- Daily intrasquad games, not previously seen by fans, now being shown by numerous MLB teams
- Practice sessions draw sizable audiences on TV, online
- Games provide production crews dry runs in advance of regular season
A regional sports network airing live Major League Baseball intrasquad games, which don’t even rise to the level of actual exhibition games, much less regular season ones, and are instead simply a glorified version of team practice?
Welcome to US sports broadcasting in 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
With most American team sports still in the early stages of resuming competition during the public health crisis and fans still starved for original content, several RSNs in recent days have begun to show MLB team intrasquad games in advance of the league’s revised July 23 season start.
The New York Yankees’ YES Network is perhaps foremost among them, having started on July 3 showing multi-hour live coverage of the team’s revived Spring Training, branded around the league as Summer Camp presented by Camping World, continuing daily through this past week with intrasquad games, and set to last through the duration of preseason training.
YES has been joined in the trend by the Los Angeles Dodgers’ SportsNet LA, which has shown intrasquad games of that team over the past week. The televised RSN-based efforts have been supplemented by several more MLB clubs such as the Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers, and Seattle Mariners, among others, showing all or part of their intrasquad games live on digital and social media platforms, sometimes with the involvement of their RSN broadcasting talent.
For the YES Network, the effort in particular seeks to expand upon the “YES, We’re Here” alternate programming strategy from the early days of the pandemic in which the RSN developed a series of new content, such as live tweeted commentary of classic Yankees games, to help fill scheduling gaps.
And because of strict health and safety protocols stemming from the pandemic, which is still growing in strength in many parts of the US, the intrasquad game coverage relies heavily on technologies such as robotic cameras, remotely based announcers, and other RSN talent also contributing through Zoom videoconferencing.
“We’re building off of all we did with ‘YES, We’re Here,’ ” says John Filippelli, president of production and programming at YES Network. “We still want to be able to provide some relief to people during difficult times, and we’ve used that foundation to move to the next level, which is what we’re doing right now.”
In turn, the early practice games will help provide some key initial learnings toward broadcast production modifications that will ultimately be made for the regular season.
“You have to be open to experimenting and we certainly are,” Filippelli says.
Necessity as the mother of invention
The intrasquad game coverage began as a simple response to multiple needs. Not only were the RSNs still in need of fresh content in advance of the amended regular season start, but given nearly nine months have gone by since the last MLB game of consequence was played, fans were more starved than ever for any sort of baseball action.
“We still had a couple of weeks to work with before the exhibition games, and we said, ‘Why don’t we try putting on the intrasquad games, the [simulated] games, the practices,” Filippelli says. “We felt that our fan base would love to look behind the curtain. Usually they don’t get to see anything like that. And this would be a way to help satiate that appetite for live sports. It’s another vehicle to reach our fan base in times of difficulty.”
The level of production for the intrasquad games has varied widely among the teams. The YES Network has offered a fully developed show each day with multiple camera angles taken by robotic cameras, in-game player interviews, and broadcasting talent either contributing from the RSNs studio in Stamford, Connecticut or via Zoom. SportsNet LA has made similarly extensive efforts for its Dodgers coverage, stationing a trio of announcers at its El Segundo, California studios, one reporter at Dodger Stadium, and other commentators contributing remotely.
In each instance, the more loose nature of the intrasquad games have allowed announcers to not be rigorously tied to each pitch, and instead have veered into much broader and deeper discussions about the upcoming season and have been able to easily infuse the outside contributions and in-game interviews.
“You’re not a prisoner to the game, because the game is a backdrop to the conversations, and that’s what makes these broadcasts so unique,” Filippelli says. “The way we have been able to mix and match our talent the way we are, it’s a pretty interesting product.”
Other MLB clubs more focused on digital-only deployment of their intrasquad games have offered less developed productions that in some cases are as minimal as just a raw video feed with a single camera angle and no announcers.
“Though fans aren’t able to join the Crew in person at the moment, the Brewers are giving fans another inside look at the action inside Miller Mark, streaming the team’s situational scrimmage live,” said the Brewers upon announcing their daily intrasquad coverage.
But amid the widely varying levels of production effort, the intrasquad games have still found an audience. The YES Network has averaged 40,000 total viewers for its live telecasts and re-airs of its Summer Camp coverage, peaking at more than 60,000 viewers. It generated a peak rating in the New York market earlier this week of .57, again a sizable figure for what remains just a practice.
Digitally, the Dodgers generated more than 70,000 viewers for an intrasquad game that featured its fully produced efforts that mixed in studio talent and announcers. But even a raw feed of a Royals intrasquad game earlier this week that had no sound and a single camera angle fixed upon home plate attracted nearly 16,000 viewers.
“It’s been very well received,” Filippelli says of YES Network’s Summer Camp broadcasts. “We’re learning as we go. It’s uncharted waters for all of us. But so far, so good. And it’s been a lot of fun, and quite candidly, I’m really glad we got involved with this.”
Though the start of the 2020 MLB regular season is just two weeks away, there is still some uncertainty as to the exact rules and operational plans around TV and broadcast production presence at ballparks due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The broad construct within the sport’s new health and safety protocols calls for home teams to supply the video feed for each game that will be shown on both teams’ RSNs, with instructions to focus on both teams’ players. The home team announcers will be allowed to be on site at stadiums, with road teams announcers calling the games remotely.
From those road announcer crews, there will likely be a mix of scenarios where those crews either work from their RSN studio locations or back at the home team stadium in order to create additional social distancing from control booth personnel.
There are also plans around the league to pipe in ambient sound at many MLB ballparks to offer additional enhancement, both for players on site and for broadcast audiences.
Beyond that broad frame, though, the exact parameters of the number of on-site broadcast production personnel and where each staffer will be located remain in development.
“It’s a very fluid situation,” Filippelli says. “As the situation changes, we’re adapting as best we can. What is in place in today may change for tomorrow.”
One thing for certain, however, is a heightened sense of production experimentation, given the MLB season will begin without attending fans. That more open facility footprint will allow for the placement of new camera angles that otherwise would not be possible.
“We’re going to see what kind of angles we can get that are revealing and interesting that we couldn’t get before [with attending fans],” Filippelli says. “It’s obviously not an ideal situation, not having fans in attendance, but we’re going to see how we take advantage of the situation that’s been presented.”