The Sound of Silence: NBA’s PA Announcers on life without fans

“And nowww….”

Heads turn as hundreds of beer-buying fans are prompted by one of sports’ most notable social cues. It’s time to file through the scattering crowd, relocate to your seat and avoid spilling your probably-overpriced beverage, as the thundering voice from the speakers is presenting tonight’s starting line-ups. Remember that? Yeah, me too..

From the outset of the NBA’s post-bubble 2020-2021 season, it was made clear that fresh challenges would present themselves, as teams returned to their home markets, then travelled to visit opponents across the country, while adapting to an ever-changing COVID-19 protocol. For Portland Trail Blazers Public Address Announcer, Mark Mason, it was impossible to totally anticipate just how foreign his role has felt in the current climate.

“Everything is different. My normal routine is turned upside down,” Mason told me.

Now in his 25th year as the Blazers’ in-arena voice, he has found himself retraining his muscle memory when it comes to the day-to-day routine. During a homestand, he now drives to Portland’s Moda Center every morning to align with new testing measures, rather than arriving hours prior to each home tip-off as before.

On game night, he continues to adapt to new ways of working. The catered hot meals have been replaced by self-serve box meals, the afternoon meetings with the game ops crew have been swapped out for isolated pre-game contemplation and entry to the arena has become more arduous. Upon arrival, Mason is required to answer extensive health questions on a bespoke app to show his greeter, before visiting a multitude of compulsory, staggered hygiene stops on the way to his station, where he takes to the mic around 22 minutes before opening horn. Once in his designated, color-coded ‘zone’ – which cannot be cross-pollinated by those from another zone – Mason completes a final DIY cleaning operation.

I spend about 5-10 minutes disinfecting my workspace with the AMPLE supply of antiviral disinfectant wipes and sprays,” he said. “Of course, I am doing this for my own safety, but it is part of required NBA protocol as well.” 

Once he’s suitably sterilized, Mason can finally focus on his job – one which often goes underappreciated and plays a major part in the NBA experience for fans – whether they are in attendance or not.

“One would think it’s just being a cheerleader, announcing players and calls during the game.  Now that you make me think about it, there are obviously more ingredients to the recipe than meets the eye. I am a tour guide, of sorts.”

On the aforementioned tour, the PA Announcer will take you through opening announcements, endorsements from team sponsors, entertainment introductions, notably-less-enthusiastic yet professional visitors introductions, rapturous home introductions and play-by-play updates as the game progresses, while dictating the energy of the arena through their vocal performance.

Texas native Sean Heath has been the man behind the mic for the Dallas Mavericks since 2009. As he says online, if it’s a loud voice, it’s probably him 97% of the time.

“My daughter says that I am the team’s loudest cheerleader,” Heath joked. “For me, that means that I make all of the sponsor announcements, starting lineups, foul calls, coaches challenges, timeouts, substitutions, crowd prompts and player name recognition for every made basket.”

Without a packed arena, cheerleading can be a tough gig. It’s been an interesting challenge adapting to the current conditions for Heath, without the opportunity to hype up 20,000 Dallasites in the American Airlines Center.

“For me, the most noticeable difference has been reminding myself to not talk directly to the crowd. I automatically treat a crowd at a sporting event as if we all came together in the same car. I’m quite informal and I can be fairly insistent in my attempts to encourage them to get louder. A few times so far this season, I have caught myself saying “C’mon, Mavs fans…”.

In Northern California, Scott Moak’s distinctive delivery has been enjoyed by Sacramento Kings fans since 2002. He also ran all community efforts for the team between 2014-2018. This season, he has naturally been moderating the rambunctiousness, where appropriate.

“I definitely do not press the gas pedal as much as I do when the Golden 1 Center is packed with Kings fans” Moak said.  “I lighten up a bit and try to temper my typical yelling-and-screaming, except in those spectacular moments where the handfuls of staff and players watching inside of the arena get hyped too. Then I go for it!”

Now in his 24th year as the PA announcer for the Philadelphia 76ers, Matt Cord has enjoyed his fair share of special moments. He joined the Iverson team in the 2001 NBA Finals, called the 2002 All-Star game and introduced Kobe Bryant at his final game in the Wells Fargo Center. Despite his wealth of experience, he too has been tested by the glaring absence of Sixers diehards.

“Doing games without fans is difficult because I feed off the fans and I’d like to think they feed off me. We still have our Sixers Entertainment during games, so that really helps!”

The sentiment is shared by Kyle Speller, who is now announcing his 16th season with the Denver Nuggets. He believes that his ability to galvanise the Denver faithful can serve as a home court advantage that transcends the local altitude, so he is working with slightly limited resources.

“The most noticeable difference without the crowd is just the energy in the building,” Spellman stated. “We all feed off each other and when there is no crowd in attendance, we are unable to manufacture that type of energy. At our arena I have a number of calls that I make which evoke a crowd response and without them being there, we obviously are unable to have that in our bag. Also, our crowd gets real loud, making tons of noise.”

Noise is a factor which many fanbases take pride in; as far as an NBA team is concerned, the louder the home crowd the better. When you’re left with mostly empty seats, an arena just sounds completely different, with an unrecognisable game-day acoustic. Michael Baiamonte has served the Miami Heat for 30 years in an announcing capacity and even he has been surprised by the eerie atmosphere.

“The biggest difference is just how cavernous our arena is with no fans. Sound is a major difference,” Baiamonte shared.  “With fans there is constant sound. Now things are very quiet, so you can hear the team and the coaches very clearly during the game shouting encouragement or giving direction.”

