'Match the moment': Thunder broadcast team embraces challenge of calling games remotely
Michael Cage used to mute his TV when he watched games. As an aspiring broadcaster following a 15-year playing career, Cage wanted to hear himself call the action.
“I would just practice, practice, practice,” he said.
Because of the pandemic, those remote broadcasts of the past are now reality instead of rehearsals.
Cage and TV play-by-play partner Chris Fisher will call Thunder games from 1,300 miles away beginning Friday, when the Thunder plays its first of three scrimmages at Disney World before the Aug. 1 season restart.
The Thunder broadcast team will at least be in a familiar environment.
Sitting six feet apart, Cage and Fisher will share a mid-court desk at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Nick Gallo and Paris Lawson will complement the broadcast as sideline reporters. Matt Pinto, the Thunder’s radio voice, will call the game from an arena suite. A handful of masked crew members will be downtown with them, and a mobile production truck will be on site, but the 18,000-seat arena will otherwise be empty.
Fisher and Cage, who will wear polos instead of suits to match the relaxed setting, will follow the game on screens like fans at home — though their setup will be far more sophisticated.
“This might be a dirty secret for me,” Fisher said, “but in some of these NBA arenas, when we get moved up, or we have a bad angle in terms of our vantage point, there are times when I have to look at the monitor where I feel like I'm getting a better view or better vision to broadcast that particular play … I think I'm gonna rely on that experience a little bit to try to get me through this.”
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Producer Steve Melton and director Eric Date will coach and quarterback the broadcast, as they normally do, from the truck.
Melton is in charge of a fluid game script. During dead balls, Melton coordinates with Cage about which replays Cage wants to analyze. Melton gives Fisher queues for which promotions to read and when to go to commercial breaks.
“I probably talk more in that two and half hours than these guys do on the air,” Melton said. “Only difference is they're talking to thousands, sometimes even millions of people, and I'm talking to somewhere between 12 and 15 people all at once.”
Date directs the camera operators, telling them what, when and where to shoot.
“It's coordinated,” Date said, “but it's also chaos at the same time.”
Camera feeds, Date said, will be the biggest difference between a normal game and the games inside the Disney World bubble. Date will be in communication with one on-site camera operator, and ESPN and TNT will provide a “clean feed” of the game, but the Thunder won’t have the same control over its broadcast as it does when the crew normally travels to every game.
Travel parties for the 22 teams in Orlando were limited to 37 people, which meant broadcasters were left behind.
“While there's so many logistical and technical challenges, I think it also provides such an interesting dynamic to the way we can do games,” Melton said. “You'd never in a million years have an opportunity for your announcers to literally be sitting at midcourt of the arena and calling a game. I think we all embrace the challenge and the difference of it.”
The Thunder’s first two scrimmages, Friday against the Celtics and Sunday against the 76ers, will be streamed on the Thunder’s website and the Thunder Mobile App. The third and final scrimmage, next Tuesday against the Trail Blazers, will be broadcast on Fox Sports Oklahoma.
“By the time we get to that third game, that Fox game, even though it's still a scrimmage, it's gonna help us tighten the nuts and bolts as we get closer to opening up on Aug. 1,” Cage said.
Each of the Thunder’s eight seeding games will air on Fox Sports Oklahoma, as will the Thunder’s first-round playoff games.
“The NBA recognized right away that they had to provide the opportunity for the local broadcasters to have the games,” said Dan Mahoney, Thunder vice president of broadcasting and corporate communications.
Not every team broadcast will have the same home arena setup as the Thunder. But with no scheduling conflicts at Chesapeake Energy Arena, the oversized yet familiar location made the most sense.
“There's just sort of a natural feel to it as opposed to being in a studio where you feel like you're broadcasting in a phone booth, and it feels somewhat muzzled and you can't really project,” Fisher said. “I think it's more of a psychological thing for me being in the arena.”
While the voices of Fisher and Cage might echo through a quiet gym, the broadcast will contain signature sounds of an NBA game. Music will be played at the three Disney World venues, and Mahoney said the league asked teams to provide recorded in-arena sound.
The goal is to recreate an authentic game environment.
The challenge Fisher and Cage will face is matching their calls to the appropriate moments of when a crowd might erupt.
“At some point these are gonna be playoff games,” Fisher said, “and so I do feel a responsibility there to match the moment, to elevate, to make sure that the emotion is there even if the fans necessarily aren't.”
Rather than hiding the fact that Fisher and Cage aren’t in Orlando to call the action, Mahoney said the Thunder is “leaning into it.” Fisher and Cage, who will also be part of pregame, halftime and postgame shows, will likely be shown even more than usual on the Fox Sports Oklahoma broadcasts. If that weren’t the case, Melton and Date agreed most viewers would not know the broadcast wasn’t live from Orlando.
Cage recently rewatched a Thunder-Mavericks game, and Fisher said he’s reviewed every Thunder game during the break of four and a half months.
But on Friday the broadcast crew will be back at Chesapeake Energy Arena to call a new game, in the same spot the season was suspended.
Everything else, though, will be different.
“Once the ball goes up,” Cage said, “we’re just doing our job.”
Friday: Celtics, 4 p.m., Thunder Mobile App/okcthunder.com
Sunday: 76ers, 11 a.m., Thunder Mobile App/okcthunder.com
July 28: Trail Blazers, 5 p.m., Fox Sports Oklahoma