Three, Two, One, Showtime: Debbie Antonelli Discusses Calling WNBA Games from Home
The WNBA’s remote broadcasts are unprecedented, but the concept could have staying power
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Shortly before the Atlanta Dream and the Dallas Wings opened their 2020 seasons at the Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida, longtime women’s basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli surveyed her setup to call the game from her home in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Two laptops? Check. iPad? Check. Television? Check. Headset and console? Check and check.
Antonelli has called women’s professional basketball games for the past 26 seasons—all 24 WNBA seasons plus the only two seasons of the American Basketball League (ABL). But this would be unlike any broadcast she had done before.
NBA TV had originally asked Antonelli whether she would be interested in calling games on location in Florida, but the WNBA’s desire to minimize the number of people on site eliminated that option. NBA TV came back with another proposal: “We're going to call games from home. How do you feel about that?”
“I was like, ‘What? Are you kidding me?’” Antonelli told Her Hoop Stats. “… That's so unique; it's so different in the industry.”
The network mailed Antonelli a “broadcast kit” to ensure she has everything she needs for calling games. A light is on the way, to brighten up the scene when Antonelli and her play-by-play partner appear on television. But she also added a few provisions of her own: a sign for her office door to remind her sons when she is on the air and black skirting around her table, just like a courtside table in an arena would have.
“It's awesome, let me just say that,” Antonelli said of her setup. “I never thought we'd ever be in this situation. It [was] a short time ago that we weren't even able to really shoot anything off your phone and put it on the air because [the] quality wasn't good enough. And now we have this new level of normal and acceptance.”
Antonelli has been using a paper-based system for over 30 years to organize information about college and professional players, coaches, and teams. One benefit of broadcasting from home is that she has more room to arrange all of that paper. There are two easels flanking her table, out of view of the cameras but easy for her to see and access. One easel contains league-wide storylines, while the other contains information and talking points relevant to the game in question. Antonelli also has index cards on every player, giving her their career arc at a glance. “This would typically be stuff that I might carry with me in a much more condensed form,” she explained. “But it just allows me to be broader in my thinking because I have more space.”
While Zoom and one-on-one phone calls with players and coaches have helped give broadcasters more information as they prepare for games, they cannot totally replace the in-person interactions at practices and shootarounds that typically inform Antonelli’s thinking. “That’s the part I miss the most,” she said. ESPN’s Rebecca Lobo told The Athletic the same thing just before the season tipped off, saying that watching practice helps her “get a good read” on a team before a broadcast.
On the other hand, there are perks of calling the game from home, too. “The part that I don't miss is sneakers versus heels,” Antonelli said. “… I love that I can get up and have my morning with my guys, making breakfast and working out. … [And] I am seven steps to the closest restroom and 18 to the closest postgame refreshment.”
Antonelli reported that she and play-by-play partner Tiffany Greene had no technical issues during the Atlanta-Dallas game, despite the behind-the-scenes complexity of getting the game feed to two people in different locations in real time. (Greene is based in Tampa, Florida, not far from Palmetto.) There have been minimal technical issues in her ensuing games, including Washington versus Connecticut with Ron Thulin on July 28 and New York versus Atlanta with Leah Secondo on July 31. Antonelli credited NBA TV and Ross Productions for making it all possible.
“I thought it was really awesome that I can see my partner in the computer screen,” Antonelli said. “So we can have body language communication back and forth, and that makes a huge difference. … Tiffany and I, I'm not gonna say we have signals like a third base coach would have, but I think we had some prior understanding because we've worked together before and I know what her strengths are [and] she knows what mine are.”
Antonelli is known for her love of offense, which is embodied in her catchphrase “Shoot till your arm falls off!” So the Atlanta-Dallas game was a perfect fit for her, with Atlanta coming away with a 105-95 victory. The teams combined to shoot 49% from the field and 44% from 3-point range, and Atlanta’s Monique Billings had a game-high 30 points on 71% shooting. Seven other players across both teams scored between 16 and 19 points, including Dream rookie Chennedy Carter, Antonelli’s predicted WNBA Rookie of the Year.
In just the first week of the season, a team surpassed 100 points six times and 90 another seven times. “The pace is fast and efficient!” Antonelli tweeted on Thursday. She told Her Hoop Stats that she expects fatigue to start impacting players in the third week of the season but, with just seven weeks in the regular season, teams will elevate their play again by week five as the playoffs loom.
Antonelli thinks there is a chance that, even after sports return with no restrictions, she could call games from her home studio from time to time. “If you're asking me if I think I'm going to be home all season, I'd say no, I don't,” Antonelli said. “… [But] if this is a model that works to cut costs and we can figure out how to do this and continue to improve upon it, I think this is definitely an option [going forward].”
In that sense, the current situation allows the sports media industry to pilot test the concept of remote broadcasting and lay the foundation for its use beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Antonelli also believes that the WNBA’s single-site format could provide a strong proof of concept for an idea she has promoted for a decade: hosting the NCAA women’s college basketball regional finals at a single site, perhaps Las Vegas.
“I'm still out there beating the drum,” Antonelli said of her idea, which she calls Sweet 16 to Vegas. “… This [WNBA single site] is exactly a derivative of what I want women's college basketball to do … I think we need to be evaluating it.”
The WNBA already secured a major win this season when ESPN saw the success of the league’s opening weekend and decided to air 13 more games on its networks, an increase of over 50%. NBA TV and CBS will air the other games in the United States, as will teams’ local stations.
Antonelli praised WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert and the players’ union for making it possible to have a 2020 season, as well as for ensuring that the media has sufficient access to cover it. Speaking specifically about the regular Zoom calls with players and coaches, Antonelli said, “I would give the league major props for figuring out a solution to telling the stories of the WNBA, which is so important.”
That statement could apply just as well to the league’s television partners, who have figured out how to get Antonelli and her peers back into the homes of millions of Americans. Watching on television, it can feel like old times, before the term “social distancing” became part of everyone’s lexicon. It’s only when you pull back the curtain that you realize the elaborate setup required for Antonelli to go live from Mount Pleasant, nearly 500 miles northeast of Palmetto and the WNBA campus.