COVID-19 has changed life on the road in ways Bill Bonnell, '83 could never have imagined. Bonnell is the Coordinating Producer for Saturday night Prime Time Football on the ESPN family of networks and the College Football Playoffs. His season started Labor Day weekend in Annapolis, Maryland and he's traveled to a different college football outpost each week ever since. "It's really strange not having anyone in the stadium but it's great to be back doing football."
Once routine road trips now include mandatory tests for the virus, a hotel quarantine upon arrival, and constant Zoom meetings with his production team both during the week and while they are all staying in the same hotel. On game day ESPN has increased the number of high-tech production trucks so Bonnell and his crew are more spread out. "We all wear masks and have our own personal headsets. Wearing a mask and headsets for 3-and-a-half hours during a broadcast while trying to communicate with your on-air talent, the director, and everyone else is one of the most impossible challenges I've had in my career."
All of the changes means Bonnell rarely sees his on-air team of Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit in person. "I don't see Chris and Herbie for more than a couple of minutes every week. Everything is done by Zoom. I literally live on Zoom! We take as many precautions as we can. We don't go to practice, we wear masks, and we're socially distanced. I haven't even been in the ESPN offices since March 10th and don't think I'll be back there until sometime in 2021."
This past weekend Bonnell and his team traveled to Athens, Georgia for a titanic tussle between two Top Ten teams, Auburn and Georgia. During one of their Zoom meetings in the days preceding the game, Bonnell and Fowler decided they would have video ready to use of Auburn's game at Georgia two years ago when more than 92,000 fans were in attendance. "It's very eerie to be in a big stadium when it's empty or there aren't nearly as many people in there as you are used to. Normally we see and hear the energy of the crowd and our announcers feed off it."
Like many businesses, Bonnell and ESPN's ability to improvise and adjust have led to cost cutting and technical changes which may become permanent. During the pandemic some of the announcers have done their play-by-play and color commentary from a broadcast studio rather than from the game site. "The technology is amazing. I really take my hat off to our ESPN operations crew who have figured all of this out." Bonnell has also improvised on the road, turning Saturday morning in-person production meetings into virtual meetings rather than renting out a hotel conference room. "We would spend a lot of money on that. There's no reason we can't continue to do that with Zoom and save on our budgets."
Bonnell is so good at what he does he's won multiple Emmy Awards. If he wasn't he says he would be a songwriter in Nashville. When Covid forced him to stay home for months on end, he picked up his guitar, wrote an album, and just released it on Spotify and iTunes. The title is "The Story's Untold." He's proudest of a song titled "Kingston" in memory of his musical hero, Gord Downie, beloved lead singer for the Canadian band Tragically Hip. Downie passed away in 2017 after being diagnosed with an aggressive and incurable form of cancer. His final concert was August 20, 2016 in the band's hometown of Kingston, Ontario. Bonnell released his single on August 20, 2020. "I wrote the song about him in honor of his life and his music. It's one of the songs I'm proudest about. He was and continues to be such an inspiration to me."