By Grant Hansen
The world changed forever in March 2020.
What followed was two years of turmoil, darkness and uncertainty. And sports were an integral part of the pandemic story. Americans were introduced to the virus on the national stage through professional and college sports. The gravity of the outbreak was made clear through the flurry of cancellations and adjustments that followed.
Later, sports provided a much needed escape in grim times. As fans have returned to events across the country in the last year, sports have become a sign of normalcy.
Sportscasters have had a front-row seat to the evolution of the industry at the hands of the pandemic. In just two years, broadcasters experienced the gamut — a terrifyingly cinematic March, a summer without sports, remote broadcasts and the return to stadiums.
Here are some of their stories.
Part One: Three days in March
North Dakota State men’s basketball had reached the summit.
It was Tuesday, March 10, 2020, and the Bison had just crushed in-state foe North Dakota, 89-53, to win their fourth Summit League championship in the last seven years. Most importantly, the team’s four seniors had earned their squad a spot in the NCAA Tournament. The ticket was punched. Now they simply had to wait and see who they would play on college basketball’s biggest stage.
Bison play-by-play announcer Jeff Culhane was elated as he left Sioux Falls for Fargo the next day. He listened to ESPN radio as he drove, and a chill of unease began to seep in. Culhane knew COVID-19 could be a factor in the postseason. He had been keeping tabs on the virus since late January. Along that Dakota highway, the first domino dropped when Culhane heard that the Ivy League canceled their tournament.
“I never thought the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament was possible,” Culhane said. “I thought it meant too much to too many people from a financial perspective.”
He arrived home on Wednesday evening. And then hell broke loose.
Hours earlier in Indianapolis, Nebraska basketball play-by-play announcer Kent Pavelka began March 11 like any other day. The Huskers were set to open the first round of the Big Ten Tournament Wednesday evening. Pavelka headed upstairs to visit with Nebraska head coach Fred Hoiberg in his hotel room and record the pregame interview for that night’s broadcast.
But Hoiberg was ill.
“It was flu-like symptoms, and I didn’t think a whole lot about it,” Pavelka said. “I felt bad for him. It wasn’t until later that it became something memorable.”
That evening the Huskers took the floor against Indiana. Throughout the broadcast, Pavelka and his partner, Jake Muhleisen, monitored Twitter. First they learned that NBA star Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. Soon the NBA season was put on pause. Then celebrity Tom Hanks announced he had the virus. Revelation after revelation came as the game continued.
“Then all of a sudden, Fred’s kinda bending over, sick looking,” Pavelka said.
In a matter of moments, Hoiberg was ushered off the floor.
“We’re going, ‘Oh my God,’ all this silently not saying anything,” Pavelka said. “It didn’t take long before we all were thinking, ‘He might have COVID.’”
After the game, the Husker athletes and coaches were sequestered in the locker room. Pavelka and Muhleisen did the postgame show without a coach to interview. During each commercial break, they discussed whether or not they should be quarantined with the team. They had been with them every inch of the way.
Shortly after the two got off the air, the arena was evacuated, and Pavelka returned to the hotel. Hoiberg was tested and it was later confirmed he had the flu.
“I mean, it was like science fiction,” Pavelka said. “It was like the strangest Netflix film you ever saw.”
Just over 700 miles to the east, Creighton basketball play-by-play broadcaster John Bishop watched the chaos unfold from New York City. Bishop sat in the press box high above Madison Square Garden, scouting the Bluejays next opponent in the Big East tournament.
Creighton, the Big East regular-season champions, would play the winner of Georgetown and St. John’s the next day. Throughout the game, Bishop monitored social media and he saw the situation develop in real time.
“The NBA decided that night they were gonna shut down and so we were kinda wondering what tomorrow was gonna bring,” Bishop said.
Tomorrow brought turmoil. When Bishop awoke, the game was still on but attendance had been limited to 200 friends and family per team. He walked across the street from the hotel to the arena and got to the floor level an hour before tip-off. Bishop usually reviews stats on a monitor during his pregame routine. Instead, he was furiously scrolling through Twitter looking for updates from the college basketball world.
First the SEC canceled its conference tournament. The Big 12 immediately followed.
