As one of the several football leagues resuming play during the coronavirus pandemic, the Premier League’s Project Restart has been billed as a return of sorts to our previous normal. For the NBC Sports Premier League audience, that will be mostly true — broadcasts will look and sound as close to normal as possible, though not entirely by design. Despite any semblance of normalcy, the broadcast team will not shy away from the pandemic that stopped play in March and the Black Lives Matter movement when games return June 17.
“It’s never happened before,” host Rebecca Lowe said during a media conference call Thursday. “Let’s hope it never happens again for obvious reasons, but it will be a moment in time and every type of win, every relegation, every game will have a side story and that’s something we intend to broadcast with authenticity and to remain true to the football first and foremost, but in the context of a rather different world we all find ourselves in right now.”
While the Premier League was working out Project Restart, NBC Universal was figuring out its own safety guidelines. All of the regular talent will be involved, in studio and on site, and received assurance that their safety was a priority before coming back to work. California based Lowe and analyst Robbie Earle will fly back to NBC Sports’ Stamford, Conn. studios Tuesday; Earle will stay there for the duration of the 40 day stretch, while Lowe has a return flight scheduled after ten days. The U.S. based team will check temperatures when they leave for work and arrive, have separate printers, will not share food, are required to wear masks when they are not live, and will sit six feet apart.
Behind the scenes, the production team is split in two groups of six, rotating after every two shows to minimize intermingling. The broadcasts will also feature what the Premier League is calling atmospheric enhanced audio from EA Sports, the fake crowd noise similar to that played during Bundesliga matches. It will play on television, but audiences have the option to turn it off while watching on mobile apps. The on-site commentators will also listen to the audio during broadcasts.
The U.K. based commentary team, led by Arlo White, will follow similar protocol. “We’ll be taking our temperatures when we leave the house,” White said. “We’ll arrive separately. We are allowed in 90 minutes, I believe, before each game kicks off. Our temperatures will be taken on site before we enter into the stadiums. We’ll be wearing our masks up until the point that we broadcast and there’ll be no three man booths for obvious reasons for a while and whether it’s myself and Graeme [Le Saux] or myself and Lee [Dixon], we will obviously be practicing social distancing.”
Additionally, the Premier League will be limiting the amount of broadcast teams in gantries; the space reserved for two or three broadcast teams will now be taken up by one. In the case the commentators cannot make it to the game, NBC will rely on the Premier League’s world feed.
The storytelling aspect for the final stretch of the 2019-20 season will not only include a pandemic, though. Games resume less than a month after the killing of George Floyd sparked global protests against police brutality and racial injustice, conversations Premier League players have actively engaged in. That has forced the league to take note, and the NBC broadcast team will also dedicate time to the topic.
“Being the only in front of the camera Black person, Rebecca and I have had, over the course of the seven years of having the Premier League [coverage on NBC], a few — I wouldn’t say difficult conversations but important conversations about race,” Earle said. “You can be sure we won’t avoid issues. We’ll be honest, we’ll be frank, and we’ll be transparent with it,” Earle said. He noted the team’s habit of discussing race, from previous broadcasts to recent episodes of the 2 Robbies Podcast.
The players’ efforts over the last three months to both fundraise for the National Health Service and leading efforts to ensure the Black Lives Matter movement is part of Project Restart is a part of the story of the Premier League’s unprecedented return. It has not gone unnoticed by White.
“I’ve been very impressed with the players in terms of both COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter,” he said. “They’re often criticized in this country for being flashy youngsters. They go to nightclubs, they’re always doing wrong things and their lifestyles perhaps could be better. Actually, the truth is more these are guys that really do look after themselves and they have a massive social conscience and they have multicultural dressing rooms. ... Who know what will happen Wednesday and the following weekend, but what they will do will be important, it will be significant, and I think a lot of people are going to be proud of them.”
Earle believes the Premier League and the FA have done the right thing in supporting the players in their efforts, but believes the organizations also need to rise to the occasion.
“We have to see actions that are accountable and can be checked, that you can look back and see if things are working and adapt if they’re not,” Earle said. “I suppose in some respect, it feels like this is the first step for the Premier League and the FA. ... I feel as though there’s a different energy, a bigger determination to get things done and so part of that is going to be some difficult conversations between players, clubs, club owners, people who are running the games.”
In the end, the global discourse means the Black Lives Matter movement will take center stage when the Premier League returns to NBC Sports next week.
“We’ve taken that next step on the podcast and we’re planning on doing it on Wednesday,” Lowe said. “We’re planning on doing it on Friday. We’re planning on doing it at the weekend. We’re planning on making sure this conversation is continuing throughout our coverage. ... We all need to be having that conversation right now, but with the Premier League, there’s going to be lots of visible reminders of the movement and therefore we need to reflect that.”