UMass play-by-play voice Jay Burnham talks broadcasting in a pandemic

  • UMass play-by-play voice Jay Burnham, shown here in a previous season, has been plenty busy calling games for the athletic department this winter. THOM KENDALL/UMASS ATHLETICS

Sports Editor
Published: 2/17/2021 1:57:08 PM

Playing sports during a pandemic has required varying degrees of planning and practicality, though perhaps above all, folks involved have had to be adaptable.

You want adaptability? Jay Burnham has already called a UMass men’s basketball game from a basement.

Such things may have seemed unfathomable a year ago, but the UMass Athletics Director of Broadcasting and Voice of the Minutemen has had to be particularly pliable over the past few months. A Shelburne Falls native and Mohawk Trail Regional alum, Burnham is tasked with leading a department at UMass that has been planning, implementing and pivoting in just about every direction imaginable since returning to work in October.

“It’s a unique situation we’re all dealing with here,” explained Burnham, who handles the play-by-play broadcasting duties for the UMass basketball and football programs. “My industry, we’ve had to dodge and adapt. We started playing sports [at UMass] in October, I believe, and we’ve had people making a lot of sacrifices to broadcast and play these games.”

Broadcasting games at UMass began when the football team returned to the fold in October, and the Minutemen ultimately played four games. Hockey and men’s and women’s basketball followed, and all three were in full swing up until Feb. 7, when the university announced it would be pausing all games and practices for at least two weeks due to rising COVID-19 cases on campus.

“Flexibility is obviously key, but really communication within our department has been the biggest thing,” explained Burnham. “You have to be able to quickly communicate when things like that happen. If we’re paused, or if games are postponed and then moved and rescheduled, there are so many moving pieces. It does get frustrating – no one wants to be waiting around right now – but having the right people that are willing to be elastic and stay in constant communication, we’re lucky with the team we’ve got here.”

No fans have been allowed inside the Mullins Center for games this year. Burnham said that while he has been able to watch and call the action in person for home games, protocols across the board have presented more than their fair share of difficulties.

“Everything is harder,” he began. “Everything you do is now five and ten times harder than it was before. We’re not unique in that situation but it takes a job that is already difficult at times and makes it that much more difficult to deal with.”

Some of those difficulties have come when the basketball teams have taken to the road. Burnham called the men’s basketball team’s victory over La Salle in Philadelphia earlier this season off a TV monitor from the comfy confines of broadcasting partner Adam Frenier’s basement.

“My job is to tell the story of a game through the UMass lens. It’s definitely not the easiest thing to do in a basement through a TV screen,” Burnham said with a laugh.

A lack of fans inside arenas has also changed Burnham’s approach to broadcasting, at least in some ways. Without crowd noise partially drowning him out on the call of a game, he said he is hyper aware of all the noise that now isn’t being generated around him. That presents problems when it’s particularly quiet during certain moments like free throw attempts.

“I do kind of feel like it’s a golf round and I’m giving the Jim Nantz whisper at times,” he offered. “There’s also another component where if you look at some of the best calls, it’s not the announcer that makes it but the crowd atmosphere. A great broadcaster will let that moment breathe. Feeling the rush of the game, to not have that live in-person piece is something that’s kind of a struggle.”

Burnham has been able to travel some with the teams for road games, and he said he’s COVID tested three times a week through the school. He’s excited about the prospect of UMass playing in the Atlantic-10 Tournament next month, as both the men’s and women’s events are slated to be contested in Richmond, Va. — a place he knows well due to past broadcasting gigs with VCU and the Richmond Flying Squirrels, Double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants.

The hope is that UMass can return to action in all sports next week. The men’s team has its next scheduled game set for Feb. 24 against Saint Joseph’s, while the women’s team is slated to return Feb. 26 against VCU. While it’s been a difficult two-week stint for the entire university, Burnham said the mere fact that his department has been in the crosshairs of planning and broadcasting sporting events at the school for four months now makes him appreciative.

“Myself and the people in our department are just happy to have jobs, I think,” he explained. “We’re fortunate to be in this position where we did take some furloughs, but we’ve overcome some hurdles and we’re employed. Yes, it’s hard work trying to get all this done and stay on top of everything, but just being in this spot at this point in time, that has been a blessing.”


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