Column: From the Bench – On-Field mics are good for the fans

Without on-field microphones, baseball fans would never know Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo heckled Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones as a kid. Football fans would be unaware New York Guardians quarterback Matt McGloin was not happy with his team’s game plan during a 27-0 loss Feb. 15.

This season, the MLB and XFL have experimented with putting microphones on players during play. As examples of the success of this technology increase, other sports leagues must consider adapting to grow fan connectivity with sports.

The XFL, which just finished up its fifth week of competition, set out to provide an alternative spring football league with a “fan-first” approach that is “ultra-accessible” in order to “get fans close to the game in fun and imaginative ways.”

Since kicking off Feb. 8, XFL television broadcasts have aired on ESPN, ABC and Fox Sports 1, giving viewers more access to players and coaches than any other nationally-broadcasted live sporting events. Live play calls, offensive coordinators’ conversations with their quarterbacks and in-game sideline interviews have become signatures of the new league’s decision to innovate – and fans are loving it.

During the first week of XFL games, ESPN sideline reporter Dianna Russini interviewed DC Defenders placekicker Ty Rausa immediately after he missed what would have been a game-tying field goal. Later in the same game, Russini spoke with Rausa following a successful 55-yard field goal before halftime.

The access and authenticity that XFL fans are experiencing every week when they tune into games is helping draw a larger audience and causing people to ask why this type of content is not part of more live sports broadcasts.

Another professional sports league that has struck gold in pioneering player accessibility is ESPN’s coverage of Major League Baseball’s spring training.

Last week, Chicago Cubs star infield duo Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo took part in an all-access broadcast that received a lot of national attention. During their March 2 exhibition game against the Los Angeles Angels, Bryant and Rizzo were given microphones and earpieces for several innings, talking live with announcers Boog Sciambi and Jessica Mendoza during the middle of the game.

Most analysts agree that the style of these XFL and MLB broadcasts may not be viable for traditional sports broadcasts. The NFL would not allow the live broadcasting of coaches’ conversations with their players, and Bryant admitted that while he greatly enjoyed the live commentary in a spring training context, that type of access would “probably not” work for regular season games.

But the demand for more accessible professional athletes will continue to grow as the culture of technology and social media barrels forward. 

Fans, especially younger generations, want to interact with the players they idolize. Instead of being a name in a newspaper or heard over the radio, players are more accessible than ever thanks to the development of social media and its capability to connect players  with the fans.

In an article for Bleacher Report, NFL Analyst Brent Sobleski broke down the innovations that the XFL has instituted and why the NFL should take note of them.

 “Access is everything in a world dominated by social media, immersive games and innumerable entertainment options,” Sobleski said.

It may be a few years before fans can listen to baseball players tell about their childhood memories between pitches or hear an explanation of an interception only moments after it occurs, but what the XFL and MLB are doing now with their live broadcasts is likely just the beginning.

Weaner is a sports reporter. Follow him on Twitter.

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