On February 22, 2020, there was not a way anyone involved in the Marquee Sports Network’s launch could have foreseen the challenge the Covid-19 pandemic would bring to the sports world. They aired seven Chicago Cubs’ Spring Training games, and then suddenly, a brand-new regional sports network would be without sports for months.
“I think if you were drawing it up, you probably would not want to launch a network in a pandemic,” said Mike McCarthy, General Manager of Marquee Sports Network. “I feel pretty comfortable saying that. We really didn’t have a choice because the Cubs games had to air somewhere. It wasn’t an esoteric decision for a sitcom. It was more of a ‘this was our pledge to our fan base and our carriers and we’re going to do it.’ And so, we did it.”
Marquee is a year old regional sports network operated by Sinclair Broadcasting Group and the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs are the primary source of programming and have been since the 2020 launch.
The conversation with McCarthy was wide-ranging and went way beyond the Covid issues. Still, McCarthy went out of his way to point out that the staff going into lockdown barely knew each other and had to rally with new teammates almost instantly.
“We started producing shows from home on laptops and zoom calls,” McCarthy said. “We were doing it every night. We were quite sure we weren’t the only RSN to do it that often.”
“Some shows were better than others,” he added. “A couple of them were pretty clunky, to be honest with you. But we got through a lot of growing pains of getting to know each other. Once the real baseball games began was most likely a godsend to us.”
Previously, McCarthy was president of New York’s MSG Network, vice chairman and chief executive of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues, and chief operating officer of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.
Since team-owned RSNs began at the beginning of the century, there has been a mixed success. The YES Network and SNY (Sportsnet New York) have had both strong ratings and profits. However, lesser-known RSNs like the Minnesota Twins-owned Victory Sports was over after the 2003 season. The Kansas City Royals had the Royals Sports Television Network and lasted four years.
McCarthy believes that Marquee’s success is not necessarily tied to the Cubs’ success or lack of it on the field. After breaking an 87-year championship drought in 2016, the Cubs were at a fever pitch in the Windy City. Still, is Marquee’s success directly tied to the Cubs’ on-field success?
“It’s a fascinating question,” McCarthy replied. “It comes to this particular alliance because what has Cubs history been up? It’s been the lovable loser but loved. The WGN family made the Cubs almost everybody’s second favorite team. I mean, this passion that they have for the team is really not tied to success on the field.”
“We know we benefit from it (the team winning),” he added. “The ratings show that. I know it may sound a little cliche and maybe anybody in this role would say it, but I’ll tell you, this might be one of the few teams in sports where the winning and the losing is really just part of the appeal.”
One topic I asked McCarthy about was streaming. Cord-cutters have many issues seeing local games without the subscription from a cable company. Marquee does have distribution deals with Fubo-TV and AT&T TV, which are streaming services. Still, MLB.TV only offers out-of-market games.
“I think those are more complicated scenarios to consider,” McCarthy addressed the topic. “We love the relationships we have with our cable partners, and FUBO/AT&T. There’s a lot of people speculating on what the future holds. We feel like our traditional broadcast partners are very important to us. We like to think we deliver a nice product to them, and we think, identify a solution for streaming fans by way of our other partnerships.”
One of the biggest hires McCarthy made for the 2020 season was the Cubs’ main play-by-play voice. After the 2020 season, longtime voice Len Kasper departed the Cubs to become the radio play-by-play announcer for the cross-town Chicago White Sox. Speculation on who Marquee would hire was rampant on social media.
That speculation ended when longtime ESPN play-by-play man Jon “Boog” Sciambi was named the new Cubs TV voice.
“It’s a different kind of gig,” McCarthy added. “I think that’s why it interested Boog. If I told you the people that raised their hand in this, it would knock your socks off. I mean, this is one of those jobs. It has nothing to do with me or Marquee, which was a baby. It’s the Cubs and their relationship with their fans.”
“People said to me, ‘you might want to look into like a Boog Sciambi-type. A guy that’s a real student of baseball, but a regular guy that everybody can identify with. We did better than getting a Boog Sciambi-type. We got him.”
Sciambi continues to do national work for ESPN. When he misses a game, longtime play-by-play announcer Beth Mowins fills in. She became the first woman in Cubs history to call a regular-season game.
“I’ve been lucky to work with women broadcasting pioneering roles, like Doris Burke at the (Madison Square) Garden. Beth is confident. She is not demure. She’s legit. You hear it in her voice. You see it in her body language. She’s right where she is supposed to be. And it really went over well here in Chicago, which was not surprising.”
McCarthy added that Mowins being a Syracuse University Newhouse graduate was held against her. Us Orange-folks tend to stick together.
Media Noise – Episode 54
Demetri Ravanos welcome Jeremy Evans and Tyler McComas to the show this week. Topics include emergency programming, the streaming future of ESPN, and why the holidays is a good time to think about your upward mobility.
