What will NFL game broadcasts look like in 2020? Crowd noise, empty seats and challenges for reporters

The camera will focus first, as always, on Al Michaels. The veteran NBC announcer will welcome the audience on Thursday night to the NFL's opening game of the 2020 season between the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs. Then he'll introduce his longtime partner, analyst Cris Collinsworth, and invite him into the shot. And that's where everything will take a left turn.

Because of coronavirus protocols that require him to maintain physical distance, Collinsworth won't "slide" into the frame with his customary smirk. "The slide," Michaels confirmed last week, "is on hold." And when it's time to throw it down to sideline reporter Michele Tafoya, viewers will find that she isn't on the sideline at all. Instead, Tafoya will be perched in the stands at Arrowhead Stadium, using binoculars for the first time in her career to make sure she catches all the action.

Like the league itself, NFL broadcasters have reimagined their operations in response to a coronavirus pandemic that once seemed to threaten the 2020 season. They hope to smooth the edges where possible, from incorporating curated crowd noise to minimizing shots of empty seats. But in some cases -- so long to the Collinsworth Slide -- the changes will be obvious.

"It's going to be different initially," said Lee Fitting, ESPN's senior vice president of production who oversees Monday Night Football. "But then like anything, in short order I think fans are going to get accustomed to it, similar to how they've gotten accustomed to the NBA, the NHL, the PGA Tour and Major League Baseball. There is always a little bit of a shock factor. But different doesn't mean worse. It just means different."

Let's take a look how different game broadcasts will be in 2020.

Replacing fan noise

The most obvious adjustment has been to compensate for the absence of in-stadium fans, who normally provide the natural and organic soundtrack for a game. All but five of the league's 32 teams have said they won't have fans at their first home games of the season, either by choice or in compliance with state and local regulations. (The Chiefs, who host the season opener at Arrowhead Stadium, are one of the five that will allow a reduced-capacity crowd.)

The NFL began working this spring on solutions after watching initial broadcasts of the Bundesliga, the German soccer league, which returned to the field in mostly empty stadiums.

"We have never talked more about German soccer in the NFL offices than we did in the first few weeks after they came back," said Onnie Bose, the league's vice president of broadcasting. "You had that sense of the emptiness of the space itself, and it was unnatural. In those Bundesliga examples, you heard the players. You heard the ball. It almost sounded like a tennis match. It was pretty interesting and unique, but it was jarring. And I think part of it for us became, how do you make the broadcast feel comfortable and what you're used to?"

As it turned out, NFL Films was prepared with an answer. Since 2016, it had been recording high-quality audio of fans in every NFL stadium for another project. Its audio team soon began assembling and organizing a customized track for each team, creating five levels of intensity to match distinctive events during a game. Level 2 might be appropriate for a 5-yard run on first down, for example, while Level 5 could be saved for a winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.

The NFL hired audio operators in each local market to manage a soundboard while watching the game from inside the stadium. The feed will be mixed into the broadcast, the league hopes, in a way that replicates what viewers normally hear from the home crowd in that particular stadium. There are no conventional booing options in the provided audio, but the operator will have available "a palette of negative reactions," Bose said, that are akin to a "smattering of boos."

The mix is separate from the crowd reactions that teams will be allowed to play in stadiums, but those cheers -- such as the Minnesota Vikings' SKOL chant, the Philadelphia Eagles' "Fly Eagles Fly" post-touchdown routine and the New York Jets' "J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets" chorus -- will likely seep into the secondary broadcast audio.

Broadcasters were appreciative of the help but are prepared to suggest tweaks if the audio doesn't reflect the flow of the game.

"I think it'll be as authentic as it possibly can be," said Fred Gaudelli, NBC's executive producer of Sunday Night Football. "I think it's going to sound like a Sunday night broadcast. I don't think there's any question about that. I'm very, very confident. ... I don't think the audience is going to notice a big difference."

Announcers will also hear the mix in their headsets, providing a subliminal guide to their own energy level.

Michaels isn't worried about it, having started his career calling San Francisco Giants baseball games in front of 3,000 fans. "I've got a lot of experience with this," he said. But Collinsworth spent time this offseason thinking about the energy fans usually provide and ultimately plans to follow Michaels' lead.

"For me, the hardest thing when I started broadcasting was the tone," Collinsworth said. "You know, when do you get excited? When are you in a conversation? When are you down? When are you up? To me that was the hardest part. It sounds ridiculous, but it was for me the hardest part. I'll give you one of my little secrets. When I started working with Al Michaels, I just now play follow the leader. Wherever he goes, I kind of go, because I think that tonewise, he has mastered the art."

'Visual mitigation of empty seats'

Wide shots of raucous stadium crowds are normally a staple of football broadcasts. On the other hand, ESPN's Fitting said, a frame of empty seats sends viewers a clear message: The game is over.

This season, networks will have to balance the realities of 2020 while avoiding unintentional invitations to change the channel.

