How to do a virtual NFL training camp tour during pandemic

The idea of a training camp media tour is simple: go, interview, enlighten your audience.

It doesn’t work quite that way in a pandemic.

So SiriusXM NFL Radio is adjusting. Rather than sitting next to Tom Brady in Tampa or Jon Gruden in Las Vegas, everything is being done remotely. For more than a dozen hosts, a handful of producers and myriad technicians charged with ensuring programming hits the air, the goal is to dig deep into all 32 teams without ever setting foot on franchise soil.

And while it’s not exactly like what NFL clubs are going through preparing for a season of uncertainty, it’s a major task.

So why do it?

“I always look at it as a challenge, it fires up your juices,” says Nick Pavlatos, the SiriusXM channel’s senior director of programming. “I remember when we had the lockout in 2011, I had a week or two to try to schedule a training camp tour. There was talk of doing only half of them. I said, `No, our listeners expect all 32.’

“I never thought we weren’t going to be able to do it this year.”

It’s more than the challenge, too, says Steve Cohen, SiriusXM’s senior vice president of sports programming.

“That we are able to do camp shows, there’s still so much we get out of talking to the player and coaches, and asking the right questions,” Cohen explains, “and getting the information from the teams and imparting that wisdom to our listening base. So it’s very important to find out firsthand what is going on with the teams. There’s so much to cover, and this year more so; our camp tour is invaluable in terms of doing that preparation for the season.”

Normally, SiriusXM crews travel all over the map to places as rural as Latrobe, Pennsylvania and as cosmopolitan as Houston. Former NFL executive Pat Kirwan, who’s been hosting on the camp tours since they began in 2005, fondly (sort of) recalls the days of planes, trains and automobiles. More rewarding have been the spoils of being at those camps.

There’s no true substitute for face-to-face communications.

“There is a lot of trust by the team connected with being a successful camp tour,” says Kirwan, who works with former NFL quarterback Jim Miller on the station’s flagship show, “Movin’ The Chains.”

“Over time I have been able to gain the confidence of coaches that when I see them and talk about something I have an opinion on, they know it won’t be shared with other teams and not be broken down to the level of giving away privileged information. They trust Jim and me. Even coach Belichick makes sure we have the best perch in town to watch practice. He will sit with us and if we keep asking questions, he will answer them.”

That alone is newsworthy.

So was getting Bill Belichick’s former quarterback on the air for 20 minutes during the Buccaneers tour program. No, Kirwan and Miller were not sitting next to the six-time Super Bowl winner. Indeed, no one from SiriusXM was at Bucs camp, but through the work of the technical staff of Doug Mortman, VP of programming operations, all the necessary equipment was there. As well as at every other camp stop.

In some ways, that was the biggest hurdle to leap over.

“We sent them a high-quality mic to hook to the computer, and it will sound much better,” Pavlatos says. “We also supplied a shotgun mic — an extended mic that can be further away and still pick up the audio. That’s for health considerations; we don’t want guests sharing a mic that is close to them. They don’t have to get close to the mic now.

“We also sent 10 to 15 individual earbuds for the players to keep or discard when they are done. These are considerations we thought about because these teams are going out of their way to help us. So we want to make it as easy as possible for them.”

Making it easier with Brady was that Miller is his former backup in New England, and Kirwan has done many programs with Brady — including once at an eight-hour auto show.

“With Brady, I brought up the question not so much with the Xs and Os, but a more general question because we know Tom is relentless on that stuff,” Miller says. “Now it is much more about getting to know his teammates. And in limited practices. Tom knows it’s not going to be pretty all the time. He’d already thrown four picks, one a pick-6, in practice, and that bothers Tom.

“The practices are 20 percent over and you never get that back.”

Some day, camp tours for all broadcasters and writers will come back. Maybe not entirely in the same form, but in-person and in-depth.

Though they believe the current format has worked well and the information steadily has flowed to listeners, Kirwan and Miller can’t wait to be in Latrobe or Las Vegas.

“A lot of coaches like when Jimmy and I come, and they let us on the field literally in the middle of the drills,” Kirwan says. “They want us there and they even ask us what we think of what we are watching.”

Yep, even Belichick.

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