Marquee Sports Network will make Wrigley Field co-star of broadcasts, even without fans

Said MSN general manager Mike McCarthy: “There are so many things we can do in the fanless environment to bring perspectives to Wrigley that people haven’t seen before. I think it’s going to be remarkable.”

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Cubs play-by-play voice Len Kasper and analyst Jim Deshaies have ample space between them in the Wrigley Field booth.

Marquee Sports Network

Marquee Sports Network general manager Mike McCarthy chuckled at his own question.

“Did you notice that we put the attendance up last night?” he asked in reference to the MSN broadcast of the Cubs’ scrimmage Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

Indeed, the winning number for the Guess the Attendance game was 186 — a far cry from the roughly 41,000 the ballpark can hold.

There’s nothing wrong with a little levity during a pandemic. The coronavirus likely will keep stadiums fan-free for the shortened 2020 season, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be fun at the old ballpark. And forget all those vacant seats. As Marquee prepares to broadcast its first Opening Day at Wrigley Field next Friday, McCarthy said airing games without fans will only enhance the ballpark’s appearance.

“This sounds like I’m trying to write like John Steinbeck or something, but I think it’s more beautiful when it’s empty,” McCarthy said. “I’ve gone in there with people that have never been in there, and if you’re going in on a Tuesday morning, and there’s a couple of guys mowing the lawn, and that’s it, I’ve seen people break down because you feel like you’re going back in time.”

To be sure, McCarthy would rather have fans in the stands to give Wrigley the energy it’s known for. And before the coronavirus delayed the fledgling network’s regular-season debut, the plan was always to make the ballpark a co-star of the broadcast. McCarthy said that can be done even better by putting robotic cameras in places where they would have otherwise obstructed fans’ views.

“Do we wish we didn’t have this situation? Of course,” he said. “But there are so many things we can do in the fanless environment — microphones, cameras being mounted — to bring perspectives to Wrigley that people haven’t seen before. I think it’s going to be remarkable.”

But first and foremost, it has to be safe. The robotic cameras can be mounted hours before anyone else enters the stadium and operated from outside. MSN employees are tested for COVID-19 every day. The network installed plexiglass between workstations at its studio across Waveland Avenue.

Play-by-play voice Len Kasper and analyst Jim Deshaies have ample space between them in the booth. Field reporter Taylor McGregor will work from several rows back in the stands and conduct interviews remotely. The Cubs and Marquee are discussing how to handle access to players.

Cole Wright will host the pregame and postgame shows from the MSN studio, which will make its debut before the opener. It remains to be seen if he’ll be joined on the set. At the Cubs Convention, Marquee introduced a cadre of contributors. But given the pandemic, they’ll most likely work remotely.

“It turns out some of them are in hot states, like Arizona, where Mark Grace lives,” McCarthy said. “We’re not likely to get him on a plane anytime soon. As I said, we’re going to lead with safety. If somebody appears on a laptop instead of sitting next to Cole in the studio, that’s a very small concession to make in the environment we’re in.”

That environment also includes artificial sound. Marquee is working closely with the Cubs to make the audio coming from the Wrigley speakers as natural as possible, and they’ll continue adjusting as they go. They’ve run the gamut from the murmur of a crowd to an all-out “Ja-vy!” chant for Javy Baez.

“It’s probably going to take a little time for people to get used to it,” McCarthy said. “I watch a lot of sports, obviously. When I first heard the canned audio on soccer, it gave me a little bit of trepidation. And then 20 minutes in, I forgot about it.

“The biggest concern in a fanless environment, and nothing is close, is: Are you picking up colorful things that aren’t meant for air? Our mandate is, we’re not going to have that. Everybody’s mindful of it.”

That’s probably a relief to the visiting team’s TV crew, which will use the home team’s feed for its broadcasts. But McCarthy said the visitors will have complete control of one camera. Otherwise, what you see coming out of Wrigley is what the opposition’s fans will see.

But only Marquee viewers will see what the network has lined up for Opening Day. It begins with a two-hour pregame show starting at 4 p.m. (look for Bill Murray to pop in), followed by Brewers-Cubs at 6:10. After the postgame show, Eddie Vedder will be the guest on former Cub Ryan Dempster’s weekly talk show, “Off the Mound.”

It beats another round of classic games, which carried Marquee’s Cubs content during baseball’s shutdown. The network also developed alternative programming that will remain, such as Chris Myers’ “Play at Home Trivia” show. But Marquee was created to carry live games, and those finally start for real next Friday.

“I think the way this group answered that call [during the shutdown], not only did we stay relevant for a nice chunk of time there, but we learned a lot about ourselves, and we got through a lot of growing pains,” McCarthy said. “I think we’re all going to be better for it once our season starts next week.”

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