After building goodwill and excitement within their fan base during a rebuild that turned a competitive corner this past season, the White Sox watched some of it crumble with fans’ reaction to the hiring of Tony La Russa as manager.
It was, in a word, unpopular.
But will it erode the largest viewership increase in MLB, according to Nielsen, which had Sox games on NBC Sports Chicago up 136% from 2019? Are fans that angry?
Network senior vice president and general manager Kevin Cross said if the Sox keep winning, the fans will keep watching, no matter who the manager is.
“The main thing that Sox fans care about is if this team will fulfill its potential,” Cross said. “If you’re a Sox fan, you’ve been watching the team build up to this moment for years. And I think what Sox fans saw this past season was a glimpse into how special this team could be. As long as the team is moving along that path, I think we’re going to keep the eyeballs and grow the eyeballs.”
Sox games on NBCSCH finished with a 1.78 rating in the Chicago market, the team’s highest average on record (since 2012). It was up 89% compared to 2019.
Viewers are given a good show by Jason Benetti and Steve Stone. Benetti brings excitement to his calls, and Stone remains one of the best and most prescient analysts in the game. Though they’re not to the level of Hawk Harrelson homerism, Benetti and Stone have an element of it. They often espoused the Sox’ impending greatness, and the fans ate it up, on the air and Twitter.
But viewership went beyond the games. The postgame show became must-watch TV, particularly down the stretch and into the playoffs, when Hall of Famer Frank Thomas joined host Chuck Garfien and former manager Ozzie Guillen. They didn’t hold back their criticism when the Sox were scuffling and Rick Renteria was managing his way out of a job.
“They carry weight in the White Sox community,” Cross said. “They have had success in the game. They have opinions and aren’t afraid to share them, they have great chemistry with each other, and it comes through in the broadcast.”
With no Blackhawks or Bulls games to show, NBCSCH is replaying 34 regular-season Sox wins from 2020 at 7 p.m. weeknights. The network is back where it was during the sports shutdown, when it showed old Hawks and Bulls playoff games. But Cross has positioned the network as a multiplatform content producer, keeping it relevant without live action to air.
“We realized years ago that the audience was changing,” Cross said. “The audience was moving away from wanting to be scheduled in terms of when to watch a show and when to go to the linear channels. We built our website, nbcsportschicago.com, the MyTeams app, and we’ve had success with that.”
Cross saw that viewers were turning to NBCSCH mostly for live events. That led the network to put its TV focus on games and pre- and postgame shows. (You’ll recall the demise of “SportsTalk Live” in August, though the “Football Aftershow” following Bears games remains.)
It also led the network to expand its digital endeavors, such as reporting, podcasts and social-media channels, even for teams it does not televise. Cross said the network had the most monthly traffic ever on its website in October, despite having no live games.
“The fan isn’t a fan just during the window of the game,” Cross said. “The fan is a fan at 10 o’clock in the morning. So how do we reach the fan then? Will they go to our linear channel? The data shows that they go elsewhere. Why can’t that elsewhere be our platforms? And that’s where we put our investment.”
NBCSCH’s next live event will be its coverage of the NBA Draft on Nov. 18. The Bulls hold the fourth pick, their highest since taking Derrick Rose first in 2008. And they’ll beat the Blackhawks to fill the network’s live-game void, with the NBA and the players’ association agreeing to start the season Dec. 22. The NHL is targeting Jan. 1.
Whenever the leagues start up, NBCSCH is looking at a glut of games come baseball season. Make sure you know where the NBCSCH+ and +2 channels are.
“We need to focus on what 2021 looks like, which could be an unprecedented year in local sports,” Cross said. “You look at the potential of multiple schedules overlapping in ways that we’ve never seen before. This period of time, where we have [few] live events on the main channel and all of our platforms, that moment goes away big-time once we get to that point.”