People walk on the Dunsmuir Viaduct as large photographs of Vancouver Canucks players Jacob Markstrom, Jake Virtanen, Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and Elias Pettersson are seen on the outside of Rogers Arena, home to the NHL hockey team, in Vancouver, on Monday, June 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

People walk on the Dunsmuir Viaduct as large photographs of Vancouver Canucks players Jacob Markstrom, Jake Virtanen, Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and Elias Pettersson are seen on the outside of Rogers Arena, home to the NHL hockey team, in Vancouver, on Monday, June 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Sportsnet considering computer-generated imagery, pumped-in noise if NHL resumes

The NHL paused the regular season March 12

Rogers Sports & Media president Jordan Banks said he’s determined to give viewers the energy and real-time reaction of a regular NHL broadcast if hockey resumes play in empty arenas this summer.

He didn’t tip his hand on specifics during a media conference call Monday, but did say Sportsnet is considering options that are “technologically driven” to create the most exciting presentation possible.

“There might be some CGI in there, there might be some pumped-in noise, there might be other forms of caricatures or emojis,” Banks said. “We’re working through all of that in real time. I think what we’re going to see is it’s obviously going to be different.

“But some of the initial prototypes that I’ve seen are actually pretty exciting and really do bring you back to, ‘Hey, I’m watching a game and there are fans cheering and that in turn makes me feel like I’m part of the game.’”

With fan attendance a non-starter due to the COVID-19 pandemic, broadcasters from around the globe have experimented with artificial crowd noise to help improve the viewing experience.

When the Bundesliga resumed last month, German broadcasters started offering TV viewers a choice between live sound from empty stadiums or a soundtrack of recorded fan chants mixed by a producer to accompany the action.

Video games company EA Sports is supplying similar crowd noise, drawn from its own archive of recordings, for soccer broadcasts of Spain’s La Liga and the English Premier League.

Banks said Sportsnet has been monitoring European broadcasts since their return as well as fan feedback to the changes.

“Hopefully by the time our games start, we’re going to have a very solid way of making sure all our viewers and fans are delighted with the time they’ve spent watching our broadcasts,” he said.

The NHL has yet to determine which “hub” cities may host games if play resumes this summer. Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton are the Canadian cities in the running.

READ MORE: NHL pares down hub city shortlist, Vancouver still in the running

Banks said general production plans — staffing, on-site play-by-play setups, etc. — will depend on the location of the host cities.

“If there’s a hub city in Canada we most likely will have people in the building producing and potentially on air,” he said. “If there are only hub cities in the U.S., we won’t.

“That’s something literally we are talking to the NHL about on a daily basis.”

An empty 18,000-seat arena also presents some opportunities that a broadcaster wouldn’t normally have, Banks added.

“We’re going to be able to have some very interesting broadcast angles that we weren’t able to have before, which are going to delight some fans,” he said. “Clearly we’re going to have a lot more focus on the coaches and the players themselves.

“I think it’s going to provide for just a different environment and one that we’re excited about.”

The NHL paused the regular season March 12. The league plans to reopen training camps July 10 but has yet to release a schedule.

The NBA is planning a late July return with all games to be played at the Disney complex in the Orlando area. A shortened Major League Baseball season could begin next month as well if MLB and its Players’ Association agree on a deal.

In addition to being the NHL rightsholder in Canada, Sportsnet holds the Toronto Blue Jays’ broadcast rights and splits the Toronto Raptors’ rights with TSN.

However, recent momentum for the return of North American pro sports hit a speed bump last Friday with a wave of COVID-19 developments.

The Philadelphia Phillies announced five players had tested positive and the Blue Jays said one player showed symptoms consistent with the virus. All MLB training camp facilities were subsequently closed to be disinfected and given a deep clean.

The Toronto Sun and Toronto Star reported that Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews had tested positive for COVID-19. The NHL said Friday that it tested more than 200 players at club facilities during voluntary training since June 8, with 11 testing positive.

“It’s been a bit jarring over the course of the last few days,” Banks said. ”I felt at least that we had some real momentum around the formalization of the process and procedure to get players playing again and clearly we’ve taken a bit of a setback over the last few days.”

Banks touched on a variety of additional subjects during his 30-minute availability. Among the highlights:

— On the bottom line: “When you have no live sports and advertising budgets are significantly compressed in a short period of time, it hurts financially. There is no doubt that it has hurt us financially. Like every business that has been impacted by COVID, we are doing lots of scenario planning, lots of financial planning to address a variety of different outcomes. We, like fans, are in wait-and-see mode.”

— On plans for the former “Coach’s Corner” slot on Hockey Night in Canada: “We don’t know exactly what it’s going to be yet but I can tell you that it’s going to be different. It is going to be well thought out. It will probably be much more representative of the Canadian population and the issues they care about the most. It’s going to continue to be an important segment for us.”

— On health and safety discussions: “Every conversation starts with the priority of ensuring the safety and wellbeing of everybody associated with a game or a broadcast. There’s no doubt in my mind that nothing will happen until we have certainty that the people involved will be safe and be healthy.”

— On plans for the Sportsnet-owned Grand Slam of Curling season in 2020-21: “We have to wait and we have to determine is it healthy and is it safe to proceed with the event? If we do proceed with the event, how many events and where are those events going to take place? It continues to be on the table but like many of the events, we are trying to work on details as we get closer to the October (opener).”

— With files from The Associated Press.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press


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