Voices of a hiatus: How sportscasters keep busy with no games to call
Courtesy of Nick Heath

Before Nick Heath went viral for dramatizing the tedium of everyday life - a woman's brisk walk across a London intersection; the blundered footwork of friends playing soccer in a park - he announced the last rugby union match he'll watch live for a while, in late February.

Wales' women's national team hosted France in Cardiff, the scene of a European tournament fixture destined from kickoff to be a blowout. France won 50-0, foreshadowing a likely romp over comparatively hopeless Scotland in two weeks' time. That was to be Heath's next assignment, before the circumstances of COVID-19 intervened and the Six Nations Championship was postponed - maybe, in a hopeful scenario, to be rescheduled for the fall.

"I'm hoping to get back on those games," Heath said. "Albeit at quite a different time of year."

Heath is a veteran freelance rugby broadcaster who calls world and top-flight club action for Britain's leading networks: the BBC, ITV, Sky Sports, Channels 4 and 5. On air, he strives to hit a range of notes. He gets the names of the players right. Subtly, and without alienating diehards, he explains the nuances of a complex sport to novice viewers. He raises his voice to meet the gravity of big moments. He tells the stories of matches that run, mostly, from September through June, the duration of the rugby calendar on which his livelihood depends.

As countries everywhere hunker down to try to quell the coronavirus pandemic, Heath isn't calling games or, consequently, being paid. Instead, he's become an unlikely face - well, voice - of the pastime to which much of his profession has pivoted.

In their mass leave from the mic, game announcers are finding ways to keep busy and lift spirits until sports can safely return. They film and recount their own backyard soccer and basketball exploits. Joe Buck spent late March narrating videos - with Fox Sports branding in the top left corner - of marble races, beer-pong heat checks, and dogs staging tugs-of-war with sticks.

Enthusiastically, and from a physical distance, Heath has taken to describing the people and animals of London, his hometown, going about the rote elements of their days. He's dubbed these videos "Life Commentary." Some of his observations, related in what he calls an "old-fashioned sporting cadence" that interweaves reality and fiction, are gems.

Here's Heath on one woman's victorious commute across a street: "Leggings is going to get there! Oh, she does it again - three titles in three days!"

Heath, as pigeons snack outside a church: "They feast on - is it rice? Seed? Probably vomit. What comes up must go down. Disgusting!"

Heath, on the aforementioned "lonely blokes" mishandling soccer passes on a deserted field, the first such video that he posted to Twitter: "Utterly useless." Then, in an imagined yet inspired postscript: "Looking forward to the third/fourth-place playoff later."

"Life Commentary" came together not as the product of careful thought, Heath said in a phone interview this week, but on a whim: He was out for a walk, saw the kickabout unfolding, and realized, effectively, that this is what passes for sports now. The videos are silly and inane, he said, but they're also entertaining. Viewers welcome the distraction, however fleeting, in an otherwise stressful moment. They've told him as much.

"This is a pretty anxious time for a lot of people," Heath said. "I've had hundreds if not thousands of messages from people that have said, 'I've had one of the toughest days that I've had in a long time, but you've made me belly laugh for the first time.' That's a really humbling gift to be giving people."

With games everywhere on pause, announcers across sports have taken heed of the worthiness of this pursuit. Soccer's Ian Darke, the famous British commentator, taped himself shooting and scoring on a home net. ("Can't believe how few defenders there are!") Basketball's Mike Breen, of ESPN and ABC, implored NBA fans to wash their hands and practice physical distancing - before calling "Bang!" on his own made shot. In Toronto, Sportsnet baseball broadcasters Jamie Campbell and Buck Martinez have been fulfilling requests to telephone older Blue Jays fans who may be isolated from their families to chat about life and the team.

Some TV networks have started to fill yawning primetime slots with replays of games from past championship seasons. NBC Sports Chicago has thrown it back to the White Sox's 2005 campaign; same goes for NESN in Boston with the 2011 Bruins and 2013 Red Sox. Sportsnet has teamed with TSN, its chief Canadian rival, to show the Toronto Raptors' entire 2019 playoff run: 24 games in 24 nights, culminating later this month in a title-clinching win over Golden State.

"I think (broadcasting and rewatching classic games) is a great outlet. You can turn on a TV, you can get on your computer, whatever it is, and get away from the daily grind of what's going on right now," TSN and Sportsnet Raptors analyst Leo Rautins said over the phone from Florida, where he's isolating at home during the NBA's hiatus.

"In good times, sports give you that release and that escape - and in bad times, maybe even more value. You can sit in your room and just ponder all the bad that's happening, or you can turn on the TV and relive a great moment: something that brought you a lot of joy at one point."

As his hiatus continues, Heath said he may get the chance to provide commentary for some old matches, territory into which his "Life" series has already veered. (Sort of. Pity the striker who had this gaffe resurrected and lampooned.) The sidelining of rugby nixed his anticipated income through June, but he's been grateful for money that people, including fans of the videos, have sent his way on PayPal - enough to help him through the next month.

Overall, Heath said, the attention his commentary has commanded of late has kept him from dwelling on his uncertain position. From his home, he's been conducting via livestream the occasional pub-style trivia quiz - sample question from this week's: what palindrome describes a key component in a sport like Formula One? - and hoping, generally, that people follow the advice of health authorities everywhere to stay inside as much as possible. Only when the pandemic passes can regular life, and programming, resume.

"Like most people," Heath said, "I'm just trying to keep the faith that things will come back as they were, even though it's going to be, perhaps, a little while longer."

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

Voices of a hiatus: How sportscasters keep busy with no games to call
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