Brian Anderson was ready. It was Thursday, March 11th, and he was still planning to broadcast the first two games of the Big Ten Tournament for Big Ten Network.
The twist: it would be without fans.
He had broadcasted an NBA game in San Antonio two days prior and was aware of the new social distancing protocols for players and coaches. He flew to Indianapolis still expecting to call the games.
Early that morning, Anderson walked into Bankers Life Fieldhouse, which had an eerie feeling to it. An arena that can hold 20,000 people would hold maybe a couple hundred of close team personnel and family. He and BTN’s sideline reporter, Andy Katz, were both wondering why they were playing games at all. The night before, the NBA had canceled its season after Rudy Gobert, a forward for the Utah Jazz, tested positive for COVID-19.
“I was stunned that we were going to play,” Anderson remembers. “But at the same time, I have a job to do and I’m representing Big Ten Network, so I prepared as if I was going to do a game.”
The only difference in how the game was prepped for was technical. Where would BTN put its microphones? How would they handle profanity? Anderson’s biggest concern was free throw shooting. If there is a limited amount of people in the stands, would the players hear the broadcasters sitting courtside while they’re trying to shoot free throws? Would the broadcasters accidentally get in the players’ heads?
Anderson and BTN had discussed broadcasting from higher up in the arena, or even back in the studio in Chicago. After some pregame tests to see what they could and couldn’t hear from the court, they stayed courtside.
Anderson moved on with his normal pregame routine, with Michigan and Rutgers set to tip at noon. The players came out to warmup. The BTN crew, Anderson included, interviewed both Steve Pikiell, Rutgers’s head coach, and Juwan Howard, Michigan’s head coach.
During Anderson’s interview with Howard, the head coach shared concerns he and his players had for brushing up against others and the possibility of having the virus present. They were also worried about a quarantine, similar to what happened with the Jazz the night before, their teams forced to spend hours in their locker room before being tested and cleared to leave late in the night.
“Basketball seemed so secondary at that point,” Anderson said of that moment.
Even with all of these concerns – from Anderson, Katz and Howard – the game was still on. BTN started its pregame show at 11:30 a.m. Katz was prepared to go for a sideline hit shortly after. Anderson had his headset on and his spotting boards in front of him. He was ready.
Then the news hit.
Anderson found out not from a Big Ten representative, not from the conference commissioner, but from a referee. Bo Boroski, one of the officials scheduled to call the first game, walked over to Anderson about 15 minutes before the scheduled tip.
“That’s it,” he said. “We’re banged. We’re canceled.”
“It’s kind of like that 9-11 moment,” Ted Emrich, a broadcaster for ESPN and Westwood One, said.
The news rippled through the broadcasting community, and suddenly, one of the busiest sports months of the year went silent.
Emrich was at home with his family in Dallas when he heard the news. Mike Couzens, a play-by-play announcer for ESPN, was picking up sticks in his yard after a windstorm the night before. Jeremiah Johnson, the sideline reporter for the Pacers on Fox Sports Indiana, was at his son’s middle school band concert. John Nolan, play-by-play broadcaster for the Fort Wayne Tincaps, was in his office. Jon Crispin, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, was in studio.
Everyone remembers what they were doing and where they were when the sports world stopped.
“The word surreal is thrown around far too often,” Emrich said. “That word fits this situation. That is the apt description for what we have here. It’s like you’re in an alternate reality.”
All week, the sports world was preparing for the most exciting time of the year. It was Championship Week for college basketball. The NCAA Tournament was up next. The Masters and the NBA playoffs were on the horizon.
In a span of 24 hours, there was nothing left.
“It went from fifth gear to park really quickly,” Crispin said.
The men’s NCAA Tournament was set to start March 17. MLB’s opening day was scheduled for March 26. The Masters was set for April 9-12. The NBA playoffs would begin in mid-April.
“It’s one of the busiest times of the year for me,” Emrich said. He would normally be calling a few tournament games, some high school basketball, then The Masters.
