Alone in the Booth: Chris Fowler on Working Virtually With Kirk Herbstreit

Kirk Herbstreith and Chris Fowler
Kirk Herbstreith and Chris Fowler / Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

Broadcasting sports is a delicate art. There are many moving pieces viewers see and many more they do not. It takes a village to put on a successful primetime broadcast. Broadcasters like Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit, though, are among the few faces the audience is exposed to over the course of a broadcast.

Even the slightest change in circumstance can alter everything for the crew working to put it all together. Sometimes the whole operation will have to be revamped in light of a shifting landscape. Such was the case last week, when Herbstreit tested positive for COVID-19 days before he was scheduled to broadcast the Sugar Bowl alongside Fowler. Herbstreit felt good enough to call the game and didn't need to call in a backup. He just needed a different setup. And so Herbstreit was able to commentate on Ohio State's victory over Clemson from the safety of his own home, virtually calling into the broadcast while Fowler was o- site.

Speaking to media Wednesday ahead of the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship, currently scheduled for Monday, January 11, Fowler noted that it wasn't necessarily a new experience for the pair. They had already had to broadcast a game together while separated previously this season. But obviously the semifinal of the college football playoffs is as high-profile as it gets. Fowler told The Big Lead that the news caused quite a bit of stress, as one might imagine.

"I got the texts as soon as I landed in New Orleans. The phone was blowing up, Kirk and the others were texting me, and I thought, 'Oh, this can't be good.' Then I got the news," said Fowler. "It creates stress. It's disappointing for him because I know how badly he wanted to be there for a semifinal for that particular matchup. He hated to miss it, so I was disappointed for him. It puts a stress on everyone in the production."

Working in the year 2020 forces everyone to prepare for such contingencies, though. Fowler said the first game they had to work virtually made this transition a bit easier. They understood how the broadcast delay might affect Herbstreit's timing and ability to see the field. But the ESPN team gave Herbstreit a setup every armchair broadcaster would be envious of to ensure the highest quality of commentary possible for all of us.

There are natural limitations to the setup. Fowler described the team's attitude as making it through the broadcast in "fourth gear." There would be no bold experiments for this particular showing. Sticking to the basics and ensuring the technology would not fail was the priority. Thanks to the teams behind the camera, the broadcast went off without a hitch.

Speaking over headset to Herbstreit was not the same as having the man standing beside Fowler. More than anything, the longtime play-by-play man emphasized the synergy he and Herbstreit have built up over two and a half decades of broadcasting together prepared them for such a moment.

"I would have felt far less comfortable with anyone else in that position. This is our 25th season together, if you can believe that. Beginning in '96 with GameDay, a lot of years there, a lot of Thursday night seasons and now the last, what, seven seasons on ABC? So there's a lot of time together. I kind of know how his mind works and vice versa, so that that really helps. We were able to see each other on a monitor. That's not the same as being in the booth. Believe me, it's a layer of challenge."

Regardless of circumstance, the goal is to put on the best possible show for the audience. As Fowler puts it, the viewer "doesn't really care where you are. They just want you to put on a good broadcast." There were very few, if any, instances during the Sugar Bowl broadcast where viewers could tell the two weren't together. They brought the same commentary and analysis as they always have. Fowler was glad it all went well, but isn't in a rush to do it again anytime soon.

"I was pleased with how it went. I don't want to do it again. Glad he's scheduled to be in the booth on Monday for sure."

The 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship will be broadcast on ESPN on Monday, January 18 at 8 p.m. ET.