ESPN unveiled its Sunday Night Baseball plans on a conference call with reporters Thursday and an unusual amount of time was spent on the logistics. This is 2020, after all. The resumption of sports is a Herculean task, as is the broadcasting amid a global pandemic.
And things will certainly be different. Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez will be calling games remotely from a studio in Bristol.
"It’s a little bit of a variation on how we do KBO, where everybody is home," ESPN senior vice president of production and remote events Mark Gross explained.
The network's decision to air Korean baseball has given a brief jolt of actual live sports six days a week. It has also served as a prolonged spring training for talent and production staff to experiment and discover what works and what doesn't when it comes to bringing life into an off-site event that will be noticeably more sterile than usual.
Of course calling baseball games from press boxes in nearly empty stadiums would also be a bit of a challenge. It's all a bit bizarre. But the MLB season is coming, ready or not.
"I’m not sure if on this day, what would be weirder: calling a game from the studio or calling a game from a completely empty ballpark," Vasgersian said. "Because I know a lot of regional guys who have been calling the intrasquad scrimmages for their rights-holders and each of them has said the same thing; that it’s just so strange to call a game with nobody there, and I think the impulse, you’d have to fight that impulse that it doesn’t matter as much if you were at the ballpark."
Vasgersian recalled his past experiences working remotely, from calling a San Diego Padres exhibition series in China and various Olympic events for NBC Sports.
"We are in a studio. We are removed from the strangeness of the atmosphere," he said. "We have our own strangeness to deal with being in a completely different location. But for any of us who have worked off of a world feed before, you just have to adapt."
Said Gross: "I think everybody is realizing that just because you did it one way for X number of years, doesn’t mean you have to do it the same way."
Rodriguez, who is optimistic he and Vasgersian can gain a homefield advantage from Connecticut, spoke about the importance of having Buster Olney on-site to be the eyes, ears, and conduit.
"I think one of the things you’re always cognizant of, people always say, don’t forget how hard the game is once you get to the booth," he said. "I think that becomes even more of a challenge for Matt and I the further we remove ourselves from this great game, the easier it looks — because the talent is so supreme on the field, it’s important for us to remember how difficult the game is, and that’s an important thing."
The KBO broadcasts have facilitated a more casual, guest-driven vibe. While it remains to be seen how much of that DNA will carry over to the MLB offerings, one crucial element surely will be a point of focus. Capturing the life of the stadiums, which will be utilizing their own ambient sound, to make things feel less hollow. ESPN believes they have the right dial setting for maximum value added.
So that's the new plan. Confidence is high, thanks in part to some KBO reps and leaning into the tech that's made it all possible.
"Technology has been our best friend, and keeping an open mind to everything across the board has also been our best friend," Gross said. "If somebody told me that Matt and Alex would come see me every Sunday night for Sunday Night Baseball, and I wouldn’t have to go see them, I would sign up for that. That’s what’s going on."
Said Vasgersian: "I think we can hit the ground running on Thursday night."