Sports Talk! The Experts Speak Out – Virtual Sports

With major sports gradually getting back on track, fan Bill King corrals a team of Toronto authorities for their takes on sports in the covid age.

Sports Talk! The Experts Speak Out – Virtual Sports

By Bill King

When the Covid boom dropped mid-March, the Raptors were on fire, marching towards possibly a division title and second championship. The departure of MVP Kawhi Leonard in the rear-view mirror, Raptors president Masai Ujiri and second-year coach Nick Nurse retooled the team and laid waste to nearly every opponent. Outside the ACC in Toronto, Jurassic Park was heating up to be another later winter of Raptor’s mitts and logo toques and a city caught in the roiling energy of a team on a mission pressing towards a second championship. Then lights out! I remember thinking – Oh, this is only a temporary setback – then Covid reality seeped in.


You knew sports heads were spinning and boardrooms flipping – how the hell does one bring the game back and assure all safety concerns. March through July seemed like the death of sports. Most minds were on whether to mask or not, and why can’t we buy toilet paper? Why are lines at my nearby LCBO three blocks long? Why are shelves empty of basics? I for one just blotted sport out of my mind and moved on to other things. Wait, those other things – social interaction. People to people talk – not face to face but Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

When word came sports were about to return, I admit to being a skeptic knowing most activity and players were coming from the US and a good many folks would never comply with even the most modest preventive and protective measures. It is not in the American psyche to adhere to government-sanctioned restrictions. That kind of explains the gun culture. With a failed national political policy and strategy around Covid, it seemed a sure bet some sports would thrive while others would be botched. Baseball was a sure bet to screw this up with travel between cities and less than adequate social distancing policies in place. Golf was a sure bet to succeed. Truly, who watches the stream of onlookers hunched between trees. Golf is concentration, a shut your mouth sport in the head game. Quiet, please! NFL – collegiate football? No fucking way. The huddle is no more than a soup can of sweat, snot, bad breath, and communicable infections.


Which brings me to basketball. Kudos to “Comish” Adam Silver. The Orlando bubble is brilliant. Three months, plenty of acreage, video games, and big respect between players has done nothing but elevate the game. There are no lackeys on the floor, just full-on body to body press and a second season before us - the play-offs. Yes, play-offs. I will leave the Leaf’s quick exit to those pained the most by this.

Lastly, baseball. I tuned in from the downbeat but when early shortened season games were cancelled between the Jays and St. Louis over Covid positive tests I was gone. Since then I have been drifting back. The fact that Toronto’s Bo Bichette went 5 for 5, with an RBI, a home run, three runs scored, two stolen bases and a walk at Shalen Field in Buffalo against the Miami Marlins may have something to do with that. For today’s column, I thought – why not ask the experts how this is playing out from their vantage point. Let the games begin.


Kevin Shea – Author - The Great Defender / The Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Club

I love the atmosphere of attending a live game. I've been a Maple Leafs' season ticket holder since 1985; almost never miss a game. You can't duplicate the sounds, smells and sights of being at a live event -- just like music concerts. I did not miss the games as much as I thought I would through the pandemic shutdown but was very pleased, if not very cautious when it was announced that hockey was returning. I looked forward to every Leaf game and set my schedule around them. Now that they have been eliminated, I fall into my usual playoff viewing: watching when it's convenient, enjoying what I watch but not fully engaged because "my" team is not playing, but will ramp up as we near the Stanley Cup Final. I am astonished how well the bubble has worked in basketball and hockey and bemoan the state of baseball right now. And my viewership will ramp up in basketball, too, as the Raptors progress through the playoffs.



Gordon Enright – Oakwood Collegiate former Baseball Coach

Who knew, when that game on March 11th between OKC and Utah was cancelled because of a positive Covid test to Utah’s Rudy Gobert, then the next day all other sports leagues cancelled games, that the landscape of the 2020 sports year would change like no other. We have been through situations where the schedule had to be changed and playoff formats altered due to strikes and lockouts, but this was unprecedented.

As a lifelong sports fan, I was prepared to go the rest of the year without sports, for the sake of a healthy society. I am still unsure as to if it was the right decision to carry forward. That said, I am enjoying the broadcasts. The announcers are doing a real good job of communicating and making it seem like they are there at the venues The games seem normal, including piped in fan noise. The only thing that I don't like is a little extreme with the fan noise in baseball. Every fly ball, even the routine ones, is accompanied by a loud cheer. The NBA and NHL have succeeded with their bubbles.


I must wonder how the NFL is going to approach things. It is another sport just starting the season and like baseball, probably hard to do it in a bubble. Do the NHL and NBA attempt to try the new season in the normal way? Hopefully by next spring when baseball starts up, there will be a vaccine and exceptionally low numbers.

