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Sports media: How Cubs can fill air time when there’s no game on Marquee Sports Network

As a longtime baseball viewer, I’m happy to share unsolicited suggestions for programming.

Marquee Sports Network will earn its most advertising dollars and biggest ratings during its roughly 150 regular-season games. But it will need a lot of other programming to fill the day.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The most important programming the Cubs’ new TV network will carry after it launches in February will be the games.

I know. Thank you, Captain Obvious.

But those games will be vitally important because as the primary program providers, Cubs players can only do so much in front of the camera off the field.

We’re seeing that now on the Cubs’ YouTube channel, which is serving as a playground and training ground for potential programming on Marquee Sports Network. The ideas have been hit or miss (“The Breakdown” and highlight reels are hits; game shows and arts and crafts are misses), as you’d expect from a start-up, and there’s surely more to come. But will they be enough to keep Cubs fans coming back to the channel when there’s no game to watch?

The network will earn most of its advertising dollars and biggest ratings during its roughly 150 regular-season games. It also will carry most, if not all, of the spring-training schedule, which is about 30 games. Pre- and postgame shows are nice, but they’re not appointment viewing. Sports TV is ruled by live events, and without another team to eat up hours the way Jon Lester eats up innings, those games will be the network’s lifeline.

And by and large, fans can expect those games to look a lot like they do now. They’ll certainly sound the same, with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies on the call. The man in charge of production, general manager Mike McCarthy, headed MSG Network in New York for more than two decades, including when the network had the Mets and Yankees. If he can make it there … as the song goes.

It might be tough for Cubs fans to swallow the Mets connection, but by all accounts, McCarthy was a great choice. Even the New York Post’s curmudgeonly sports-media writer Phil Mushnick likes him. “Good for Cubs fans. McCarthy gets it,” he wrote upon McCarthy’s hiring as a Cubs consultant in August 2018.

It’s all those other hours that need special attention. Even though they won’t garner the audience that games will, they’ll help the network establish credibility. And as a longtime baseball viewer, I’m happy to share unsolicited suggestions for programming:

Classic games

This one’s a no-brainer and already is part of the plan. Talk about an innings-eater, replaying every 2016 postseason game will fill lots of hours. But reruns of old games aren’t as popular as you might think. ESPN Classic has gone from linear TV to an on-demand option, and classic Cubs and White Sox games rerun on NBC Sports Chicago in the winter don’t rake in an audience. But for the purposes of filling airtime, replaying the Sandberg Game or a playoff clincher is as easy as it gets.

Coaching clinics

I remember when the Cubs used to hold pregame clinics for kids on the field before games. I asked former pitching coach Billy Connors how to throw a fork ball, and he couldn’t have been nicer. (I also subtly plucked a leaf of ivy off the wall; keep that quiet). The Cubs could have a show where a different coach offers tips for kids each week, complete with demonstrations with Cubs players. Even Clark the mascot could play a part. Maybe create a cartoon with him. Anything to get kids to watch baseball.

Manager’s show

Joe Maddon has a segment with Ron Coomer before every game on The Score. He also appears on Laurence Holmes’ show Tuesdays on the station. So why shouldn’t he — or whoever’s managing the Cubs — have a TV show? You might recall “The Mike Ditka Show” back in the day hosted by Johnny Morris on Channel 2. It had a studio audience and allowed fans to ask questions. It was like “The Oprah Winfrey Show” without the gifts. That could make for great TV with a manager as loquacious as Maddon.

“The Breakdown”

Of all the videos the Cubs have posted on their YouTube channel, these are my favorites. They give fans an inside look at a key situation in a game, such as Jason Heyward’s and David Bote’s walk-off grand slams last season. With revealing player interviews and statistical information, viewers learn the intricacies in why the play happened. The production of the videos is also well done, with neat-looking graphic elements and spot-on editing. More of this, please.

Down on the farm

Connect fans with the Cubs of the future with a show that travels from team to team and provides highlights and interviews. With three teams not too far away (Class AAA Iowa, Class AA Tennessee and Class A South Bend), the Cubs could use the shows to entice fans to visit the minor-league towns. I envision commercials for the local Chambers of Commerce. Or better yet, show games of the affiliates. The Cubs should showcase their organization, not just the major-league team.

REMOTE PATROL

Sox testing Friday start time

The White Sox are experimenting with a unique start time for the game next Friday against the A’s, which will air on NBC Sports Chicago. The 2:10 p.m. first pitch precludes a fireworks show, but Sox vice president of sales and marketing Brooks Boyer sees potential benefits.

“We thought it might be interesting enough in the summer to see if it works for the business community, and fans in general, that want a White Sox game and a free Friday night,” Boyer said.

Fans still can stick around after the game to watch “Field of Dreams” on the video boards.

“We are trying something new to see what our fans think,” Boyer said.

Bears’ preseason crew returns

The Bears return to the airwaves Thursday with their preseason opener against the Panthers at Soldier Field (7 p.m., Fox-32, 780-AM, 105.9-FM). Adam Amin of ESPN begins his second season as the Bears’ preseason TV voice. Jim Miller continues as analyst and Lou Canellis as field reporter.

Amin and Miller will work the first three games together before the booth expands to three people for the fourth game. Participants will be announced soon. Last season, considering the quality of play in the preseason finale, the Bears turned the broadcast into more of a discussion with NFL Network’s Kyle Brandt, former Bears defensive lineman Corey Wootton and Miller.