There have been moments, Kevin Burkhardt acknowledges, when the surreal cannot be masked.
Broadcasting live sports during a pandemic is a complicated task, one designed to provide entertainment and purport some small sense of normalcy, even if the visuals from these events — especially of the crowds ranging from scattered to nonexistent — reminds us that none of this should ever be accepted as normal.
“It’s definitely strange, challenging, very far from normal,’' said Burkhardt, who will handle the play-by-play of Sunday’s Patriots-Cardinals game with analyst Daryl Johnston on Fox. “And there have been a couple of times where it’s been jarring.
“In Week 1, we were in Washington and we’re driving in to the stadium and it’s a ghost town. That’s when it really hit how unusual this is. We were in New Orleans last week, and that place is usually complete insanity. It’s not like that now, obviously. It’s just unlike any experience we’ve ever had there.
“Sometimes it just hits you as sad. We had Packers-Vikings a couple of weeks ago, and seeing Lambeau without tailgaters is so striking. There was a point in the game when [Vikings running back] Dalvin Cook scored and he jumped up to do the Lambeau leap. I think I actually said it on air. I said, ‘It’s kind of sad. He jumped up and he’s trying to have fun with it.’ But it just reminds you how things are sometimes.”
Burkhardt, who also serves as the main studio host as well as a play-by-play voice for Fox’s baseball broadcasts, is authentically good-natured on the air and off. His rise to national prominence as a broadcaster was not a meteoric one, and he’s quick to acknowledge how grateful he is to be doing something he loves at a time when so many are struggling.
Burkhardt’s candor about the circumstances of broadcasting live games right now is not intended as a complaint, but rather as an honest response to questions about the challenges of the situation.
“I’m truly thankful that we’re playing and working,’' he said. “The games have been the normal part. It’s the other stuff which has been weird, you know? We do everything on Zoom. You’ve got no access. You don’t get to spend real time with people.”
Burkhardt said it’s been a pleasure working with Johnston, the former Cowboys fullback, in their first season together. But he acknowledges that they would have benefited even further from being able to spend some time together away from the broadcast booth.
“He’s so, so good and he’s such a pro,’' said Burkhardt. “We’ve really got along well. We’re lucky that way, because there have been added degrees of difficulty. It’s obviously tougher to build that necessary rapport this year. We talked on the phone and we Zoom and stuff like that, but it’s just not the same as hanging out. It’s just not.
“And I think with any partner or crew, that camaraderie is such a big deal over the air you’re talking about the game. You’re talking about life. You’re talking about all these things, and it benefits you to know that person you’re working with well.
“There’s no replacement for going out and having a bottle of wine and just shooting the breeze. Thankfully, he’s great and so easy to work with and we’ve had a really good time, but at the beginning it was just a little different.”
Burkhardt is one of the play-by-play announcers — a minority, based on my discussions over the last few months — that prefers to work without having the artificial crowd noise pumped into his headset. He did use it for baseball, but recently decided to ditch it for football.
“When I was calling baseball, there were times where I was in a back studio by myself, and it’s quite dark, and I got a bunch of monitors and it’s 10 o’clock at night and I’m like, ‘How am I awake?’ ’’ he said. “It’s just so sterile. So the crowd noise that Fox manufactured was a big deal because I felt like it kept me involved in the game. Energy is one thing I’ve never had a problem with. But in that use situation, it was I thought it was needed.
“With football, though, it’s different. You can hear the quarterback’s cadence, and players talking and stuff, so there’s really some excellent audio even if there isn’t the crowd to lean on anymore.
“My question was whether I could still lay out and sound energetic on third and 10 when the crowd would normally be going wild. I found out I can, because we have the sounds from the field.”
Burkhardt said that in some sense, the three-plus hours spent calling the game is the calmest part of the week.
“This is such a small world problem, and I preface it by saying how you know, lucky and fortunate I am, but the traveling aspect is stressful,’' he said. “It just is.
“Last week, we’re in New Orleans and there are no direct flights to Los Angeles, which there normally are. So we stop over in Houston, there’s one place open, and there’s eight million people eating there without a mask. I didn’t feel comfortable doing that. And the airline is not serving really any food. So my dinner is a bag of Doritos. Is that a big deal? No, of course not, but it sucks.
“We’re like mercenaries. We fly in, we have our production meeting. We do the game, we get out of there, and basically stay away from everybody. It’s weird, but the games themselves have felt normal. Everything else about it is not normal.”