Tipoff is minutes away, and 300 miles away, as Mike Grimm makes his final preparations. He checks his notes, puts on his headset, and stares at a TV monitor positioned close enough for him to touch from his seat.
Four different camera angles are displayed on the screen. Grimm, the radio voice of Gophers men's basketball, hopes one of them will be in focus so he can correctly identify which player has the ball.
That's not always guaranteed.
"We really won't know what we get until the game starts in terms of quality," he says.
Welcome to pandemic broadcasting.
In what has become the norm since sports resumed last summer, announcers often find themselves calling road games remotely from their homes, studios or, in the case of Gophers basketball and hockey broadcasts, from the press box at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Gophers radio crews for men's and women's basketball and men's hockey do not travel to road games. It's a safety precaution to limit the number of people in the traveling party.
Even though Big Ten schools coordinated technological logistics in providing each other video streaming, the quality is not consistent. Some are OK, some not. Without naming names, Grimm said the feed for one game was so blurry that it was nearly impossible to distinguish players.
The essence of radio broadcasts is to paint a picture for listeners, but that picture becomes abstract art if they can't see what they're calling.
"We're kind of at the mercy of what they send us," Grimm says.
Putting on a remote broadcast requires some technological gymnastics that are far from perfect. One game per day is tricky. The Gophers had a double dose last Sunday as men's basketball played at Iowa at 1:30 p.m., followed by men's hockey at Wisconsin at 4.
"I don't think we're going to have a day when we have three road broadcasts at the same time," says radio engineer Dan Rowbotham, one of the tech gurus who set up the broadcast area inside a club room at the football stadium.
The makeshift studio features a projection screen that displays four in-house camera feeds supplied by the home team. For Gophers vs. Iowa, two broadcasters — Grimm handling play-by-play and former player Spencer Tollackson providing analysis — sit at their own tables socially distanced with large TV monitors in front of them showing the same four camera angles. Broadcasters for men's hockey and women's basketball use this same space.
TV broadcasts come with a delay of about 15 seconds, meaning radio announcers' only real option is using the live but lower-quality camera feeds. Their timing would be far off otherwise. Home teams provide live game audio — shoes squeaking, balls hitting the rims, coaches yelling.
The ambience you hear, right on time with reality, comes with a trade-off.
"Literally, you can't tell who has the ball all the time because it's not like what you're seeing at home on TV," Grimm says.
Sweating it out
Tollackson turned his TV monitor to the Big Ten Network to start the Iowa game to get a clear picture. But the delay was so confusing that he switched back to the in-house feed at the first media timeout.
Grainy video means announcers occasionally misidentify players. Sometimes it's difficult to tell when a shot goes in. They don't always get replays, which creates uncertainty about what's happening on a foul call or a review.
In the Michigan game, a Wolverines player had a tooth knocked out in a collision with a Gophers player. Grimm and Tollackson figured he lost a contact.
Being hundreds of miles from courtside brings a sense of detachment.
"It's a totally different thing because you just don't have a feel," Grimm says. "We're trying as hard as we can to bring what we can."
Tollackson had worked 379 consecutive games in person before this season. He finds analyzing games this way a "struggle."
"It's hard for me to really see how good the opponent is on the TV," he says. "You can't see how big they are, the length, the speed, the athleticism."
Usually, the announcers call the action alone. Their voices echo in the quiet emptiness. They still become animated at pivotal moments when, as Tollackson describes it, "Grimm is going bananas."
There are some benefits to not being at road games. For one, no travel, which allows more time at home with family.
Another key advantage that workers throughout America know well by now …
"It is nice to call these games in sweatpants," Tollackson says. "It's pandemic basketball, man. I'm going to wear sweatpants and be as comfortable as I can."
The game at Iowa is late in the first half when hockey announcers Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco arrive in the press box for their Sunday afternoon gig. Because of the overlap between basketball and hockey game times, the tech staff transforms a visiting football radio booth into a studio for Shaver and Mazzocco with a smaller-scale setup.
Not long after basketball coach Richard Pitino concludes his postgame Zoom recap with the radio guys, Shaver stands up from his chair in a room down the hall and bellows, "Hello again, hockey fans everywhere …' "
Calling hockey remotely presents its own challenges. Line changes happen every 30 seconds, making it difficult to identify who is on the ice, especially if coach Bob Motzko shuffles his lines.
"It's one of those things that everybody has to adapt," says Shaver, in his 20th season calling Gophers game. "For me, I've got to be more focused."
Nothing is perfect right now. These announcers — true pros at their craft — are making the best of the situation and handling quite well these tricky circumstances.
Off air, Mazzocco shares a sensible view of technical hiccups, such as not seeing part of a play because the camera feed does not capture the entire ice.
"None of us know what we're missing," he says.
They still serve as the eyes for those listening on the radio, however imperfect it might seem at times. And they get to wear sweatpants.