“It’s my busiest time of the year, for sure,” Anderson echoed. He would be calling the tournament games, MLB for the Milwaukee Brewers, then the NBA Playoffs. Anderson estimates that March and April normally feature 50-60 broadcasts, about a third of his yearly count.
Same for Crispin, who would have been calling NCAA Tournament games for Westwood One along with studio shows for ESPN.
“It was almost like there was no closure,” Crispin said. “It’s like getting broken up with in a multiple-year relationship over Facebook.”
With no games to play, there were no games to call. Thousands of play-by-play announcers were silenced.
So what’s next?
Broadcasters are now landscapers, carpenters, runners, fathers and husbands.
Emrich is normally gone for a 13-day stretch from April 1-13, but instead, he enjoyed dinner at home every night with his family.
He and his three-year-old daughter got creative, building magnetic towers and structures. It took him about a week to collect himself, but he’s focused on enjoying time with his daughter that he wouldn’t have had otherwise.
He’s also trying to help others. He sent out a tweet on March 13, explaining how he wanted to help young, aspiring broadcasters during this time. He asked people to send him their demos for him to listen to and give critiques.
Crispin has taken this time to be away from sports. He grew out a beard, walked his dog and redid his entire backyard.
“I’m like a landscaper now,” Crispin said.
His wife is due any day now with their first child, so he has taken it upon himself to be the unofficial house chef. He has made filet mignon tacos, fish tacos, breakfast casseroles, and more.
“I’m gonna disconnect, I’m gonna be home, I’m gonna be present, I’m gonna be the husband and future father of the year,” he said.
Couzens has said yes to every podcast or interview request that has come his way. He’s also realizing there’s more to life than sports.
He has started to read books he thought he’d never get to. He’s also taking free online courses through the Ivy League. His class of choice: world religion. He says he’s never been bored during the pandemic, which he sees as a good thing.
“When sports are gone, what do we have that makes our life fulfilling?” Couzens asked himself.
Johnson was the only one in his family without a bike, so he bought one and joined the family on long bike rides. His wife doubted him, but he and the family rode 11 miles. He rewarded himself and the family with ice cream.
“We went through a Dairy Queen drive thru on our bikes,” Johnson said. “I guess that’s pretty quarantine-esque.”
He says his wife still has more things for him to do around the house. He went through his closet and cleaned out his clothes and gave them to Goodwill, something he never thought he would have the time to do in March. He’s also planning to clean the basement, an item on his to-do list for the past couple years.
Nolan is running outdoors, something he has done consistently in a long time. He’s also using home videos and turning them into play-by-play calls of late-second magic on Twitter.
Anderson has found a way to give back. He doubles as the Milwaukee Brewers’ play-by-play voice, and got the word that a young Brewers fan was about to turn 11 years old. Typically, he would celebrate with a trip to a Brewers game. That wouldn’t happen this spring, so Anderson decided to help him out.
He put on his sport coat and tie and recorded a broadcast around a home video the mom sent in of the young fan and his brother playing pick-up basketball. Anderson included an open, play-by-play, and then a closing video, all from the sound studio he built himself in his basement during the quarantine.
“I’ve really tried to serve where I can,” Anderson said. “Instead of getting selfish and feeling bored and upset and frustrated about not doing games and my job, I’ve just tried to replace that with some service.”
Broadcasters are rediscovering there are many other important things in life besides sports. Couzens lives by a saying he heard in college from a local radio host in Syracuse, NY.
“Love your life, like your sports.”
Sports will be back. So will all these broadcasters.
Emrich stressed to those who are struggling through this time of no sports, it’s only temporary. We have to lean on each other.
Everyone is trying to do their part. Not everyone can help firsthand in hospitals or nursing homes. For broadcasters, they are just trying to do what the rest of us are doing, spend quality time with the family. When this is over, they’ll be ready to return to work, and when that day comes, they’ll do what they do best.
“We’re going to be back,” Emrich said, “and I can’t wait to get back in that booth to play my small role in it.”