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Some thoughts on Opening Weekend

Major League BaseballLike many of you, we binged on baseball this weekend, taking in the action during MLB’s Opening Weekend. Here are some thoughts on what we liked—and what we didn’t like.

We caught the action on a variety of broadcast outlets, including Fox, TBS and the local RSNs via app. First impression: the games looked great. Whether it was the across-the-board commitment to true high-def broadcasting and the necessary bandwidth or just better circumstances, the look of a game broadcast has appreciably approved. MLB and the 21 regional sports networks overhauled how they approach game broadcasts: The RSNs produced a single video feed shared by both home and away teams, both to simplify things and to cut down the number of personnel needed to produce a game feed, the better for social distancing. The RSNs could also tap into the point-of-view cameras set up by at the ballparks, providing plenty of player closeups and ambiance shots.

Simulated crowd noise also worked in the broadcasts. It provided a steady background and never seemed to intrude in the game flow. It also seemed to provide some guidance for the broadcasters, many of whom faced the challenge of calling a game from a studio or home from multiple game feeds. MLB had announced visiting teams would not be bringing their broadcast teams on the road, but the Twins brought along Corey Prevus, Dan Gladden and Marney Gellner to Guaranteed Rate Field. Gladden managed to amuse himself in the booth:

What didn’t work: augmented-reality fans. TBS wisely passed on the augmented-reality technology implemented by Fox, which we wrote about last week. Smart move: the fans in the stands didn’t really look like fans in the stands, but rather fuzzy approximations of fans in the stands. This was really apparent on Saturday’s Brewers/Cubs game at Wrigley Field, a pretty decent game that didn’t need a whole lot of gimmickry. Perhaps the worst moment of that broadcast: a fuzzy black-and-white image of the late Harry Caray singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” to virtual fans in the outfield bleachers. Showing a clip of Caray during the Seventh-Inning Stretch would have been a nice, sentimental move; it didn’t need the terrible augmented reality. (Yes, we know we’re a little inconsistent in signing off on simulated crowd noise and criticizing augmented-reality fans.)

It’s also debatable whether the fan cutouts in the stands worked, either. We know we’re watching the broadcast of a game played without fans, and at times the cutouts could be a little intrusive. On a marketing level, MLB teams sold the cutouts to maintain fan interest, not necessarily to gussy up game broadcasts. Yes, it was a little amusing to see a Muppet in the stands, but in the end they didn’t add much to the game broadcasts.

You can view Opening Weekend as a test run for what we’ll see the rest of the year in terms of camera angles and broadcast operations. We may also see some additional refinements, such as live Zoom calls to project fan reactions, though nothing on the scale that the NBA is launching for its season broadcasts later this week.

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