If you’re at the United Center for a Blackhawks or Bulls game, visit the Atrium. Next to the Madhouse Team Store, behind panes of glass, is a TV studio. It isn’t exactly an imitation of ESPN’s massive Digital Center 2 in Bristol, Connecticut, but it’s the home to a network with designs on challenging the Worldwide Leader.
Stadium, which is part-owned by Bulls and White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, launched Aug. 21, 2017. After 14 months, it’s available over the air in 65 percent of the country (it’s on Channel 62.2 in the Chicago area). It’s also available on its website (watchstadium.com), some cable systems and platforms such as Facebook, Roku, Sling, Twitch, Twitter and many others.
But it’s the over-the-air component of its distribution that’s most compelling. Stadium is the only OTA sports network in the country. So for the sports fans among the 30 million cord-cutters in the United States — a number that’s expected to grow to 65 million next year — Stadium is their only option for 24/7 sports news, highlights and original programming.
‘‘We think we have an opportunity in this space to be what ESPN was to cable,’’ Stadium CEO Jason Coyle said.
Cord-cutters aren’t the only viewers Stadium is targeting. It wants to be an oasis for fans in search of an alternative to ESPN. Stadium didn’t want to be the fifth coastal sports network, following ESPN, Fox, NBC and CBS. Coyle said broadcasting from Chicago gives the network ‘‘a different editorial lens.’’
‘‘This is not a Midwest sports network, it’s a national sports network,’’ Coyle said. ‘‘It’s just told from a different perspective with what we like to think is a more objective layer on editorial.’’
Said Andrew Schnell, the managing director of corporate development: ‘‘We actually map out our programming grid versus ESPN’s programming grid to make sure that it’s not the same.’’
Hence, Stadium also caters to underserved fans. It has broadcast rights for college football games from Conference USA, the Mountain West Conference and the Patriot League. But it doesn’t overlook the Power Five, which was obvious when it landed an interview Aug. 1 with Courtney Smith, the ex-wife of former Ohio State assistant coach Zach Smith, who was fired after allegations of domestic abuse came to light.
The interview, which was conducted by Kristen Balboni, increased Stadium’s profile. Though network execs weren’t celebrating because of the nature of the interview, they were pleased with how the delicate matter was handled.
‘‘For us, being a young network, we wanted to make sure that we had the right tone,’’ managing director of operations Adam Anshell said, ‘‘that we were fair to both sides of it and that we were covering it in a way that was respectful to the story and everyone involved. It’s not something we had done before.’’
Stadium raised its profile further two weeks later, announcing the additions of Shams Charania, Jeff Goodman and Brett McMurphy. Charania learned from the best, working under NBA news-breaker Adrian Wojnarowski at Yahoo. Goodman and McMurphy were college basketball and college football insiders, respectively, at ESPN. McMurphy broke the Zach Smith story before joining Stadium.
Coyle said the network is looking to capitalize on ESPN’s moving away from news-gathering after its massive layoffs in 2017.
‘‘We saw an opening to get those incredible voices and to get them back on air and to get their stories heard,’’ Coyle said. ‘‘We have an opportunity to reinvest in real news and in journalism, so we want to continue down that path.’’
That includes a real look into the life of former Bulls star Derrick Rose, who has had a camera crew with him every day for the last six years to film a documentary. Stadium and Rose’s agent, former Bull B.J. Armstrong, came together on the film — titled ‘‘Pooh,’’ Rose’s nickname — which will debut in February.
The changing habits of TV consumers have Stadium positioned to make its mark in sports broadcasting. It will take more of that to challenge ESPN, which has greater broadcast rights and more distribution. But Coyle thinks Stadium has a shot to be right behind the Worldwide Leader.
‘‘Why not?’’ he said. ‘‘You look at our rights and our programming grid and our quality and our reach, we want to be the most distributed sports network that there is. [ESPN is] capped by cable. We’re not, so we can go broadcast OTA, where they can’t. Our goal is to become more widely distributed than all of [the sports networks].’’
CBS showing love to Bears
CBS will broadcast Bears games the next two weeks, and the network appears to have bought into the hype.
This week, the No. 2 team of Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts and Evan Washburn will call the game against the Patriots. Next week, the top team of Jim Nantz, Tony Romo and Tracy Wolfson is scheduled to call the game against the Jets.
CBS’ only other Bears game is Thanksgiving Day in Detroit, where the top team presumably will be on hand.
Watch NBCSCH games in new app
NBC Sports Regional Networks launched an app this week for iOS and Android devices called My Teams, which offers all of their content of the teams they cover, most notably live-game streaming. Authenticated subscribers to NBC Sports Chicago can watch Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs and White Sox games, as well as pre- and postgame shows, in the app.