How Xavier put on a last-minute broadcast after a member of the FS1 production crew tested positive
We've heard of players, coaches and staff members testing positive, but what happens when someone on the TV production crew does?
On Friday, Nov. 27, Mike Schmaltz showed up at the Cintas Center on Xavier University’s campus about an hour before tip-off for the Xavier-Toledo men’s basketball game. Schmaltz, a sports broadcaster who handles play-by-play duties for the Musketeers’s women’s basketball and soccer teams, among other sports, was scheduled to work the game as the timeout coordinator. The matchup between Xavier and Toledo was on the last day of the Xavier Invitational, which was a four-team multi-team event that was designed to allow each team to play three games in three days to start the season.
As Schmaltz walked up to the arena, he saw people standing near the loading dock, which seemed a little unusual, but the weather was nice that Friday in Cincinnati, so he figured the group was capitalizing on the chance to take in some fresh air before an afternoon of basketball.
“The announcer team was out there, too,” Schmaltz told Out of Bounds, “and I’m like, ‘Well, it’s a nice day, everybody’s seeing everybody,’ so you maybe don’t have to get up there like right away.”
“We’re enjoying a little sunshine,” he said, laughing. “I was going to the spot, which is across the court from the scoring table where the broadcasters would normally sit – we were over there – and the technician was pulling out the monitor cables and he turns around and goes, ‘They canceled the broadcast.’ I’m like, ‘Oh! OK.’”
The game had been scheduled to air on FS1 at noon Eastern.
In the first seven days of the men’s college basketball season, there were at least 97 games that were postponed or canceled because of positive COVID-19 tests among Tier 1 personnel, which includes players, coaches and staff members, such as athletic trainers, and the effects of which are often compounded by the resulting contact tracing.
But what happens when someone on the television production crew tests positive? If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
And if a college basketball game that’s scheduled to air on national television is limited to a maximum of 300 fans in attendance and then the broadcast is called off at the 11th hour, well, then how does a university and its athletic department try to make the game available to parents, fans and media members?
That was the situation that Xavier faced on the third day of the season, when a member of the FS1 production crew who works in one of the network’s production trucks tested positive for COVID-19 prior to Xavier’s home game against Toledo. An email sent to the FOX Sports PR staff about the network’s COVID-19 testing protocols was not returned.
“It was a few hours before the game,” Xavier Associate Athletic Director of Communications Tom Eiser told Out of Bounds, “but the actual decision by FOX – they relayed to Brian Hicks, our associated AD for external relations, and Mario Mercurio from our basketball staff – they let them know probably a little over an hour, I guess it was, before tip. Something like that.”
Eiser said the first step was to let Xavier fans know that the game would no longer be on FS1. But then, the conversations quickly turned to what Xavier’s in-house content team was capable of producing.
“More highlights being pumped out?” Eiser recalled. “I mean, because we had some people there. It’s a little harder to do, not real-time, but quick highlights when you’re pulling them off of cards. It’s a little different than being able to do real-time clipping off a network feed, but we were set up, we were thinking that was one option.
“The other thing we were talking about was, would the Big East allow us to do live cut-ins if we wanted to do something on a social media platform, especially if the game was close?”
It wasn’t just a matter of what Xavier was capable of, but also what it was allowed to do. FOX owned the rights to the broadcast, so Eiser had to call Rick Gentile, who’s the senior associate commissioner of broadcasting for the Big East, to see if live cut-ins would be allowed.
The conference office said that was fine if FOX wasn’t broadcasting the game.
While Xavier was getting the external clearance needed to make the game available for fans – somehow, some way – the university was still sorting through its own production capabilities.
“Before we decide to not do anything,” Eiser recalled, “can we at least ask for the scenario ‘What if? What if we could do something ourselves even though we’re looking at about a half an hour from game time?’
“Since they were already somewhat set up for the FloSports broadcast and they had upgraded our technical area and control booth in the arena over the last couple of years, they said that they felt like they could do it and so they told us that.”
Schmaltz credited Xavier’s investment in its production capabilities and on-site control room over the last three or four years. Everything needed to broadcast the game was already in place.
Luckily for Xavier and its fans, Eiser had hired Schmaltz and Paul Fritschner, who are the university’s primary announcers for Xavier women’s basketball and the school’s Olympic sports, to do television stats and TV timeouts for Xavier’s multi-team event. The pair was also broadcasting the non-Xavier games during the Xavier Invitational for FloSports.
