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The thud of basketballs punctuated the curated hype-up music that blared throughout the convocation center. The Eastern Michigan Women’s Basketball team was about to square off for an exciting game against the Western Michigan Broncos on Wednesday Feb. 24. At the scorers' table, the statisticians prepared their equipment to record every foul, point and minute detail of the upcoming contest. Directly across from them sat a ball boy who had the sole task of cleaning and sanitizing the basketballs used for the game. Photographers and media personnel lined a table at the very edge of the court, ready to do their due diligence in capturing pictures of the players and firing out tweets to highlight the game’s best plays.
Higher in the empty stands, ESPN’s broadcast crew prepared itself to broadcast the coming game. The voice of the broadcast being provided by ESPN commentator Ryan Wooley.
Wooley has experienced firsthand what COVID means for sports broadcasting. He has contributed to ESPN’s broadcasts of the Eastern Michigan Men’s and Women’s basketball teams for years, and this season has turned out to be like no other. Specifically when preparing for a Feb. 3 contest between the Eagles’ Women’s Basketball team versus Toledo.
“I spent the better part of four hours Tuesday preparing normally for a Wednesday game,” he said. “I'd start preparing on a Monday, but it was up in the air whether we’d have a game.”
“I texted Greg [Steiner] Tuesday morning, he said ‘it's status quo as of now.' So I'm like, ‘Alright, I'm gonna start preparing,’” Wooley said. “I got all my stuff prepared, sent it to the production truck, and they sent all the graphics back.”
Wooley’s routine would grind to an unfortunate halt the next day. “Wednesday morning, I got a text message about eleven o'clock, saying that it looks like the game may be off tonight, and then forty-five minutes later it was confirmed.”
Ashlee Buhler is ESPN’s commentator for Eastern Michigan gymnastics and is the host of the All Things Gymnastics Podcast. She has seen decreased access to players before every game, although her job for the most part hasn’t changed drastically.
“I can't go into the gym. So all my interactions have to be through phone or zoom. It's kind of become the new norm nowadays,” Buhler said.
Postgame interviews have presented her with a new challenge, since athletes and coaches need to stay as insulated as possible from any potential contaminant sources. “If we interview an athlete, we have to do it across the arena. we sit where we are when we're commentating, and the athletes are on the other side of the arena,” Buhler said. “We're not really able to communicate the way you normally would, because there's so much distance between you.”
The Eagles’ athletic department has seen its fair share of change as well. Mary Gasior is an assistant director of athletic media productions, and she has experienced firsthand the changes the department has had to go through since last march.
“We had to work on Zoom, through phone calls, and text messages,” she said. “That was something we had to adapt to.”
Things have since stabilized for the department, allowing for limited in-person work. “We take COVID very seriously with the safety precautions and the procedures where we wear masks and socially distance,” she said. “We still rely on Zoom and emails a lot.”
Jorge Cerdas-Elizondo is a member of the mellophone section of the Eastern Michigan Basketball Pep-Band, and he has found that creating juice for Eagles’ teams is quite different.
“We're completely spaced out to keep proper social distancing,” he said. “When we play, everyone is required to have a mask with a little slit in it to play their instrument.”
Making music with their mouths constrained hasn’t gone smoothly for the group. “For lots of people, that’s a big struggle, because some people can't breathe with the cloth over their mouths,” he said.