Only one thing has changed

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - September 26, 2020 - 12:00am

Before NBA games were first televised by ABC on Jan. 3, 1965, the league first had to overcome a lot of apprehension. Many of the team owners were fearful that broadcasting the games would discourage spectators from buying tickets and watching the games in person. They felt that people would not bother commuting to ticket booths (often in very cold weather) to physically sit in the stands, when they could have the convenience of never leaving their homes. Luckily, they decided to give the technology of the future a try. Now, 55 years later, pictures are clearer, sound is sharper, and the game is vastly more popular. With the pandemic, television has become a lifeline to the outside world for many people.

German film director and cinematographer Karl Freund (“Metropolis,” 1927) first created the format for shooting sitcoms in front of a live studio audience for “I Love Lucy” in 1951; they made an important discovery. Beyond his technological innovation (which is still used all over the world today), television producers discovered that the reactions of the audience made the performers do better. This was an important learning that underscored the value of having live spectators.

Six months into the pandemic’s effects, the NBA is rolling along, the American Emmy Awards were held virtually, and talk shows like Ellen Degeneres have resumed despite her quarantine controversies. Quarantine has evened the playing field for audiences, as online lotteries now allow anyone from anywhere with internet connection to be virtually in the studio seats. When you think about it, this makes crowd control so easy. With the click of a button, unruly spectators get the virtual boot.

There is, however, one major difference between other live events and basketball games. Awards can be delivered to the winner’s house, as the Emmys demonstrated. Other forms of entertainment make do with empty studios and a handful of crew. Some use upright screens with virtual audience members, almost like a big Zoom meeting. But you cannot replicate physically playing a basketball game.

Meanwhile, yesterday was the deadline for PBA teams to submit their line-ups for the continuation of the Philippine Cup, which will be held in their own bubble in Clark Freeport Zone. Some of the league protocols have been revealed, such as weekly swab testing, which may be made more frequent. Players who are injured or have family emergencies will not be allowed to return once they leave the bubble. Clark is apparently prepared to deal with anyone who tests positive for the COVID-19 virus.

There are some effects of the pandemic that have hurt the business side of live sports events. Everyone involved (included game crews, support staff, beat reporters and television personnel) will have to live inside the bubble for the duration. They will be shuttled to and from games and cloistered in hotels, battling cabin fever. They will live on room service and delivery until December. But the most substantial change that actually impacts the game is the absence of the live audience. The organic roars (and boos) of the crowd, the ebb and flow and exchange of energy between fans and players, won’t be there. And you can’t plant thousands of screens in the stands, or filter all that sound effectively. That human touch is something the players will have to get used to for now. It’s almost like playing closed door. Teams will have to feed off each other until things gradually return to their previous states, if they ever do.

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