I might add, during these hot summer days, it is hard for me to sit and watch the NBA or NHL in the middle of the afternoon.


Leo Rautins – analyst for the Raptors' TSN and Sportsnet broadcasts.

B.K: What has the NBA got right when other sports fall short?

L.R: The NBA came in with a great plan that involved lots of testing, and found a location where a legitimate bubble could be created, yet allow players some sort of freedom of movement that would not keep them locked up in a hotel.  The commitment to the players' safety has created a buy-in from everyone involved.  The NBA has also given the players a platform to speak their minds and express themselves considering all the social unrest in the world today.


B.K:How has the level of play been?

L.R: Considering the time off - the level of play has been excellent.  Every game is meaningful and with limited time to prepare for the playoffs the level of competition is very high.

B.K:With the addition of mega screens with fans projected along sidelines and crowds cheering - do these features help fans stay engaged with the game?

L.R: For me personally I just watch the game - and that has been great. The fan involvement with the digital screens has been a nice touch and I think the fans enjoy that. The NBA is still enhancing that experience - so that by the playoffs it will feel like a home game in terms of noise. effects, and faces in the digital crowd, for the designated home team.  Teams are already starting to notice the differences as the league figures out the best practices for this. 

B.K:  The Raptors play in a bubble as do all NBA teams. How has this from your perspective playing out psychologically?

L.R: Its a maximum 3-and-a-half-month commitment if you go to the finals - and you are on a luxury resort in warm weather - so this is not an extreme ask.  Teams travel with their own psychologist and therapists - and the league has their own available to players in the bubble if they need help.  Otherwise, players want to play, and this is their chance.  This is really just like a big AAU tournament - and from their AAU days, all the players have been to this facility already to play and compete.

B.K: You are used to walking the floor at ACC but are now confined to a booth. What does that separation feel like for you know the teams are in Orlando and you here?

L.R: I’ve done games before from a booth and as long as we have a big - easy to see - screen, stats, and a few other needs covered, I’m good with it.  Most people don’t realize that when you cover a game live - you still work off your monitor almost as much as the live game - you have to see what the viewer is seeing, often you are blocked by coaches and players, and it’s just part of how you do a game.

B.K:  You spent 14 days in quarantine and are now free to mingle in Toronto. Covid in the US is exploding with no sense of containment. You live in Orlando and spent months poolside. How did you protect you and your family with Florida epicentre of one of the greatest pandemics in history?

L.R: I live about two hours southeast of Orlando by Jupiter.  Florida is insane and like most of the USA - the Covid-19 has been handled with a high level of incompetence and lack of concern for the people.  My family stayed and stays very isolated there - limiting movement to the house and backyard.  I was the only one that left the house - with mask and gloves - otherwise, outside of emergencies, everything is ordered and delivered that we need.

B.K: Twine & Wine – where did they come from?

L.R: It started out as a joke on TSN to make fun of the NBA horse competition - we took any type of shot anywhere and they put them up against other TSN personalities and employees.  I saw how fans responded to that - so I thought I would have some fun and take some pool shots.  Again the response seemed to be amazing and people really wanted a diversion and escape from all the hell going on around them - and they missed their sports - so I made it a regular thing and added wine to cheers them - in my effort to let them know they are not alone, let's share a laugh, and we will get thru this.  

B.K: As a broadcaster, you are near flawless. Beyond being an outstanding collegiate basketball star – was journalism your major?

L.R: Thank you.  Yes…I was a broadcast journalism major - and believe it or not this was my plan from 9th grade.  So, during my playing career, I used every opportunity (injuries, time off, etc) to gain experience and build a resume so that one day when I hang up the sneakers I will be ready for the next stage - and that happened to be the Toronto Raptors tv gig!

B.K: Who brings home the NBA crown?  

L.R: Do you need to ask?? The Toronto Raptors!!!!


Mark Rheaume   CBC/Radio-Canada - Researcher

As a fan of sports, I'm more than OK with taking in the action only in the virtual manner, i.e., televised games that can only be viewed at home. It is not much different from the usual pro sporting experience for those of us who only go to the occasional live event. MUSIC, however, is another story. While I appreciate the effort that goes into on-line or streaming concerts, for me, they are just no substitute for seeing the performer in the same room. The energy is just not the same. And the performer never gets to hear your applause or act on the energy created by the fans being right there.

Ted Woloshyn – Newstalk 1010

I’ve been watching sans fan sports on TV for the past several months and have to come to several conclusions/opinions. I don’t mind a little background crowd noise as long as it’s subtle but am not a fan of “fake" fans in the crowd. I do like the idea the Jays have; placing pictures of players’ kids behind home plate, and the addition of regulars Geddy Lee and the “Matriarch” of the Jays is fabulous. Racing on TV without crowds does not make much of a difference to me since the roar of the engines pretty much erases them anyway. And although I’m not sure who the commentator was who said golf without fans in attendance helps the younger players because it removes much of the stress, and I believe he’s bang on.

