Why NBC Sports Chicago is airing only six White Sox spring-training games

Excited Sox fans expected more from the team’s exclusive home, but a bigger inventory from the Blackhawks and Bulls limits what the network can show.

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Well if this isn’t the darndest spring training this city has seen.

Or perhaps “hasn’t seen” is more appropriate.

The Cubs are airing 28 exhibition games on their new channel, Marquee Sports Network, but roughly half of the Chicago area is missing them because Comcast cable isn’t carrying the network yet.

The White Sox will be shown only six times in spring training, despite its network, NBC Sports Chicago, having relaunched as the Sox’ exclusive home and fans’ excitement for the season skyrocketing.

The Cubs’ situation is nothing new in sports broadcasting. The Yankees’ YES Network wasn’t on Cablevision, the region’s equivalent to Comcast, for its first full season in 2002. The Dodgers have been on one provider, Spectrum, for the last six seasons, leaving most of Southern California in the dark.

But the Sox’ spring broadcast schedule was surprising when it was announced. With NBCSCH’s other tenants, the Blackhawks and Bulls, sputtering to the finish line, many expected the network to serve starving Sox fans a menu of appetizers before airing a 161-game main course.

Instead, after airing its first Sox game Monday, NBCSCH will air one game through March 20 – March 13 against the Cubs. Then it’ll broadcast the last four spring-training games, March 21-24. Sox fans have taken to social media to express their displeasure.

The network explained its situation in a statement:

“NBC Sports Chicago now carries every local Blackhawks and Bulls telecast. To accommodate that additional coverage, we have to make adjustments to our schedule. During the spring training games’ time frame, we will be carrying 27 regular-season games featuring the Blackhawks and Bulls, meaning that our production crews now have a grander scale of responsibilities than ever before. 

“The White Sox are always a top priority for our network, and we are focused on bringing White Sox fans our expert coverage of 161 out of the team’s 162 regular-season-game schedule, beginning with the home/season opener on March 26.”

It’s a whole new world for NBCSCH, which is carrying more games than it ever has. During spring training last year, NBCSCH aired five Sox and two Cubs games while airing 20 Hawks/Bulls games. Without the Cubs but with almost every Hawks, Bulls and Sox game, the station has 30 more games of inventory in its first year of the relaunch.

With those additional games come additional hours for the production crew, whose work also involves pre- and postgame shows. Those hours aren’t free, and there are many of them.

In the meantime, fans can get their spring fix at whitesox.com, which is providing webcasts for all the games at Camelback Ranch. Russ Langer, voice of the Class AAA Las Vegas Aviators, is in his 10th spring as the Sox’ play-by-play voice. He’s joined by former longtime WGN-Ch. 9 sportscaster Rich King. 

Once the regular season starts, NBCSCH is expected to return its entire game-day team, led by Jason Benetti and Steve Stone. Chuck Garfien will host and report on-site for home games, and Leila Rahimi will host for road games. They’ll be joined by analysts Ozzie Guillen, Frank Thomas, Scott Podsednik and Brian Anderson.

On Opening Day, NBCSCH will begin providing extended pregame and postgame shows with the help of a new state-of-the-art studio. The coolest-sounding feature is a demonstration area with an interactive video floor. It can appear as a baseball diamond for Sox games, a basketball court for Bulls games, and so forth. 

Sox fans might think they’re getting the shaft now, but they might be spoiled in the regular season.

Marquee distribution may take hit

YouTube TV announced Thursday that it will drop the Fox regional sports networks, now owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, on Saturday after the sides failed to reach a carriage agreement. Also being dropped is YES, of which Sinclair is a part-owner. That means the Cubs’ Marquee Sports Network, of which Sinclair is a partner, is at risk of not being carried by the streaming service.

YouTube TV appears to be falling in line with satellite provider Dish Network, which dropped the 21 Fox RSNs last summer, hasn’t carried YES and has shown no inclination of carrying Marquee. YouTube TV’s decision could be a negotiating ploy, but it’s a sign to potential customers that, like Dish, it’s not a service for hard-core sports fans.

Marquee is carried by satellite provider DirecTV and will be carried by streaming service Hulu on its Hulu + Live TV platform by Opening Day. Both providers direct advertising at sports fans, separating themselves from their competitors.

Fire’s TV deal brings Sting to mind

With WGN set to carry Fire games, I couldn’t help but think about the Chicago soccer team I grew up watching – the Sting.

In fact, WGN carried Sting outdoor games in the 1980s, with play-by-play voice Howard Balson and analyst Kenny Stern on the call. WFLD-Ch. 32 carried Sting indoor games. There are some great videos on YouTube.

WGN will bring soccer back to our local airwaves March 7, when the Fire visit the New England Revolution, the first of 24 games WGN will carry. The team has yet to reveal its announcers.

The Fire won’t be bumped the way the 1981 Sting were in the North American Soccer League championship game against the New York Cosmos. ABC aired the Sting’s victory on tape delay in Chicago to show a rerun of “The Love Boat.” Even WGN’s reruns of “Friends” won’t keep the Fire off live TV.

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