NFL GameDay Kickoff in September 2019.

Thursday Night Football‘s 2020 season begins tonight with the Cincinnati Bengals facing the Cleveland Browns, with that game airing on NFL Network. NFL Network will again be leading into their Thursday night schedule (exclusive games for the next three weeks, then a tri-cast model with Fox and Amazon Prime) with¬†NFL GameDay Kickoff beginning at 6 p.m. Eastern and running up until the game’s kickoff (set for 8:20 p.m. Eastern), and that show will again feature host Colleen Wolfe and analysts Steve Smith Sr., Joe Thomas, and Michael Irvin (seen above left to right during a Tennessee Titans-Jacksonville Jaguars pre-game broadcast last September.) But, as Wolfe, Smith and Thomas discussed on a media Zoom call Wednesday, it’s going to be very different, with their show no longer going on the road.

Instead, Wolfe will be hosting from NFL Network’s studios in Culver City, CA, while Smith, Thomas and Irvin will be contributing via video calls from their homes. And that’s going to lead to some big changes, as Thomas said Wednesday.

“We’re excited for this new challenge. Obviously it’s going to look a little different than it has in the past. The four of us on Thursday Night Football really formed an awesome relationship last year. Personally, I’m really going to miss the time that we got to spend together, not just in front of the cameras, but the time that we spent breaking bread, after games, before games, the day after.”

“I think all four of us are kind of looking forward to this new challenge of ‘How do we make entertaining TV?’ from, basically, my, and Steve’s, and Irv’s couch, and Colleen’s got to drive down the road to the studio. She’s got to make a big commute. But for all of us, I think it’s like ‘Alright, this is cool.’ We’ve all been people in our careers to enjoy a challenge, and this is definitely the next challenge for us. We’re ready to get it started, and no better way to do that than in Cleveland, Ohio this week.”

Wolfe said that trying to maintain their on-set chemistry remotely will be a key focus.

“We still want to be able to have the same kind of chemistry that we did in person. We all truly like each other, even Steve and Irv, I would argue that they like each other. And it’s hard to replicate, I think, what we have in general, but then, to have me in studio and all of the guys at home, yeah, I think it’s going to be difficult. It’s going to look a lot different. We’re not going to have the fans to really energize us, and have that built-in electricity and energy that you have when you’re at a game.”

“But I think because the four of us get along so well and we’ve done so many shows together now, we’ll be able to manufacture some of that stuff that isn’t there through the natural chemistry we have. I think there are going to be a lot of boxes, I know that’s a shocking development, but that’s the world we live in right now. It will be talking to people in different boxes, and that’s just the hand that we’ve been dealt at this point.”

Smith added that he’s also feeling the loss of seeing his colleagues in person, but that it’s a necessary adaptation at this point.

“It is obviously different. We’re all trying to figure it out. I’m going to miss seeing Joe and Colleen and sometimes Irv as well. But things have changed, and we’re trying to adapt.”

Smith said later in the call that a tougher challenge for him is figuring out how to separate his work from the rest of his life, and that he’s empathizing with the challenges players are facing in adjusting to playing games in stadiums with no fans.

“I would say it would be ignorant for us who are sitting at home, me and Joe who don’t play any more, to say ‘It’s like practice.’ It’s really not. It is different. Watching the games this weekend, watching them on TV, it was super weird. Even watching the NBA bubble, it was weird as well. And then also as a broadcaster, it’s real tough. When I did training camp and I had the early shift, it was tough to sit there, because literally for me, 35 steps, maybe 50 steps away, my wife was sleeping. I was just right next to her! And now all of a sudden I’m working. It was different. And now I’ve got the door closed in my office and I can still smell the bacon and the food going on, and I’m just sitting in an office talking to Joe and talking to a screen. It is very different.”

He added that yes, NFL players are well-compensated, but the adaptations they’re having to make are still a big deal, and empty stadiums do affect the on-field product.

“And I don’t think it’s fair to say ‘Well, they’re getting paid a lot of money, so what’s the big deal?’ As a skill player, you thrive off the crowd noise. Yes, every player is motivated by different things, but you can get up. Being at a stadium, even on a Thursday night, being on-site, when you’re watching and looking at a game, you can physically tell and get the sense of the shift of momentum in the game. When a team is a home team and they’re starting to lose momentum and the away team is starting to get confidence and take over the game, you can feel the shift, you can see the fans’ faces, you can hear the moans.”