“We were fortunate that they were in-house and needless to say, they were open to the idea of helping out with that,” Eiser said. “They were on board, so once we figured out that we had all those pieces in place – and that was just within ten minutes – I had a second call in to Rick and I said, ‘Rick, since FOX has pulled the plug, beyond their control, do we have the rights to actually broadcast it?
“‘Because I think we can get a livestream up but we need to know quickly.’”
Eiser said the TV rights reverted back to the Big East once FOX was unable to broadcast the game and Gentile gave Xavier permission to produce its own in-house broadcast on GoXavier.com with Schmaltz and Fritschner.
“We got word that we were actually going to do it about 20 minutes before it started,” Schmaltz said. Schmaltz and Fritschner had already seen Toledo play twice in the first two days of the season, as the broadcasting duo had called Toledo’s first two games for FloSports, so they had already prepared material for the Rockets.
Ironically, Schmaltz and Fritschner had potentially spent more time preparing to broadcast a game involving Toledo that week rather than Xavier, since they had been assigned the non-Xavier games for the multi-team event. But of course, being broadcasters of Xavier sporting events, they’re undoubtedly familiar with the program and its players and coaches.
“We didn’t really have Xavier stuff,” Schmaltz said, “but again, we kind of followed them cause we’re here and that’s what we do. So it wasn’t really all that, like, ‘Oh, god. We’re going to do this?’ It was more of a ‘OK, let’s turn the stuff on and go.’”
Xavier Director of Athletics Communications Greg Lautzenheiser and the university’s technical staff flipped some behind-the-scenes switches, metaphorically speaking – and who knows, maybe literally – to allow Xavier’s website to host the livestream.
“I turned it over to all the smarter people,” Eiser said, laughing. “I think we kind of turned it over to the tech staff and I think between them and the announcers, I thought they hit a home run.”
Schmaltz said “that technology portion is there” at the Cintas Center, thanks to the partnership between the Big East and the production company Rush Media. Xavier used a different set of cameras, rather than FOX’s cameras, and Schmaltz said as long as a viewer’s Internet connection was strong enough, fans at home enjoyed a high-definition broadcast.
Other than the broadcast being hosted on Xavier’s website instead of through FOX, Schmaltz said the only noticeable production difference for fans would’ve been a smaller cache of graphics and less feature-type segments, which a producer typically prepares in advance of a broadcast under normal circumstances.
“I thought they were awesome,” Eiser said, “and I think in the bonus of this, as disappointing as it is to lose a network game, I think it exposed our fans who don’t watch – and in some cases, some of the fans maybe have only seen men’s basketball – they’ve never seen Paul and Mike in action.
“They were like, ‘Man, they’re really good,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah. Yes, they are.’ I said in some ways it was nice to expose them to them, to kind of show them we’ve got a very talented duo that has done some great stuff for us in a lot of sports, and for them, it was a thrill to do the men’s game.”
Through the first two weeks of the men’s basketball season, there were roughly 14 games canceled or postponed per day, on average, and while broadcasts are more likely to get canceled due to the games themselves being called off rather than because there’s a positive test within the production crew, Xavier may have laid out the blueprint for other schools and conferences to follow if they face the same predicament.
What are the biggest hurdles for another school or conference that tries to replicate Xavier’s success in producing a quality, last-minute, in-house broadcast?
Having the required technology and broadcasters available, Schmaltz said, plus the university’s confidence in the broadcasters.
Whenever and wherever conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament are played – cash cows that the NCAA and its member institutions so badly need – it wouldn’t hurt for networks to have a second set of production crew members on standby.
“It would just be a matter of having the people there that could talk about [the teams] and you feel confident in them,” Schmaltz said. “So I think the nice part was that Xavier felt confident enough that Paul and I could pull that off and make it acceptable.”
“Certainly, there’s better ways to get that opportunity, like you don’t want somebody to get sick. It was nice that they had the confidence in us to enable us to go up and call that one. That was fun.”
Recap of the last newsletter
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“While a 60-percent pay increase is more feasible when the starting point is half a million dollars, rather than, say, $5 million, Hall’s term sheet could be the first sign that coaches’ contracts signed during the pandemic may not result in the market for head coaching salaries being reset, even if only temporarily.”
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