2021 Figures To Be A Rough Year Ahead For Minor League Broadcasters
Minor league broadcasters may never be more important than they are in 2021.
With attendance restrictions at ballparks around the country, fans who can’t get tickets will have to rely on radio, TV and internet broadcasts as their primary way to keep up with the home team for games when they can’t get a ticket.
But sometimes that broadcast may not be there. Or it may seem oddly disjointed. Some minor league teams have laid off their broadcaster, looking to cut costs in a brutal economic year. Other teams are scaling back to only broadcast home games.
And with coronavirus restrictions, many others will not be allowed to travel on the road, instead broadcasting those games either from MiLB.TV feeds or by re-creating the game while using the play-by-play.
It’s a pretty grim year to be a minor league baseball broadcaster.
“I think unfortunately there are a lot of organizations viewing these positions as expendable and not necessary to their operations,” Erie broadcaster Greg Gania said. “I’ve built my career on this. It’s my life and my livelihood. To see teams that see this as a cut instead of finding ways to make it work is pretty discouraging to see.”
Gania is one of the fortunate ones. As an assistant general manager for the SeaWolves, he’s an integral part of Erie’s front office and is slated to broadcast every game, home and away.
But he won’t be greeting many of his compatriots when other teams come to Erie, Pa.
Traditionally, broadcasters travel with the team and stay in the team hotel. Major League Baseball’s coronavirus guidelines for minor league teams will not permit anyone other than “covered personnel” to travel and stay with the team. The number of “covered personnel” will be strictly limited. That means, with a few potential exceptions, broadcasters will not be allowed to travel with the team.
That doesn’t mean that broadcasters can’t travel. They are allowed to travel on their own and secure their own hotel rooms. But coming off a year when minor league teams lost significant amounts of money, many teams are reluctant to foot the bill for independent road travel, whether by car (doable in many leagues) or air (a necessity in the sprawling Triple-A West League).
For those who aren’t allowed to travel, the past couple of months have been filled with plenty of ad-hoc email threads and Zoom calls as broadcasters from various leagues have gathered to try to figure out how best to navigate this highly unusual year.
There are so many fine details to navigate. Figuring out how to get the live sounds of the ballpark to the visiting team’s broadcaster is key—because without the sounds of the ballpark, a game sounds lifeless.
A number of teams are looking to set up a private stream, whether on YouTube or elsewhere, with a computer at the ballpark to provide the crack of the bat and the cheers of the crowd.
“Three weeks before the season, everyone is scrambling. No one has a way to do it yet,” one Triple-A broadcaster said. “We still don’t have anyone to address this issue. It’s going to be a disaster for most of these broadcasts as far as sound goes.”
But that’s only one hurdle. Syncing up that live sound with a broadcaster hundreds of miles away is not going to be easy. Layered on top of that, dodgy press box internet connections could create buffering that would destroy that synchronization.
The sound may be the easy part. How do you broadcast a game when you can’t see what’s going on?
Many games in various sports have been broadcast remotely over the past year during the coronavirus pandemic. But as multiple broadcasters noted, it’s one thing to broadcast a major league game with many camera angles and a top-notch production.
The same is not true of minor league productions. Sometimes MiLB.TV camera operators struggle to follow the ball or even show the umpire’s call. Other times the director will oddly cut to fans during the action.
Here’s a play-by-play broadcaster’s nightmare. A ball is hit into the right-center field gap, the outfielder lays out and either catches the ball or traps it. The camera tracks the outfielder, then cuts to one of the managers clapping. Then it cuts to the pitcher getting the ball and getting ready to pitch.
All this time, the visiting broadcaster is left stalling, because there’s no way to know if the umpire ruled the ball was caught or if it was a hit.
Or there’s a bang-bang play at first base. The broadcast doesn’t show the umpire, so the broadcaster can’t see if the baserunner is ruled out or safe. Or there’s a fly ball to the outfield with two runners on base, there’s no way to know if the runners advanced—or even if one scored—if the camera doesn’t show them.
“I can make up a home run call,” one veteran minor league broadcaster said. “What I can’t do is interpret video that doesn’t have all the elements. If you can’t see the umpire, you are missing too many pieces of information to describe what you’re seeing.”
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The problems are amplified at the lower levels of the minors. Many Class A teams don’t have MiLB.TV feeds, so some broadcasters will rely on the live play-by-play produced for every minor league team. That means they might have to rely on re-creations much like what they used to do many years ago throughout the major and minor leagues.
The lack of in-person interaction between broadcasters and the players and coaches will also make it difficult to gather the kind of behind-the-scenes insights that help broadcasts flow over three hours a night. The tidbits that pepper a broadcast are usually gathered during hours spent on the bus and around the batting cage or clubhouse.
This year, broadcasters aren’t allowed to have in-person contact with the team unless they are a covered employee.
None of this is ideal. The hope is that coronavirus restrictions will be eased as vaccination rates grow and, hopefully, infection rates drop.
But there is a bigger fear than just a few rough road broadcasts. Many worry that once minor league teams survive a year without spending to send broadcasters on the road, they will balk at spending that money again.
“The fear among a lot of broadcasters is if the powers-that-be see they can get through the season only doing home games and see cost savings to the club,” Gania said, “what decisions will they want to make about this side of the industry?
“Clearly, MLB values the broadcast on the minor league side. There seems like a disconnect from MLB Advanced Media and MLB properties and them seeing value in this and that getting lost among minor league GMs.”
It’s even worse with teams that are opting to eliminate their broadcasts entirely. There are significant costs to send a broadcaster on the road, and there often are costs involved with broadcasting on the radio. But at this point, broadcasting an internet-only stream is effectively free other than the cost of paying the broadcaster, who often makes less than $1,000 per month.
That idea has many worried that the next wave of MLB broadcasters may find their development thwarted.
“One of the things all comedians say is their time at 1 a.m. at the comedy clubs honing their skills and figuring out what lands makes them the people they are today,” White Sox/ESPN broadcaster Jason Benetti said. “I feel very similarly about minor league baseball.”
Benetti worked in the minor leagues with High-A Salem and Triple-A Syracuse before becoming a major league broadcaster.
“I know in that iteration in Salem and in Syracuse in 2009 and 2010, I wasn’t ready to be an MLB baseball announcer,” Benetti said. “I wasn’t good enough. I was working on something every game.
“I was not a good announcer. There were foundational pieces. (The minor leagues) are an opportunity to learn what kind of a storyteller (you) are, to make mistakes and figure out what works and what doesn’t.”