"The less empty seats you can show, the better," Fitting said. "When I'm flipping around and I see a baseball game from the center-field camera angle, and I see empty seats from behind home plate, as opposed to cardboard cutouts, to me that's a turnoff. I think we've got to shy away from that. I think there is a story to tell there, but I don't think you overdo it."

Said Gaudelli: "There's certain things you're going to try to avoid to try to keep reminding people that there's nobody here and it looks really empty."

The NFL has offered a series of measures for what Bose called a "visual mitigation of empty seats." First, it has tarped most of the first seven or eight rows around the perimeter of every stadium to help with low-angle shots. Some teams are selling cardboard cutouts to place in seats, tying the purchase to charitable donations. And the league is providing a "fan mosaic," a live feed of team-specific fans, similar to the one it put on an LED screen in commissioner Roger Goodell's basement during the April draft.

Teams will be invited to put the feed on their in-stadium screens. Broadcasters who responded to questions for this story said they were unlikely to superimpose it on empty seats, but plan to cut to the fan reactions at appropriate times.

"We're going to experiment and try," Fitting said. "It's going to take a little bit of trial and error to find the right mix. I don't think you can overdo it, and I don't think it can be used in an overly fabricated way. It has to be in the right moments. But like a lot of things in this season, we're going to try it."

If anything, small or nonexistent crowds will provide some opportunities to innovate that wouldn't otherwise be available. Harold Bryant, the executive producer and senior vice president of production for CBS Sports, said that viewers can expect unique shots of the field.

"If we need to raise a camera," Bryant said, "we can do that to get a better angle on the field. In the past, we were concerned about blocking fans, so now without those fans in there, we can make adjustments. We've also added a few cameras. We can add a few more robotic cameras or cameras that normally would be in a position that fans would be in. We are adjusting without fans in the stands to get better angles and better shots."

Personnel location changes

The NFL's pandemic protocols have cut back dramatically on the number of people allowed on the field, even during pregame warm-ups. That includes sideline reporters and local camera crews, all of whom have been shifted to an area in the first row of the stands known as a "moat."

NBC's Tafoya joked that she will wear her running shoes so that she can move quickly from one end of the field -- and, in some cases, from one side of the field -- to the other. That could get tricky in some cases, said CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson.

"The biggest challenge for us," Wolfson said, "is getting from one sideline to the other and making sure we don't miss anything in that time period."

Interviews will be a technological challenge. On Monday Night Football, ESPN's Lisa Salters will speak to coaches from afar with a microphone and headset. On NBC, Tafoya said she will speak to some coaches by phone, while others will be led to a place near the tunnel where she can lean over a stadium rail. After the games, players and coaches will stand in front of a camera on the field and hear her over a headset, in some cases with access to the highlights they will be speaking about.

"It's going to feel strange," Tafoya said. "I'm going to do a lot of my information gathering leading up to the game, obviously, and some of the things I normally do on the field I won't be able to do. I don't know if it will evolve during the season, but I think it will. I think we expect a lot of things to change throughout the season. Maybe ... the access will change. In the meantime, I'm bringing binoculars to the game for the first time in my career. I want to be able to see things up close like I usually can."

While there are no known plans for primary announcers to call the games from remote locations, most networks have scaled back the number of people working the game on site. About a third of ESPN's production team will work remotely, as will officiating analyst John Parry, who will have a live video feed of the booth from his home studio to account for non-verbal communication with the announcing team of Steve Levy, Louis Riddick and Brian Griese.

Meanwhile, about a dozen members of NBC's Sunday night team opted out of working at or near stadiums. The biggest challenge moving forward, Gaudelli said, is keeping the remaining on-site staff healthy. NBC added a second production truck to account for proper physical distancing and, like other networks, is minimizing physical overlap of employees. Tafoya, for example, won't have access to the production truck for pregame meetings. Almost all meetings, including those with teams on the day before games, will be held virtually.

Viewership impact

The NFL season will open amid the most crowded sports television landscape in history. The NBA and NHL playoffs, pushed back by the pandemic, will continue into October. The PGA Tour will feature the U.S. Open later this month and the Masters in mid-November. The MLB and MLS seasons are underway. Three of the five Power 5 conferences in college football are attempting to play, and the possibility exists that the other two -- the Big Ten and Pac-12 -- could return during the NFL playoffs.

Combined with the United States presidential election, which in 2016 contributed to lower NFL ratings, it's fair to wonder how many eyes the league will draw during the regular season. Gaudelli said the sports calendar is bound to impact the NFL in some way. Ratings are difficult to predict, Fitting said, but added that he'll be "shocked" if NFL ratings recede after two consecutive seasons of 5% increases.

"The NFL is the NFL," Fitting said. "We all know that the NFL is king. Come Thursday night, and that Sunday and that Monday, there are going to be eyeballs on the television screen.

"Viewers continue to be so sports hungry. Now, they're going to be football hungry, too."