MLB, ESPN Take Player-Miking to a New Level
Ballplayers on the field are happy to share what’s on their minds
Baseball players are just plain chatty. Perhaps it’s the relatively slow pace of the game, or maybe the pitcher is in a groove, and three outfielders find themselves a bit bored by the third inning. In any event, that’s working in ESPN’s favor this season: the broadcaster is wiring athletes for sound at a new level.
Sometimes, fans get a sharp analysis of a moment in the game, punctuated by the player’s going zero to 60 to make a play he’d just been speculating about. On April 7, for example, Boston’s Kiké Hernandez was ruminating on two Bronx Bombers in scoring position just before he bolted to catch up with the line drive that would send them home at Yankees Stadium. Or, a week later, Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies chatted amiably with the announcers in San Diego about … well, microphones on baseball players.
"Well depending on how hard it's hit. If it's hit hard he's probably not gonna go home. … Here it is!"
This mic'd up moment with Kiké Hernandez was awesome 👏 pic.twitter.com/M1osm0BDgD
— ESPN (@espn) April 11, 2022
From Novelty to Normal
What had been a novelty is rapidly becoming routine content. It has also become a category of its own for broadcast-sports audio. It has had that status with the NFL for years and, more recently, with the NBA. But baseball’s leisurely pace makes it particularly well-suited for conversations during games.
“We especially appreciate that MLB has let us have the latitude in order to use this and get the most out of it,” says Kevin Cleary, remote operations specialist, ESPN. He notes that, ever since Reds first baseman Joey Votto first donned a Q5X PlayerMic transmitter and Countryman B6 microphone element, along with an earpiece for foldback, for Cincinnati’s April 7 season opener in Atlanta, baseball players haven’t stopped talking on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. “The ballplayers have really picked up on this and are enjoying it. Some of them seem like they’re auditioning for their next careers as broadcasters.”
At its core, it’s about storytelling, something that baseball is both good at and needs, says Cleary: “There is some secrecy to field strategy in baseball, but there’s not a ton of strategy to playing first base. What this does is let the ballplayers tell us about the nuance of what they’re doing, engaging not just the TV crew but the viewers, too.”
He credits ESPN SNB analyst Eduardo Perez for getting athletes — many of whom can be skittish about wearing a wire on television — on board for the process.
But that’s just the start of it, Cleary points out. The new audio needs its own ambient context, layering the sound around it in the mix as the crowd sound ebbs and flows during the game, keeping it part of what he calls “a symphony of sound” rather than an isolated moment in a game. That includes using EQ to keep speech separate from the other effects elements, such as bat cracks, and to make the wired ballplayer sound like, as he puts it, “a fourth member” of the announce team.
It’s how to keep all the other microphones that are scattered around ballparks, such as in-ground mics around the mound and home plate, on their side of the effects line. That’s especially important since there is no submixer on the REMI production, which is directed and produced at ESPN’s Bristol, CT, facility, where EVS replay and graphics operations also are located. The audio, however, is mixed onsite by A1s Brian Shannon and Brian Deardorf.
Unlike the NFL, which controls access to on-field audio, MLB has granted ESPN control over the player microphones, and the broadcaster works with the league and teams in determining which players don the audio gear and when. A “minimal” profanity delay is applied.
Sound on the Field
Putting microphones on athletes has become one of broadcast sports’ favorite pastimes, though one fraught with technical and legal complications. The contemporary version dates to 2010, the year the NFL moved its umpires to the offensive backfield. The change was made for the safety of the officials, who had lined up on the defensive side of the ball, in the middle of the field and 4 or 5 yards from the line of scrimmage, putting them at greatest risk of getting hurt in collisions over the middle.
However, the move also eliminated the microphone worn by the umpire, which was discovered to be a key source of on-field audio for televised games. And it led to a decade-plus of wiring players to pick up key spoken-word sound (notably, the quarterback’s pre-snap cadence) and the close-up crunch of helmet and shoulder-pad contact in scrimmages. The act of improving officials’ safety had created a new dimension in sports audio.
