families are for them. [Last year] they weren't able to interact and there was almost a sadness in seeing their parents up in the stands cheering from afar but not able to give them their hugs after they won or after they lost. That's going to provide for so many great pictures but also so many great stories that we're going to bring to you."
All of this to say that the single most exciting three-week sporting sprint on the calendar will be brimming with newfound life. Both for the players, some of whom who are in their third year of college who will be experiencing the pageantry and energy without a governor for the first time, and the broadcasting partners who can use their traditional tools while trying out a few new ones.