John McDonough’s biggest coup after he became Blackhawks president in 2007 wasn’t putting home games on TV or bringing back Pat Foley or re-establishing ties with team legends.
It was getting Hawks games on WGN Radio.
Keenly aware of the station’s reach with its powerful signal and promotional abilities, McDonough gave the Hawks a radio platform they had never had.
So when the White Sox were let out of their deal with WLS-AM (890) in January because the station’s owner, Cumulus Media, sought to cancel broadcasting contracts as part of its bankruptcy filing, they knew where to look first.
OTHER SPORTS MEDIA COLUMNS Fire may hurt themselves locally by taking their games nationally What’s bugging me? WGN’s new score bug for Cubs, White Sox games
“WGN was at the top of our list of places we wanted to be,” said Brooks Boyer, the Sox’ senior vice president of sales and marketing. “What was great about WGN is they wanted baseball back on their air and saw this as a great opportunity. WGN in this market is synonymous with baseball, and they know how to do it.”
The move dripped with irony. WGN-AM (720) had carried Cubs games since seemingly the beginning of time. The station aired its first regular-season Cubs game in 1925, and it carried the team through 2014. So forgive Sox fans if they shuddered at the thought of setting their car radio to the frequency.
Boyer said the Sox never batted an eye.
“It did not bother us, and we did not have a second thought of, ‘Oh, that’s the Cubs’ old station,’ ” Boyer said. “The reality is, the Cubs are on our old station. What’s the big deal?”
True enough, the Sox called WSCR-AM (670) home for 10 years before heading to WLS. They also called WGN home from 1927 to ’43, but they were on a number of stations back then, before the advent of exclusive radio deals.
There also was the way the Cubs-WGN relationship ended. The station cited financial losses and poor ratings when the rebuilding Cubs left for WBBM-AM (780) after the 2014 season. They moved to The Score, a sister station of WBBM, after the 2015 season. We all know what has happened since their departure.
Now, WGN is in a multiyear deal with another rebuilding team, and one that doesn’t have the local fan base or national following of the Cubs.
But the station and the Sox are perfect for each other.
In fact, station manager Todd Manley said WGN had been thinking about the Sox “for the last few years.”
“In many ways, it gets back to our roots of telling great Chicago stories, and there’s a great story there brewing,” he said.
When the Sox became “free agents,” as Boyer put it, they had only weeks to finalize a contract, and there was a season’s worth of programming to negotiate.
“The reality is, these things usually take about six months, and we did this in less than two weeks,” Boyer said of the deal, which was announced Feb. 14, the day pitchers and catchers reported. “It was quite remarkable. You have to start from that fundamental base of trust.”
There were plenty of overlapping relationships to ease the stress of the situation, thanks to the Sox’ deal with WGN-TV. Plus, both sides wanted it to happen.
“I think it probably started with the notion that we wanted to figure out a way,” Manley said. “So it immediately got to the point of, we’ve got some games to produce, and let’s figure this out as quickly as we can.”
The Sox, with Ed Farmer and Darrin Jackson on the call, join the Hawks and Northwestern football and basketball in WGN Radio’s sports stable. When conflicts arise, the Hawks have priority contractually, but Manley said the station and teams involved would decide where to air those games as they occur.
The Cubs have their fifth scheduled appearance this season on ESPN and first on “Sunday Night Baseball” on Sunday against the Cardinals (who else?). That means Cubs fans will learn what Alex Rodriguez thinks of their team.
Matt Vasgersian is the new play-by-play voice, and analyst Jessica Mendoza returns, but viewers learn quickly that A-Rod is the star of the show. Granted, he was very good in the studio for Fox — you might remember the playful banter he, Frank Thomas and Pete Rose shared during the Cubs’ World Series run — but he’s still finding his footing in the booth.
• Retired Cowboys tight end Jason Witten was hired to replace Jon Gruden on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” The Dallas Morning News reported that Witten was offered between $4 million and $4.5 million per year.
That’s a tidy sum for someone with zero broadcast experience (Gruden made $6.5 million per year). ESPN must be hoping Witten will be the next Tony Romo, who was a revelation last season for CBS. Witten joins new play-by-play voice Joe Tessitore on ‘‘MNF.’’
• Peter King is leaving Sports Illustrated after 29 years to work for NBC Sports full-time. King’s longtime “Monday Morning QB” column will appear on NBCSports.com, and he’ll play a role on all of the network’s sports platforms. SI, which new owner Meredith has up for sale, will maintain King’s website, TheMMQB.com.