The NFL (whose media arm NFL Films had been wiring players for sound since 1967) kicked off an audio phenomenon that has spread throughout pro sports, notably with up to two NBA and NHL players per side now miked for each game. The process is also part of collective-bargaining agreements between player organizations and leagues, which spell out who, how many, and when microphones are worn and by whom they’re controlled.
Baseball has been the latest to embrace what has come to be known as “Mic’d Up,” or, as ESPN more prosaically refers to it, “live in-game player interviews.” It started with 2018 Spring Training in Arizona, when ESPN miked Boston’s Mookie Betts, who, during an in-game interview, saw a ball hit over his head and told fans, “I ain’t getting this one, boys.” Previously, the promise of miking players in the field had been on display during the 2017 All-Star Game, when Nationals’ Bryce Harper bantered with announcers John Smoltz and Joe Buck on Fox Sports.
The NFL mainly considers on-athlete audio part of the scrimmage script. At the NBA, the PlayerMics, the transmitters that Q5X developed specifically for the purpose, are part of the nat-sound foundation. However, with baseball, conversation is part of the sonic effects. The game’s pastoral ambience seems particularly suitable for chat with a left fielder between shagging long line drives.
ESPN Remote Operations Manager Paul Horrell recalls the network’s early attempt at the idea: “We were out in Arizona at one of the Spring Training games, and we had come up with this idea and wanted to do a test run. We put an RF lavalier mic on a player, and a Phonak hearing aid was used as an in-ear IFB unit, so we had two-way communications with the player. We did some testing there, and the RF response was really good. The signal was good; the clarity was good. The player could hear us really well. From that point, it was like, Hey, this would be really cool. Since then, we’ve done it here and there on selected players.
“But then the pandemic hit,” he continues, “and we kind of switched gears. I will tell you this year is the first year that we’ve got it back. It has captured some pretty fantastic moments, and it’s just amazing that these guys can have conversation in the middle of a baseball game.”
Horrell believes that MLB was a little hesitant to allow this to happen in-game — ironically, in part because many MLB ballparks have become so wired for sound already.
“There was a situation,” he recalls, “when one of the players that was miked up walked to the mound, where they did a mound meeting with a pitcher. Folks were saying you could hear some things. But what we found out was, you weren’t actually picking up the players mic; you were picking up the effects mics that we have buried in the ground around the mound. So that was interesting.”
(Mics buried around the mound, deployed for All-Star and postseason play in recent years, are now used every week on ESPN’s SNB. Nine are used, along with two in front of home plate.)
“It’s pretty cool how the booth talent can talk directly to a player on the field while they’re in-game,” Horrell says. “It’s a very casual conversation, and they just talk about all kinds of subjects. It is the only sport that you could do that in. You’re not going to stop and talk to someone on a basketball court or a football gridiron.”
Since then, baseball’s embrace of player audio has become more formalized, with pockets sewn into players’ jerseys to accommodate the transmitters (the NBA uses a similar method), which are delivered through RF provider CP Communications and managed in conjunction with MLB’s own RF staff.
“The interviews provide a great window into the personalities of these players,” says Phil Orlins, VP, production, ESPN. “They’ve become a highlight of our Sunday telecasts. The natural rhythm of baseball creates a unique opportunity for these interviews to take place, and I credit our commentators, Eduardo Perez in particular, for nurturing this initiative and making them both fun and insightful. MLB deserves credit for taking a step beyond what any other major sport has attempted, which shows the players and the league in a progressive light.”
More Than a Conversation
To many, wiring the ballplayers for sound is much more than simply another audio element in a sports production. It’s chicken soup for the soul of baseball, which has faced significant challenges in recent years. MLB attendance hit a 37-year low in 2021, with the average per-game attendance falling for the fifth straight season.
“Audiences want more engagement with players,” says Cleary. “They want more insider info. This is the age of constant access. What used to be a once-in-a-blue-moon thing is now a guaranteed manager headset interview per game. We can tell the story with audio, which reveals the passion in sports and lets you hear the intensity. MLB is trusting us with access, and we’re all going to benefit from it. The fans love it, and the players especially love it. They’re the ones taking the ball and running with it.”