Breaking News Turned A Quiet Sunday Into The Busiest Week Of My Career
“We’ve set records at the station and listenership isn’t going down anytime soon. Plus, our social media following has boomed since Sunday morning.”
It started off as a completely innocent Sunday, which, you married men know, meant an afternoon Target trip with my wife. Earlier in the day, I was texting with Demetri Ravanos about the grind of doing sports radio during football season. That also included talking about Oklahoma’s loss in Bedlam to Oklahoma State. OU’s loss the night before meant I wouldn’t be doing a pre or post-game show on conference championship weekend. Football season was essentially coming to a close for me.
And then it hit. First it was a text from Cody Stoots of ESPN 97.5 in Houston. I’m good friends with Cody and respect his knowledge of college football, so it surprised me when he texted, “Oh no. Bummer about Lincoln. Coaching searches are fun though!”
Wait, didn’t Cody hear Lincoln Riley adamantly say he wasn’t going to LSU just hours before? He’s a smart guy. What’s he talking about?
I checked Twitter on a hunch. That’s when the madness officially started. I immediately knew it was true. We rushed out of Target. My crazy Sunday was just getting started. I cut an instant reaction video for my station’s Twitter page, where we have a sponsored segment called Sooners in 60. It’s a social media video that entails analysis and updates on everything OU. I uploaded it shortly after detailing my initial shock that Lincoln Riley was headed to USC. I couldn’t believe it. It was a complete shock to everyone.
As I kept my eyes on Twitter, I realized a reaction video wasn’t enough. That’s when Josh Helmer and I decided to record a 15-minute podcast on the breaking news. So via cell phone and in the front seat of the car, I gave my thoughts on the shocking development. But just as quickly as it uploaded, we realized we needed to do more. Our listeners deserved that.
Management at the station came together and realized we needed to get on the air. Granted, the postgame show the night before didn’t end until midnight, which meant Helmer and I would have to jump right back on the air, but this was too critical of a time to not be active. Especially since other stations in the market were rallying and getting people on the air. I had been looking forward to a calm Sunday, but I couldn’t be on the sidelines for this. Helmer didn’t want that either. We found a time that worked and decided we’d stay on the air until the bosses told us to stop.
At 5:30pm on Sunday evening, we hit the 94.7 The Ref and Sportstalk 1400 airwaves without a real plan. Sure, we’d take calls, but this was a show about natural reaction and how we felt in the moment. So as Helmer bumped us in with “California Love” we unleashed our anger towards Lincoln Riley’s decision.
It’s an easy way to create compelling content in that moment. You’re playing to the audience and they’re deeply interested in the story. Helmer and I wanted to be real and genuine, which meant addressing the crazy rumors around Riley’s departure, and slamming him for some of the things that were starting to emerge. We were given total freedom by management, trusted to react as strongly as we saw fit. So we did. And so did a ton of callers and even other co-hosts at the station that hopped on. It was the most exciting 90 minutes of radio I’ve ever been a part of.
We looked up and it was 7:00. We couldn’t believe how quickly the time had gone by, but we had to shut it down, because the Cleveland Browns were playing the Baltimore Ravens on our airwaves in just 20 minutes. We’re the Oklahoma flagship for the Browns so honoring our commitment to our partners was important. That being said, we could have continued the show all night. The live, raw reaction was incredible.
We signed off and received a text from our owner, thanking us for hopping on with short notice. After giving up a Sunday to help with coverage, that simple message was greatly appreciated. The day of work was over, but we knew an incredible week was coming our way. It was about to become a dream content scenario for talk show hosts in a crazed college football market.
Monday morning came with great news from management. The emergency show on Sunday night received the highest streaming numbers in station history. They were tracked from our app. The first real coaching search at OU since 1998 was starting to show its benefits.
So, as a station, we did what everyone else would do. We decided to capitalize. Recently, our station launched a merch store that has t-shirts, beanies, hoodies, etc.. Each have our logo on it, as well as special items that center around show hosts and OU game results. In all of the madness, former OU head coach Bob Stoops stepped in as the interim head coach for the upcoming bowl game. He’s always been beloved by the fan base, but this was next level loyalty. And we decided to make a t-shirt about it.
‘Bob’s Got Our Back’ is what the t-shirt reads with a visor at the bottom. I created it via the Canva app in my car in the station parking lot before our Monday morning meetings. As you can imagine, they’ve sold very quickly.
Monday’s day of radio was filled with anger towards Lincoln Riley, and excitement about who the next head coach will be. There was even a press conference that featured Stoops firing up the fans and ensuring everyone the program was going to be just fine. Sure, just two days before, an epic game between in-state schools broke out, but there was barely a mention of it. The bigger story had overtaken the actual game. It seemed like everyone in the state was listening to sports talk radio on Monday. I can’t speak for the other two stations in the market, but our listenership was so high, we maxed out the number of online listeners we could have via our app. We scrambled to find a way to expand the number of people that could listen to our stream at the same time. Thank God we did.