Mark Hebscher – Hebsy on Sports – Author of The Greatest Athlete

B.K:What has the NBA got right other sports fall short?

M.H: Outstanding and unwavering leadership by Comish Adam Silver.  The ability to work with the Players Association with respect and consideration, and as partners in this endeavour.  The rigid testing within the bubble which has resulted in zero positive tests and outstanding, competitive basketball.

B.K:How has the level of play been?

M.H: Better than I have expected, especially since these regular season games have great meaning, like the final games of the regular season as teams jockey for playoff seedings.

B.K:With the addition of mega screens with fans projected along sidelines and crowds cheering - do these features help fans stay engaged with the game?

M.H: It depends on the game, but I would say yes, that has enhanced the viewing experience for the fans. Although it is still an acquired taste.

B.K:  The Raptors play in a bubble as well as all NBA teams. How has this from your perspective playing out psychologically?

M.H: It doesn't seem to be bothering them, and in fact, may end up bringing them closer together, which, for a championship team, could be the key to repeating.  The veteran players are showing tremendous leadership, and they are doing it EVERY day, on and off the court in this bubble.

B.K:Baseball has had many setbacks. Do you feel the season will end on a positive note?

M.H: I hope so, but I worry that the travel and the fact that players and staff aren't "locked down" might produce more positive results and more re-jigging of an already altered schedule.

B.K:Hockey is moving ahead yet the visuals look cold. Do you feel the same excitement as fans who have been anticipating playoff calibre competition?

M.H: No, it cannot be duplicated which means the players must manufacture the excitement and energy with no fans there. And, since it's immediately the playoffs, the expected intensity is not there and fans have to settle for an atmosphere that appears manufactured, almost mass-produced.

B.K: NFL is up ahead. Will this be a disaster? The number of players is far beyond that of other sports and contact in your face?

M.H: A lot of players are opting out, and since there is no bubble, the chances of positive tests seem more likely unless there are stringent tests for players and staff daily.  The NFL will be closely watched and features more players than any other sport that could transmit the virus.

B.K:What has surprised you the most about the abbreviated season?

M.B: The fact that they can play so many games in a short period of time and maintain a level of competitiveness.  I did not expect this calibre of play.

B.K:Will you watch it to the finish?

M.H: Absolutely. You always want to see how the story ends


Dana McKiel – Sportscaster - FIBA/NCAA/USports/Rogers

Billy, as a veteran play x play commentator, I can assure you that Dan Shulman (Blue Jay Baseball) and Matt Devlin (Raptor Basketball) would prefer to be on-site to call games. The sounds, fans, emotions, tone, and key peripheral vision of the action are captured in commentating of MLB and NBA games. They have performed very well in-studio given the virtual circumstance.

This has not affected me as of yet due to schedule delays (ie. NCAA Basketball and OHL Hockey) and cancellations (OUA Football). Hope it does not affect me in ramping up to next year's Tokyo Olympic Games as I've already gone through my orientation with CBC. 


Mike Boon – Toronto Mike’d Podcast

B.K:What has the NBA got right other sports fall short?

M.B: Only one sport is falling short, and that's baseball. It is all about the bubble, and the sports that bubbled look like they are going to able to crown a champion.

B.K:  How has the level of play been?

M.B: So far, so good. I can't wait for the playoffs.

B.K: With the addition of mega screens with fans projected along sidelines and crowds cheering - do these features help fans stay engaged with the game?

M.B: I'm not a fan of the gimmicky stuff. Just give me the game. 

B.K:The Raptors play in a bubble as well as all NBA teams. How has this from your perspective playing out psychologically?

M.B: Ask me in 8 weeks!

B.K:Baseball has had many setbacks. Do you feel the season will end on a positive note?

M.B: I will be shocked if MLB finishes the season and declares a World Series champion.

B.K:Hockey is moving ahead yet the visuals look cold. Do you feel the same excitement as fans who have been anticipating playoff calibre competition?

M.B: There's something missing from NHL I've watched. It just feels a little sleepy.  It's just not the same without rabid fans in the stands.

B.K:NFL is up ahead. Will this be a disaster? The number of players is far beyond that of other sports and contact in your face?

M.B: The NFL will likely be a disaster, but I'm not sure they'll care. I can see them plowing ahead for the enormous TV money.

B.K:What has surprised you the most about the abbreviated season?

M.B: The Raps beating up on LeBron's Lakers in game one was a happy surprise. Keep it going, guys!

B.K:Will you watch it to the finish?

M.B: Yes. I want to see us repeat.

Vanessa Heins


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