“Meanwhile the countdown clock on the scoreboard is still running,” Bishop said. “And the players are on the floor. The referees are on the floor. You know we’re getting ready to play ball.”
He looked over to the opposite sideline and saw Creighton head coach Greg McDermott, who had just been informed of the cancellations. McDermott called over one of the officials.
“Mac was talking to one of the officials and said, ‘Well, what do you guys need to do to get paid today?’” Bishop said. “The official says, ‘We just need to tip this thing off,’ and Mac was like, ‘Well, let’s tip this thing off.’”
So they did. It was odd at first for Bishop. He said it reminded him of the early-season games in the Bahamas with little to no fans. But once the juices were flowing, much of the worries of the outside world fell away. In the closing seconds of the first half, Creighton got the last shot.
“I do remember saying something to the effect of, ‘This might be the last possession of the college basketball season,’” Bishop said.
Bishop went to a halftime break, and that’s when he was told the game, and the Big East Tournament, had been canceled. It was announced over the public address speakers 10 minutes later and the crowd was asked to leave the Garden.
Bishop quickly packed up the equipment and headed back to the hotel where he joined his afternoon radio show, “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” on 1620 the Zone in Omaha. The final hammer was dropped hours later. The NCAA announced the cancellation of all winter and spring championships, including March Madness.
“And of course, being from Omaha, being the radio station of the College World Series, we’re like, ‘That means the College World Series,’” Bishop said. “So it was like a double whammy.”
Creighton’s boosters arranged for a charter to take the team out that night. Bishop, the band and other support personnel would leave the next morning from Newark. On the last night in New York, Bishop and his companions went out to a steakhouse.
“It was like the last supper before the world shut down,” Bishop said.
Part Two: A Summer of Innovation
Hosting a sports talk show without any sports.
That’s the challenge Bishop faced when he returned to “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” from New York. Late-spring and summer months are viewed as sports talk deserts to begin with. Now Bishop and co-host Josh Peterson had to fill months of shows without their primary source material. In the waning moments of his first show back, Bishop gave his audience a pep talk.
“People aren’t just gonna hole up and not listen to the radio or watch TV anymore. They’re gonna need us,” Bishop said. “We got to do something here. So we’re gonna find a way dammit. We’re gonna do this. I don’t care if we have to make stuff up.”
In the coming weeks, Bishop and Peterson switched gears. The show turned from sports to sports and entertainment. They covered television shows, movies and other streaming media that they and their listeners were watching at home.
The guest list changed, too. University of Nebraska Medical Center doctors and epidemiologists made appearances to inform the audience about the pandemic. Lincoln Journal Star entertainment reporter L. Kent Wolgamott became a regular guest to break down old movies. “L. Kent’s Movie Club” is still a part of the show two years later.
“Those first few months, we had to be in it. We had to be inventive,” Bishop said. “But all we had to do was tap into, well, what are people talking about and how can we do it in a way that’s entertaining?”
Some may have seen such times as a roadblock. Bishop and others saw it as a time of growth.
“I think it was during that time where our show found a new voice and we allowed our personalities to shine through more so than before,” Bishop said. “We were able to branch out and discuss a lot of things that on a regular day we would never touch on.”
Culhane faced similar issues for his day-time program in Fargo. He is the program director at Bison 1660 and is a co-host of The Insiders, which runs in the midday for two hours.
“I’ll never forget just the feeling of, ‘What are we supposed to do? How do we do this?’”
Yet Culhane and company found a way. In fact, he said the show had some of its best guests ever during the pandemic. People had an abundance of time depending on where they lived in the country. Sportscasters Sean McDonough and Kevin Kugler each made appearances and discussed the uncertainty of the sports world.
“I think everybody wanted to talk a little bit probably for their own mental health,” Culhane said. “What are some of the things that you know, that they share with their own lives that they are doing to get through this stuff, which was tough on everyone.”
The show tackled some of the same cultural topics of the time such as Netflix’s “Tiger King” and the Korean baseball league. They created a Movie Madness bracket to engage with listeners and gave daily updates on the state of the upcoming college football season with a segment titled “As the College Football World Turns.”