The past few days have been awesome. Sure, it’s meant endless time on the phone and exchanging texts with various people to try and chase the story, but any sports radio host during a coaching search should absolutely love the attention. We’ve set records at the station and listenership isn’t going down anytime soon. Plus, our social media following has boomed since Sunday morning.
The exciting part is that this story isn’t just a two-day fling. Anger towards Riley hasn’t stopped, nor will it, anytime soon, and the search for the next head coach has brought an incredible amount of interest. Madness happened on Sunday afternoon and it won’t stop until a new head coach is hired.
Ok, now I have to go. I think Brent Venables or Matt Rhule is about to be named the next head coach at Oklahoma. And yes, we have a t-shirt ready to go if that happens.
How Do You Break The Ice When A New Player Or Coach Comes To Town?
“How do you introduce yourself? What approach should you take? What’s the first thing you should do?”
It’s a season of change in many sports these days. College football coaches are changing teams. The NFL will surely have some coaching vacancies of its own soon enough. Don’t forget it’s also free agency time in baseball.
With all of that said, it’s also a crazy time for broadcasters. We need to start figuring out who the new players and coaches are and how to get to know these people as soon as we can. It’s as much about meeting the new folks as it is getting to know who they are in their jobs and as people. How do you go about this process?
Working in the industry as long as I have, it’s almost a given that every few years, it’s out with the old and in with the new. When you work in Chicago it seems to happen more often than that. Sometimes, from a broadcast perspective, the change is good. Other times it can be a little more difficult to deal with. I’ve been witness to both. But what matters at the beginning is you need to do your best to understand the change and adapt to the new way things may be done.
How do you introduce yourself? What approach should you take? What’s the first thing you should do? Well, it’s not that simple. Every case is quite different. Gathering information that will be useful to you is the best way to start the process. There are more than a few ways to accomplish this feat.
One of the first steps I would take when working in baseball was to contact fellow broadcasters that may have interacted with the new player or manager. The team announcing crews usually have the best insight into the nuances and personality of the person you are wanting to meet. They will have knowledge of how that player or manager likes to be approached. Is the player routine-oriented? Does he/she like to get the media business out of the way first, or do they want to wait until they’ve prepped for the game? That is the kind of critical information to have to develop a healthy respect for one another.
I also wanted to know from other broadcasters what their impressions of that player or coach were. Is this the kind of person you could joke around with or not? Was this a person that would open up to you, if they got to know and trust you? I would store this information in the back of my head, just so I was prepared. Even if a broadcaster told me to stay away from a particular guy, I would always try to find out for myself. I gave that new person the benefit of the doubt until they either proved the information about them was wrong or spot on.
Another method to introduce yourself to the new guy/girl was to make sure I was at the team’s first media availability. Whether it be a fan fest or just an introductory press conference, it’s important to have that person start recognizing your face and name.
I recall talking to one player that joined a team I worked for in particular at a fan convention. The informal setting of these events allows you to get some time with the new players and managers. In a casual conversation with this player, I wanted to find out when was the best time to approach him for pregame interviews. He told me that if he was seated at his locker facing away from the stall, feel free to approach. I’m so glad I was armed with that information, because I saw several fellow media members get turned away, when he wasn’t ready. I always tried to respect those wishes. The season went smoothly and he was a great ‘go to’ guy when needed because of that relationship we forged.
If you’ve been in the business a long time, you probably know a few of this new player’s former teammates. Many likely played for the team you broadcast and with the access you’ve had, introductions can be made or arranged. It’s always a better ‘in’ or ‘edge’ in the beginning of a relationship to have that extra cache of being introduced by one of that player’s peers. Most of these players respect one another and if you’re deemed ‘cool’ or ‘good’ by one, others will give you that chance to at least prove them wrong.
Every once in a great while, a team will put on a ‘meet and greet’ for a new coach or manager. It’s a way for those that regularly cover that particular team to get to know a new leader in a very informal manner. I recall one such time an NFL team put together a lunch for those that regularly covered the team to meet the new head coach. It was a completely off-the-record gathering, filled with stories and a lot of pizza too. The unfortunate thing was, the guy we met that day was only himself for about 3 months, then he became ‘the coach’ and the relationship changed. Still, it was a unique idea and approach to allow some of the media, he would be seeing on a daily basis to have a chance to relax and break bread.
Change is never easy to deal with, especially after establishing long relationships with previous players and coaches. But it is a fact of whatever game you’re covering, things are going to change and you must have the ability to change along with it. If not, you could get left behind and out of the information loop.
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