“And depending on what city you’re in, you can even hear fans turn on their own team. You don’t have that now! So it’s almost…it is a high school scrimmage, growing up in LA, it’s like watching Dorsey and Crenshaw play at a neutral site. It’s just weird. You don’t have the familiarity that you’re used to. And I think it does play into the head of the teams no matter if you’re home or away.”

Thomas added to that, saying that 2020’s fanless games really illustrate how much fans do add to sports.

“I think this is the year that fans across all sports finally get the appreciation that they deserve because they’re not there. We realize now after watching basketball and baseball and the first week of football, how much the fans add to the experience of watching the game. Seeing the emotion and the passion that those fans bring to every game, it definitely changes the viewing experience, and it definitely feels like something’s missing when they’re not there.”

Wolfe said it stood out to her in Sunday’s games when players went over to the empty stands out of muscle memory.

“There were a couple guys that when they scored, I noticed that almost out of instinct, they would go over to throw the ball or mug to the crowd or something, and no one was there! It was weird! And those cues that you get when you’re watching the game, you hear the ref announce something and you get the roar, or you get the boos. You get the camera angle when they’re kicking an extra point or a field goal and there’s nobody there or just a bunch of static cardboard cutouts, it’s super bizarre and weird!”

Thomas said he thinks there are ways for the NFL to improve the fanless experience, particularly with more leeway for the home team to add previously-recorded crowd noise.

“If they can add more leeway for the home team to add noise at appropriate parts of the game, it would make the viewing experience much better. If the home team gets a big sack on third and 10, let them crank up the crowd noise. It gets me at home excited! They haven’t for whatever reason allowed them to go over a certain decibel yet, because they don’t want it to be an advantage one way or the other, but homefield should be an advantage. Let’s allow the players to get the PA announcer excited and pump up the noise in the crowd, in the stadium. I think that’s one thing the NFL could do to make the viewing experience a little better.”

The NFL’s ratings so far largely haven’t been great, with year-over-year increases at Fox counterbalanced by declines elsewhere. Thomas said he thinks some of that is thanks to the disruption of so much of the world thanks to COVID-19, and the removal of the regular office interactions where people might be chatting about football.

“Everybody’s life and everybody’s normal version of a year has just been flipped on its head. Where you normally have that general ramp-up to a football season and that general building of excitement through training camp and the preseason and fantasy football drafts, people are talking about it when you’re going to work, you’re seeing people at work that are talking about football and reminding you of the games that are going to be on, and you think to yourself when you get home ‘I don’t want to be the guy at work that missed the game last night, because that’s what everyone’s going to be talking about!'”

“So you watch the game! And I think because you don’t get those interactions in work or social or public settings, maybe people don’t feel as drawn to watching sports right away. But it will be interesting to see after Week 1, and after the chatter around people’s houses or Zoom meetings or wherever people are interacting starts going up as it relates to football. You start getting into the flow of turning the radio on and hearing the talk-show hosts talking about games, and you start feeling that connection again and that normal rhythm of a week that you used to get before COVID.”

As for NFL Gameday Kickoff itself, Thomas said not going on the road and not interacting with fans is going to be a big change.

“Certainly for us, I think what made Thursday Night Football and this pre-game crew that we had special was because we always took the set to the fans. We were always in the parking lot with the fans around us, and we were feeding off their energy, and that’s what made it fun, that’s what made for great visuals. Trying to recreate that at home with a silly-sized TV that’s like, bigger than my bookshelf, we’re not sure if we can do that, but we’re going to give our best effort.”

And Smith said even their pre-production schedule feels like a major shift.

“Tomorrow, our production call is via conference call, versus when we were all together, facing each other, and we could literally argue our points to each other to maybe change the question. We don’t have that now! It’s all kind of like this, it’s a box. It’s going to be unique. And we’re on the road with each other so much; I know Joe, his wife travels with him at times, Colleen’s husband John, my wife Angie, we don’t have our significant others going and seeing our work and our coworkers’ significant others. It’s just a little bit different. It’s some things that maybe we took for granted last year that we don’t have now.”

Maybe the overarching takeaway here came from Wolfe’s opening remarks, though. There, she discussed how they’re all sad to not be going on the road, and not interacting with fans, but how they’re still grateful to have football games and to have this show in its new remote context.

“We are obviously disappointed, super bummed, that we’re not going to be there or in any of the cities for the foreseeable future right now. But, you know, there’s a pandemic, and we have football, and that’s a huge win right now.”

[Screengrab via @Devin495 on YouTube]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.