“I think we actually, even without sports, had some of our more listened to shows because people just needed something,” Culhane said.
Another program that was no stranger to innovation was “Sports Nightly.” The show is co-hosted by Greg Sharpe, who handles play-by-play duties for Nebraska football and baseball. On that fateful March day, Sharpe was halfway to Wichita with then-cohost Ben McLaughlin when they got the word that the baseball season was canceled.
For the two sportscasters, “Sports Nightly” immediately came to mind. The program was three hours long and now there was no content to fill it with. Adjustments were made such as cutting the program to two hours of original content and replaying the first hour to close the show.
Sharpe and company did Sports Nightly from the program’s Haymarket studios for the first few days of the pandemic. But soon, the crew packed up remote gear and started doing the shows from home.
“It was an amazing time,” Sharpe said.
A unique addition to the Sports Nightly programming was the “Sports Nightly Baseball League.” Members of the Sports Nightly team each drafted a baseball team using the video game MLB the Show. Throughout the day, the public could watch the teams play and listen as Sharpe, McLaughlin and others provided commentary.
“We had chat rooms opened up for people to jump on board and interact with us in that way,” Sharpe said.
The scores were announced on Sports Nightly each evening along with whatever topics of discussion Sharpe and McLaughlin wanted to tackle. Some were sports related, such as the NFL Draft, while others drifted toward Netflix and other streaming topics. Like other programs, Sports Nightly made it work.
As odd and challenging as the early months of the pandemic were for broadcasters and their listeners, the coming fall would top it all.
Part Three: Of Reopening and Remotes
Fall 2020 arrived, and with it, controversy.
The first surrounded college football. Professional sports leagues across the country had returned to a state of play, including the NFL, but in August college football conferences such as the Big Ten and others began to cancel games. Initially leagues adjusted to conference-only scheduling before entire seasons were moved to the spring a few weeks later.
The cancellation of nonconference games and the adjustment to a fall season was particularly devastating for North Dakota State and its fanbase. The FCS-level Bison had been set to face Oregon in what would have been a titanic opportunity against a big-time FBS-level opponent.
It also would have been key for their young quarterback Trey Lance, who won the FCS’s highest honor, the Walter Payton Award, his freshman season and had NFL aspirations. Culhane saw it all from the broadcast booth the previous season and was excited to see Lance that fall. Yet it was not meant to be. The FCS elected to play a spring season.
“That was rough on our fan base,” Culhane said. “It was like another moment where the pandemic really hits you hard as a sports fan, like it did in the springtime when the NCAA Tournament was taken away.”
All was not lost. The FCS allowed teams to play up to three scrimmages in the fall, and the Bison set one up with Central Arkansas. It was a win-win for everyone. Lance got to play in front of 26 NFL scouts and North Dakota State got 30 team practices. Lance was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in spring 2021 as his teammates played their regular season.
There was controversy in Nebraska, too. To play or not to play, that was the question. Sharpe watched it from the outside and got a clear sense that Husker football coach Scott Frost and athletic director Bill Moos wanted to play.
“We needed to do everything we can to give the opportunities to student athletes because for a lot of them, that’s the biggest thing in their life,” Sharpe said.
As the athletes began to return to campus, strange stories began to circulate.
“Then you started hearing stories about (NU quarterback) Adrian Martinez being picked up at the airport and put into a Styrofoam backseat of a car so that no infection could get to him,” Sharpe said. “All these wild stories kept coming out of how protective of the athletes they were moving into this pandemic.”
The Big Ten elected in August for a spring season like the FCS. Of the five major conferences, only the West Coast’s PAC 12 did the same. The three other conferences played their fall seasons without fans, and by October, the Big Ten had seen enough. It was safe to restart the season.
Enter the second debate of the returning months: remote broadcasting.
It was decided that Sharpe would travel with the team and do broadcasts in person. His broadcast partner, Matt Davison, was already a part of the football program and was tested regularly. He would be traveling with the team, and the idea of Davison and Sharpe calling the game from two different places didn’t make sense. Sharpe was subjected to the same testing regime as a result.
