Mic’d up players an advantage for curling bubble broadcast experience

Cardboard fan cutouts. Artificial crowd noise. In-house big screens.

The curling broadcast experience in the fan-free Calgary bubble may borrow some new features from other sports that have come back in the pandemic. But viewers can still expect the familiar look that they have grown accustomed to with curling coverage.

The Roaring Game already has a critical broadcasting asset in place. Player microphones are worn for games on TSN and Sportsnet, a feature that’s particularly valuable given the dearth of natural sound in an empty arena.

“You still get that intimacy between the viewer and the curler because you can hear the dialogue,” said Sportsnet’s Rob Corte. “So I think it will come across very well.”

Without the regular buzz of the crowd and the cheers and groans over the course of a game, those athlete conversations will provide an audio anchor along with on-site broadcast crew commentary.

TSN will broadcast the first four events at the Markin MacPhail Centre, starting Feb. 20 with the Scotties Tournament of Hearts. Sportsnet takes over with two Grand Slam events (dates TBA) after the world men’s curling championship wraps on April 11.

With more room in the stands, large video screens will help boost the visual component. Banners may cover seat sections and cardboard cutouts with fan pictures will likely be scattered around the rink.

Roughly the same number of staffers, technicians and cameras will be used at Canada Olympic Park as were at previous events, said TSN Curling senior producer Scott Higgins. The four-sheet facility has an Olympic-sized ice surface, allowing for a little more workspace.

“We’re going to take full advantage,” Higgins said. “We’re not going to be blocking people in the seats so it might allow us to have a little bit more movement within the field of play. It’s going to look nice and clean.”

There will also be more flexibility for different camera angles and possible experimentation. The two main hurdles, Higgins said, will be the lack of spectator sound and the broadcasters’ limited interaction with the athletes.

“The announcers and the curlers, they feed off the fans in the seats,” Higgins said. “Without having those, that’s going to present a challenge for us.”

Broadcasters normally chat with players, coaches and others at the rink to get a feel for potential storylines. They will have to try alternate communication methods instead.

Silence could affect how intensity is portrayed

When play begins, it may take some time — for broadcasters and viewers alike — to get used to intense moments being played in a hushed setting.

“That’s going to be so strange,” said TSN broadcaster Cheryl Bernard. “I think it’s going to have to come more from the booth, from within us, the excitement in our voices because we’re really the eyes to the fans that can’t physically be there at that event.

“So we’re going to have to feed that excitement through a lot more.”

From a player perspective, Ontario skip John Epping said it will feel odd to make a game-winning shot attempt in a spectator-free environment.

“Usually the crowd goes nuts and you celebrate with your team, your family, your friends are all there,” he said. “That’s going to totally feel different and not the same.

“But I still want to win the Brier just as much if there’s thousands of people there or even if there’s nobody there. I still want to win it just as bad.”

Fake crowd noise being discussed

From a logistics standpoint, camera operators and others who work in the field of play will be grouped in the bubble with the athletes, Higgins said. Other staffers will stay in a separate zone.

After returning last year from a pause due to the pandemic, sports like hockey and baseball incorporated fake crowd noise to boost the energy with somewhat mixed results.

Making things more difficult for curling is that four games are usually being played at the same time, instead of just a single contest. It could become more of an option when the competition gets down to single-sheet play in the playoffs.

“It’s a discussion point, absolutely,” said Corte, vice-president of Sportsnet and NHL Production. “We don’t have a final answer but that’s something that’s being discussed.”

Corte, who also guided Sportsnet’s production in the NHL bubbles last summer in Toronto and Edmonton, said the network is also planning on-site broadcast crews at the Slams.

Higgins, meanwhile, is planning to debrief with the TSN production crew that handled the world junior hockey championship in the Edmonton bubble.

“We may introduce a couple of things [at the curling] but I wouldn’t say anything that’s major,” he said.

The Scotties will be followed by the Tim Hortons Brier and Canadian mixed doubles championship in March. The world men’s championship is set for early April ahead of the two Grand Slams.

“This is exactly what we wanted to happen,” Epping said. “We wanted a bubble, we want curling to be on TV. We think it’s not only big for us, it’s big for all the fans and people that love the sport.”

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