TORONTO — Just like the teams they follow, radio broadcast crews around the NHL and NBA are essentially back to normal after a couple years of pandemic-related challenges.
A few outliers remain on the travel front, however — and almost all are in Canadian markets.
Radio broadcast crews for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames, and Vancouver Canucks are not on site for road games this season. The English radio crew for the Montreal Canadiens also remains grounded.
Remote coverage that was previously a necessity due to travel restrictions has become the new normal for radio broadcasters who are being told to stay home and call road games off a screen.
"It's not perfect, far from it, I'm somewhat embarrassed that we're not there," said longtime Maple Leafs radio broadcaster Joe Bowen. "But that's the situation that it is. So we're trying to do the best we can under what we feel are some difficult circumstances."
In the NBA, the Toronto Raptors are also sticking with remote radio coverage for road games.
TSN, a Bell Media property, and Sportsnet, part of a subsidiary of Rogers Communications, split radio coverage for both the Raptors and the Maple Leafs.
A Sportsnet spokesperson declined to comment on radio coverage decisions. Messages left with a TSN spokesperson were not immediately returned.
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., the parent company for both teams, declined to comment.
"COVID presented lots of challenges for the league, including for our broadcasters," Gary Meagher, the NHL's senior executive vice-president of communications, said in an email. "They adapted to calling games remotely for the better part of two seasons with a dedication to their craft.
"While 95 per cent of our broadcasters are now back to calling games in-arena, we know that the handful of radio crews that are still calling games remotely are providing their fans with the unmatched professionalism to which they are accustomed."
Meagher said Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Montreal (French only) were the four Canadian teams that had radio crews on site at road games. He added "a few" U.S.-based teams were providing TV simulcasts on radio for road broadcasts.
In the NBA, Jim LaBumbard, the league's senior director of basketball communications, said 28 of the 30 teams have radio crews on site at road games.
The Orlando Magic — who also use a simulcast — are the only U.S.-based team without a travelling radio crew, he said via email.
Broadcaster Paul Romanuk, who has called hockey and Raptors games over his career and made remote calls for Olympic coverage, said there is much to be gained by in-person staffing.
When a call is made from a screen, Romanuk said, the radio crew is simply limited in its ability to deliver the best possible product.
"You can't look down at the bench and see if a player is hurting after he blocked a shot," he said. "You can't see if a player has gone to the dressing room. You can't see if the coach is walking down to have a word with a player. You can't see if a couple players are mixing it up behind the play. You miss all of that.
"You also might miss the odd line change. You can't do as good of a job. You can't be as precise."
For the NHL, Corus Entertainment-owned radio stations CJOB (Winnipeg) and CHED (Edmonton) are rights-holders in those markets. Cogeco Media owns the French-language Habs station (98.5) in Montreal and Ottawa's games are on Bell Media-owned TSN1200.
Sportsnet has the rights in Calgary (SN960) and Vancouver (SN650) while TSN (690) has the rights for Montreal's English radio broadcast.
"It's a lot harder for those radio broadcasters who are not physically there because they're trying to communicate things that they're not necessarily feeling," said Mike Naraine, a sport management assistant professor at Brock University.
"So if they don't feel it and it's not verbally expressed through the radio broadcast, it may not feel as real to the end consumer."
Bowen, who has called Maple Leafs games for more than four decades, goes to the east-Toronto TSN studio and downtown Sportsnet studio to voice the road games from the same feed a viewer gets at home.
"It's a challenge, it really is," Bowen said. "In my humble estimation, it's not the right way to do it but the powers that be at present believe — I guess it's a cost-cutting measure of some sort — so this is what we're doing and we're trying to do the best we can under the circumstances."
A broadcaster's vantage point is one of the more important parts of in-person staffing, but there can be many benefits.
Radio crews feel the atmosphere when thousands of fans have packed a venue and that vibe can be noticeable on air. Interaction with athletes and coaches at morning skates or shootarounds can also be invaluable for on-air story fodder and news nuggets.
"It's a necessity to be on the road, it just is," said Paul Edmonds, who does play-by-play for the Jets on CJOB. "To do your job properly and then also to do it I think with all of the integrity that you want to have on your broadcast, broadcasters in radio have to be on the road in my opinion."
Many clubs allow radio broadcasters to join them on team charters. Other crews, however, have to navigate commercial flights and potentially longer stays in road cities, which can hike the travel bills.
In-person staffing also prevents any snafus that may arise when a host feed goes down or the broadcaster's screen freezes or has glitches.
"Are you going to do a good job (remotely) if you're a good broadcaster? Yes, you are going to do your best. However, it's your best in that situation," said Romanuk, a radio instructor at Toronto's College of Sports Media.
"Your best is being in the building, in the town, picking up the energy from the crowd and being a part of the whole show, if you will. That's your best. You're being put in a position to do your best work. You're not being put in a position to do your best work if you're being asked to come in and do it off a studio (monitor)."
"I think that it just comes down to what does the company that owns the rights, what's most important to them?" he added. "Is the most important thing saving money or is the most important thing delivering the best possible show to their audience?"
In Major League Baseball, the Rogers-owned Toronto Blue Jays used remote coverage on Sportsnet 590 earlier this year before resuming in-person road radio coverage for the second half of the season.
With the 2022-23 NHL and NBA seasons just a few weeks old, it's possible that radio coverage changes could be made later in the respective campaigns.
"It's sad because it's not the way it should be," Romanuk said. "I believe at the end of the day, in all of it, I think it's the audience that's being let down the most, whether or not they realize it."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 11, 2022.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press