“I had to go get tested three times a week to be around the broadcast booth and around Matt, who was in the inner circle of the football team,” Sharpe said.
The football broadcast was the only crew allowed to do games in person for Nebraska in fall 2020 or spring 2021. Even the group that was authorized to travel was small. There was no broadcast engineer so Sharpe had to set up each game himself. Sideline reporter Ben McLaughlin wasn’t on the travel list so he made his in-game reports from his basement.
“A lot of the football broadcasts across the country that year were done remotely,” Sharpe said. “I felt very fortunate that I could be on site.”
Culhane also was allowed to handle his Bison play-by-play duties for both football and basketball in person. Much like Sharpe, he had to be tested by nasal swab multiple times per week.
So while Culhane was able to broadcast when North Dakota State basketball made the trip to Lincoln in November, Pavelka and the Nebraska’s radio team could not.
Pavelka did both home and road games remotely for the entire season. Just before the season started, the network sent boxes of equipment to his house via FedEx. His home office was crowded with five monitors and an in-depth audio set up.
“It went off without a hitch,” Pavelka said. “I mean, I had dozens of people during that season and afterwards tell me that when they found out I was not even at the arena they had no idea.”
But it wasn’t always perfect.
Pavelka fought through some of the challenges that faced play-by-play broadcasters at every level across the country. Not every school provided a good video feed of the arena. Sometimes Pavelka’s feed was 10 seconds ahead of Muhleisen’s and they would be discussing different plays. The two even used Facetime during games to regain the ability for non-verbal communication.
“I think what it did for the industry is to show the tremendous ability that the people involved in the technical aspects of broadcasting have,” Pavelka said. “Their unbelievable expertise and intelligence. It gave them an opportunity to show what they can do when challenged.”
Pavelka’s remote setup would have been a sight to behold for the father of radio.
“(Guglielmo) Marconi would have rolled over in his grave thinking, ‘Look at the can of worms I’ve opened inventing radio,’” Pavelka said.
Part Four: Looking ahead
The COVID-19 pandemic shook and reshaped the world. And the sports broadcasting industry was no exception.
Some changes were for the better, such as the video streaming that Bishop and “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” use to this day to connect with listeners. Others such as remote broadcasts are still around, too. College basketball broadcasts and some professional baseball games were called remotely as recently as spring 2022.
Bishop believes that many of the important pieces of a game’s story can be lost when announcers aren’t on site. The atmosphere and feel of a contest can be easily missed. What proliferates around the events of a game is almost as valuable as the play of the athletes.
“To see everything you want to see, you are a prisoner of whatever the camera is showing you on television,” Bishop said. “I think whether it’s radio, television or print, I think it has hurt our business.”
For sportscasters, the pandemic took away fans, interactions with players, listeners and more. Connecting with the team was what Bishop missed the most in the 2020-21 Creighton basketball season.
“That’s the one thing about being a radio guy,” Bishop said. “You really get close to the team. You eat with them, you travel with them, you sit around and tell stories with them. There was none of that. I’ve never felt more disconnected from a team even though I knew everybody.”
All that was lost has led to a new mentality in the sports broadcast industry. Many now realize what they took for granted and are resolved to never underestimate the value of athletics again.
“I think I took sports for granted. I think we all did,” Sharpe said. “The minute that it came back that the NBA was going to take the court or that Major League Baseball was back on or that you could watch a golf tournament. You’re like, wow, I didn’t realize how much I missed sports.”
In March 2022, Culhane got a chance to call another Summit League championship. This time, the Bison took the floor in front of a sold-out crowd. Culhane took time to take it all in and with it, a new perspective.
“This isn’t something that just happens for you,” he said. “It’s a privilege to have these types of opportunities and so it’s definitely made me enjoy every moment.”
Bishop said it’s not the artistry, the competitors or the athleticism that makes sports great. It’s the community. From March 2020 to when fans began to return to stadiums and arenas in full force in late 2021, that’s what was missing. For broadcasters and fans alike.
“It’s being together and celebrating together when your team does well, Bishop said.” “It’s screaming at the officials together when they make a bad call or just being around folks and having conversations and that’s that’s the thing you know, without that it’s almost like there is no sports.”