In Cleveland, life-long Cavaliers fan and 4-year PA guy Sean Peebles has been making the most of the current circumstances. He even finds himself forgetting that he’s one of a few in the stands, due to some technical trickery.

“Unless I’m looking into the seating areas, I don’t notice. My focus is on what is happening when the ball is moving. But, we have had some fans attend to start the season and that number is actually increasing now. The Cavs have done an amazing job making the game experience authentic with (artificial) crowd noise and all of our normal show elements. As the season continues to move along, it is my hope that more fans will be able to come out for a night of fun and NBA basketball.”

The Cavaliers are not the only team to have introduced a limited number of fans into their arena, in line with social distancing guidance. Organizations around the league have experimented with the idea, but the acceleration of re-entry has been hampered by the recent tightening of the rules, as the infection rate among players increases and puts the league at risk of postponement.

In arguably the most extreme circumstances of all NBA announcers is John Pelkey, who is temporarily manning the mic for the Toronto Raptors while they spend the season in Florida, in place of PA stalwart Herbie Kuhn. He too has been buoyed by the presence of sporadically positioned fans, when able to attend, but barely notices once he’s able to fully lock in.

“We actually had small crowds – 3000 or so, I believe – for our first four games in Tampa. That policy has changed and now through at least February 5th we will not have fans in the arena. Obviously you don’t have the volume of noise you would in a full arena but with the ambient sound being added it really does feel like a normal game.”

Pumping in music and pre-recorded atmosphere can only cover up so much. Announcers’ voices are now more crystal-clear to players, coaches and even members of the front office than ever before. Of course, it works both ways this season, with the on-court activity highly audible even on the TV broadcast, but there is no escaping the undeniable, booming voices through the PA system.

“That is something that I have become aware of,” Baiamonte shared. “Right now, all of our Team Executives and our Team Owner are sitting across the court, physically distanced, directly facing me.  That is somewhat intimidating knowing all of the ‘bosses’ are right there.  Once we have fans again, they’ll still be in the arena but I won’t have as much direct eye contact with them to remind me they are there!”

“It’s definitely the biggest difference,” said Pelkey. “I’ve announced many events over the years with smaller crowds but in an arena the size of Amalie your voice does really stand out more. The players and coaches are still laser focused on what they’re doing in the game but you can’t help feel they’re hearing your voice a little bit more.”

Cord concurs.

“Yes, I’m more conscious of voice due to lack of fans. But I still give the exact same effort with our players’ names and my echo is still there, thanks to my audio guy Lou Diva. I keep forgetting that I can’t say “Ladies and Gentlemen” and “Come on fans” though.”

“Absolutely. I know they are all listening, as well as the coaches and officials, so it’s all the more important that I bring as much energy and professionalism as possible,” Speller told me.

A large portion of NBA announcers have been in action for well over a decade, so their techniques and routines have been ironed out over time. From a technical point of view, there have been some adjustments made early in the season.

“Wearing a mask is the most obvious,” Mason said. “I tried many different masks to gauge if they muffle my voice or not. It’s gross when you are talking so much and the mask steams up. You don’t realize it until your lips rub up against the mask and the mask is wet. My mask of choice is the old dependable blue disposable medical masks, more durable masks deadened my voice too much.

“That ‘first-read’ including all the sponsors is gone. There’s no one there to hear it. So, at about 7-minutes on the clock I go through reminding those inside the arena about the COVID-protocols. In fact, that is mostly what I read during time-outs and quarter breaks. A normal script in a normal game might be close to 50-pages long.  Now it averages out to about 14-pages!

“I have no worry about ‘talking’ to the crowd and sounding out of context. In fact, during the game I will do everything as if fans were in the stands, so that those watching at home or listening on radio or online will hear the arena exactly as they remember it. It’s a no-brainer. One change I made was during the team intro where I inserted “You’re the 6th man, so wherever you may be, get loud for your home team!” I picture people getting off the couches and cheering.”

At any time, the overwhelming majority of fans watching an NBA basketball game will be watching on TV or League Pass, with NBA arenas not quite able to host much over 20,000 bodies and the game rapidly growing far beyond American borders. Though viewers have the privilege of TV announcers, they still benefit from the work done by PA guys, who are heavily present on broadcasted audio feeds.

For those fortunate enough to attend NBA games regularly, nights in the bleachers are woven into the fabric of their being. PA Announcers represent the sound of a familiar voice, guiding them through 41 nights of the year, spearheading the emotional response which is enjoyed by teams and fans alike. Those devotees miss that voice greatly and the feeling is mutual.

“With no fans in the building there are no general announcements during timeouts to sell tickets or inform fans about promotions or upcoming concerts, which is actually kind of sad,” Moak said. “I really can’t wait for us to get back to doing those. There are no dance cams or contests or giveaways, or moments where fan interaction is the most fun.”

“The general energy and buzz that happens an hour leading up to the game. Fans seeing each other and high-fiving and hugging and celebrating that thing that they have in common. The roar and eruption of noise when a big basket is scored. And like, 200,000 other things.”

Looking at the big picture, Peebles expressed his excitement for the return of shared experiences and a belief that the extended period of international struggle will make safe mass congregations of likeminded individuals all-the-more satisfying when we reach the other side.

“Whether they are a Cavs fan or are coming to see the opposing team, they are missed. We, as sports fans, all look forward to being able to attend an event with family and friends. It is unfortunate that we have had to live through these trying times but we will all continue to endure this and eventually get to gather again with our fellow fans.”

“When the crowds return I am looking forward to all of us just being together again,” Speller said. “We are like one big family and we all feed off of each other. When the crowds return I am looking forward to the noise! LETS GOOOOOOO!!!”