Remote broadcasts have been somewhat of a thing for a decade-plus, but they particularly escalated around COVID-19 restrictions beginning in 2020. With those restrictions being loosened over the last few years, though, most teams in the four biggest North American sports leagues (the NFL, the NBA, MLB, and the NHL) have sent their announcers back on the road. A strange exception comes in Toronto, though, where the Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto Maple Leafs both typically have their radio crews calling road games from a distance.
The Leafs continued that remote broadcasting approach even through the first round of the NHL playoffs. And that took quite a bit of criticism, with radio play-by-play voice Joe Bowen even speaking both before and after the series about the challenges of calling a game remotely. And Bowen even blamed having only the TV feed for why he initially identified the incorrect scorer on the team’s series-winning goal, which marked their first postseason series victory since 2004.
That led to many fans lobbying Leafs’ parent organization Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (and broadcasters Sportsnet and TSN, who split airing Leafs games on their radio stations) to change that policy. Well, ahead of the team’s second-round series with the Florida Panthers, the policy has now changed. And Bowen (seen at left above) and analyst Jim Ralph (seen at right above) will be going on the road:
MLSE statement: Joe Bowen and Jim Ralph will be on the road for Toronto's second-round series.
"The team and its broadcast partners will have the radio broadcast crew covering the action in person both at home and on the road beginning Tuesday."
— SeanFitz_Gerald (@SeanFitz_Gerald) May 1, 2023
As Fitz-Gerald wrote at The Athletic ahead of the first round, former Sportsnet 590 The FAN programming director Nelson Millman estimated the cost of sending the radio broadcasters on the road for a series as $10,000 Canadian (around $7,400 U.S.). Millman described that price as not prohibitive, and said it would be worthwhile beyond improved calls of games, with on-location broadcasters able to make guest appearances from the road across the stations’ other shows.
With the Leafs’ radio broadcasts in particular, this is not the first time public pressure has forced these corporations to change tacks. Ahead of the 2015-16 season, then-Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello pulled the radio broadcasters from the team’s charter flights, and Sportsnet and TSN initially planned to have them call road games remotely. That was in response to the increased travel costs having them travelling separately would create, with a Globe and Mail report at that time estimating it would cost $130,000 Canadian (around $96,000 U.S.) to send the radio broadcasters on the road for a season. But public backlash caused a change in that plan, and Bowen and Ralph continued to travel and call games from the road until the pandemic in 2020.
While COVID-19 remains prevalent, the pandemic-era restrictions initially used as justification for remote broadcasts have long since been eased. And it’s clear that calling games from their location produces a superior product, with remote broadcasts regularly facing technical hurdles in addition to the challenges of describing action solely off monitors. But remote broadcasts are going to continue for some games (including with the Jays, where team owner and Sportsnet parent Rogers tried to go even cheaper on radio at one point with TV simulcasts before fan backlash made them relent) and events thanks to networks’ desires to cut costs, and fan pressure appears to be the main way to convince them to do otherwise. It’s now worked with the Leafs, at least for this particular series. And we’ll see if that leads to longer-term change.
[The Athletic; top image of Bowen and Ralph from a 2018 game, from Javier G on YouTube]