For four decades, Bob Fishman has served as the lead director for CBS Sports’ coverage of college basketball and the NCAA Tournament.
But as the St. Thomas native enters what will be his 39th Final Four, being played today in Indianapolis, Fishman admits that working this year’s tournament hasn’t been like any of the past 38 others.
The reason? The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the cancellation of last year’s tournament and significantly changed how this year’s NCAAs are being run — and broadcast.
“It’s been stressful because of the way we’re doing business now, because of the pandemic,” Fishman said in a telephone interview. “It’s just completely different than it’s ever been, and it’s very stressful on many, many levels.”
The biggest, most noticeable change in this year’s NCAA Tournament has been its location. Instead of games taking place all over the country, only converging in one spot for the Final Four and the championship game, the 2021 edition of the NCAA has played all of its games at facilities in and around Indianapolis.
While that significantly cut down on travel for Fishman and his production crews, dealing with the pandemic has made even pre-game preparations much more difficult.
For starters, no more gathering the crews together for production meetings; the same goes for the broadcast staff’s pre-game interviews with players and coaches.
“All of that has completely changed,” Fishman said. “We do all of that now on Zoom meetings. That’s held true from [college] football [which Fishman also directs for CBS Sports] all the way until now.”
While Fishman’s job still involves staring at a bank of monitors, looking for the right angle to broadcast to a nationwide audience, that changed somewhat during the pandemic.
For example, during college basketball’s regular season, Fishman said that instead of directing broadcasts at game sites, he did all of his work remotely from a New Jersey studio. Only a small crew — camera operators and other technicians — would be at the game sites.
“I’d sit there in front of a bank of monitors, getting the feeds in from all of the cameras, and communicating over headsets with the technical crews on the game site, wherever that was,” Fishman said.
“I did that for about five weeks and that was challenging, because there were some communications issues, but we got through that. Most people at home didn’t know the difference; that’s the amazing part of how good the technology has become and how good our people are at figuring all of this stuff out.”
Also, only two hand-held cameras are allowed on the floor at each NCAA Tournament game, according to Fishman, and they have to be situated at least a dozen feet from the baseline of the court.
The broadcast announcers, normally at courtside, are seated in the stands. The other cameras, the ones far above the court, are all being run remotely — a first for many of the operators.
“It limits what they can see, because those guys are locked away in a room,” Fishman said. “They’re operating the cameras like they’re playing a video game, but they’re not able to see the court with their own eyes. That’s a little bit of a challenge, but there’s a lot of equipment here and nobody’s going to miss anything.”
The on-site COVID-19 protocols — both the NCAA’s and CBS Sports — have also created some stress, according to Fishman.
“Everyone’s pretty much on lockdown,” he said. “We can go out and do a meal pickup, but CBS has some pretty stringent protocols in place — they do not want us to congregate, they do not want us to go out and have meals together because of the fear factor of anybody getting the virus and spreading the virus.
“There have been a few people in various areas of their work that have been sent home because they either tested positive or were in contact with somebody else who tested positive. They’ve even sent referees home.
“I tell you, it’s tough being in one place for three weeks or more. I’ve been here since the Big Ten Tournament [held March 10-14 in Indianapolis], so people are probably a little stir crazy at this point. But we’re coming to the end of the road.”