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Sports media: Gaudelli excited to bring ‘Sunday Night Football’ back to Chicago

Fred Gaudelli had a feeling he might see the Bears again after their opening-night loss to the Packers. The Bears weren’t scheduled for any more appearances on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” for which Gaudelli is the executive producer. But he liked what he saw – at least before a 23-0 lead disappeared.

“You kind of got the feeling, at least I did, after opening night, Chicago was going to be a pretty good team this year,” Gaudelli said. “With the addition of [Khalil] Mack and how innovative Matt Nagy’s offense is and [Mitch] Trubisky looked like he was about to take the next step.”

Sure enough, Gaudelli and the SNF crew – director Drew Esocoff, play-by-play voice Al Michaels, analyst Cris Collinsworth and sideline reporter Michele Tafoya – will be in town this weekend after the NFL flexed out Steelers-Jaguars for Vikings-Bears. They’ll be back Dec. 9, when the Rams visit Soldier Field.

The Bears haven’t hosted a game on Sunday night since Nov. 11, 2012, when they were 7-1 but lost to the Texans 13-6. Gaudelli, who’s in his 29th season as the lead producer of an NFL prime-time game and 13th producing SNF, remembered it like it was yesterday. He recounted a rainy night when Jason Campbell replaced a concussed Jay Cutler in the second half. It was the first of five losses in six games for the Bears, who finished 10-6, missed the playoffs and saw coach Lovie Smith take the fall in the end.

Fred Gaudelli is in his 29th season as the lead producer of an NFL prime-time game and 13th producing "Sunday Night Football." NBC Sports Group

Today, the Bears are ascending. It’s not easy for NBC to lose the Steelers, who have star power and are always a great draw. But with the Eagles-Saints game protected by Fox and the Jaguars looking nothing like they did last season, the NFL opted for a first-place showdown in the NFC North.

But it put the Bears in a bind. They already had a short week to follow with a trip to Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. They lost more time when their kickoff was moved from noon to 7:20 p.m. That’s the price of success in the NFL, and the situation isn’t unprecedented.

In 2014, the Cowboys visited the Giants on Sunday night before hosting the Eagles on Thanksgiving. In 2016, the Redskins hosted the Packers on Sunday night before visiting the Cowboys on Thanksgiving. (Incidentally, the teams coming off the night game lost on the holiday.)

“It’s completely the NFL’s call,” Gaudelli said of who makes the final decision on flexing games. “We make our preferences known, but it’s completely their call. And I think it’s pretty safe to say that it goes all the way up to the top there.”

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Then perhaps Mayor Rahm Emanuel should thank NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for putting Chicago in the national spotlight twice this season. That’s what a good team can do for a city. A “Sunday Night Football” game not only showcases the home team, but the home town. In fact, if you’re out and about Friday and Saturday, you might see an SNF camera crew filming.

“We have a part of our team whose responsibility is to research the city, go out and shoot and try to capture everything,” Gaudelli said.

There’s a crew on the ground and in a plane, which will take Gaudelli’s favorite shot of Chicago.

“That Chicago skyline to me off of Lake Michigan is one of the great skylines in America,” said Gaudelli, a native of Harrison, New York, who resides in Madison, Connecticut. “For me, I’m not a Chicagoan, but I can’t see enough of it. I love that.

“Our ground camera will be out both nights. We’ll do some food things, we’ll do the Bean. The architecture in Chicago … I’m sure we’ll get a camera going down the Chicago River. You can pretty much count on that.”

Viewers also can count on seeing technological advancements, the latest of which is the “SNF Kicks Tracer,” which debuted in the Saints-Vikings game Oct. 28. It maps the flight of the football on field-goal attempts and provides data including trajectory, speed and a “good from” statistic that indicates the furthest distance from which a made field goal would have been successful.

“Our hope for this year is to also be able to use it on punts and kickoffs,” Gaudelli said of the tracer, which uses TrackMan technology used in NBC’s golf coverage. “So as opposed to going up in the air and seeing it like a golf ball, you’re going to be seeing it tracing itself on the field. You’ll see hang time, you’ll see apex. You’ll have some data points that may be interesting.”

Gaudelli hopes to use the technology on passes, but he said that probably won’t happen until next season at the earliest.

SNF also introduced the “Green Zone” this season. The graphic element shows how far an offense must go for a first down by shading that distance a dark green. Critics say the “1st and Ten” yellow line serves that purpose already, but Gaudelli said the green shading isn’t aimed at die-hard fans.

“For the sophisticated NFL fan, it probably doesn’t do a whole lot,” he said. “So if it doesn’t really help them, is this hurting them? I don’t think so because you can just ignore it. But for people who are not the football aficionados, I do think it helps them.”

Whatever viewers think of the technology, they’re still watching. “Sunday Night Football’s” ratings were up from last year in eight of the last nine weeks. An average of 19.8 million people is watching each week – up 8 percent from last year – making it the No. 1 show on prime-time TV. And SNF figures to stay there for the eighth consecutive year after setting the record at seven straight last year.

The Bears are expected to give those ratings another boost. Gaudelli said he learned that lesson awhile back.

“John Madden used to say this, those years I worked with him, and I’ve bought in wholeheartedly,” Gaudelli said. “The NFL is at its best when the Bears are good. The excitement in the city is palpable. There are a lot of Chicagoans or people from Illinois spread all over the country. They’ve got a great fan base.”

Fox extends deal with MLB

Fox Sports will maintain its broadcast rights with Major League Baseball through the 2028 season. The deal keeps Fox as the home to the World Series, one league championship series, two division series and the All-Star Game each year. The network also will continue to broadcast Saturday regular-season games, two per day for a total of 52. Beginning in 2022, the number of regular-season and postseason games aired by Fox will increase.