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Marquee Sports Network Built on Cubs Passion & Proven Talent

Seth Everett talks to Marquee Sports Network GM Mike McCarthy about surviving the pandemic just as the network launched.

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On February 22, 2020, there was not a way anyone involved in the Marquee Sports Network’s launch could have foreseen the challenge the Covid-19 pandemic would bring to the sports world. They aired seven Chicago Cubs’ Spring Training games, and then suddenly, a brand-new regional sports network would be without sports for months.

How to Get Marquee Network - CHICAGO style SPORTS

“I think if you were drawing it up, you probably would not want to launch a network in a pandemic,” said Mike McCarthy, General Manager of Marquee Sports Network. “I feel pretty comfortable saying that. We really didn’t have a choice because the Cubs games had to air somewhere. It wasn’t an esoteric decision for a sitcom. It was more of a ‘this was our pledge to our fan base and our carriers and we’re going to do it.’ And so, we did it.”

Marquee is a year old regional sports network operated by Sinclair Broadcasting Group and the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs are the primary source of programming and have been since the 2020 launch.

The conversation with McCarthy was wide-ranging and went way beyond the Covid issues.  Still, McCarthy went out of his way to point out that the staff going into lockdown barely knew each other and had to rally with new teammates almost instantly.

“We started producing shows from home on laptops and zoom calls,” McCarthy said.  “We were doing it every night. We were quite sure we weren’t the only RSN to do it that often.”

“Some shows were better than others,” he added. “A couple of them were pretty clunky, to be honest with you. But we got through a lot of growing pains of getting to know each other.  Once the real baseball games began was most likely a godsend to us.”

Previously, McCarthy was president of New York’s MSG Network, vice chairman and chief executive of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues, and chief operating officer of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.

Since team-owned RSNs began at the beginning of the century, there has been a mixed success.  The YES Network and SNY (Sportsnet New York) have had both strong ratings and profits.  However, lesser-known RSNs like the Minnesota Twins-owned Victory Sports was over after the 2003 season.  The Kansas City Royals had the Royals Sports Television Network and lasted four years.

McCarthy believes that Marquee’s success is not necessarily tied to the Cubs’ success or lack of it on the field. After breaking an 87-year championship drought in 2016, the Cubs were at a fever pitch in the Windy City. Still, is Marquee’s success directly tied to the Cubs’ on-field success?

“It’s a fascinating question,” McCarthy replied. “It comes to this particular alliance because what has Cubs history been up? It’s been the lovable loser but loved. The WGN family made the Cubs almost everybody’s second favorite team. I mean, this passion that they have for the team is really not tied to success on the field.”

Cubs announce general manager for Marquee Sports Network - Robert Feder

“We know we benefit from it (the team winning),” he added. “The ratings show that. I know it may sound a little cliche and maybe anybody in this role would say it, but I’ll tell you, this might be one of the few teams in sports where the winning and the losing is really just part of the appeal.”

One topic I asked McCarthy about was streaming. Cord-cutters have many issues seeing local games without the subscription from a cable company.  Marquee does have distribution deals with Fubo-TV and AT&T TV, which are streaming services.  Still, MLB.TV only offers out-of-market games.

“I think those are more complicated scenarios to consider,” McCarthy addressed the topic. “We love the relationships we have with our cable partners, and FUBO/AT&T. There’s a lot of people speculating on what the future holds. We feel like our traditional broadcast partners are very important to us. We like to think we deliver a nice product to them, and we think, identify a solution for streaming fans by way of our other partnerships.”

One of the biggest hires McCarthy made for the 2020 season was the Cubs’ main play-by-play voice. After the 2020 season, longtime voice Len Kasper departed the Cubs to become the radio play-by-play announcer for the cross-town Chicago White Sox. Speculation on who Marquee would hire was rampant on social media. 

That speculation ended when longtime ESPN play-by-play man Jon “Boog” Sciambi was named the new Cubs TV voice.

“It’s a different kind of gig,” McCarthy added. “I think that’s why it interested Boog. If I told you the people that raised their hand in this, it would knock your socks off. I mean, this is one of those jobs. It has nothing to do with me or Marquee, which was a baby.  It’s the Cubs and their relationship with their fans.”

“People said to me, ‘you might want to look into like a Boog Sciambi-type. A guy that’s a real student of baseball, but a regular guy that everybody can identify with. We did better than getting a Boog Sciambi-type. We got him.”

Sciambi continues to do national work for ESPN. When he misses a game, longtime play-by-play announcer Beth Mowins fills in. She became the first woman in Cubs history to call a regular-season game. 

Beth Mowins: Announcer makes history with Chicago Cubs - Chicago Tribune

“I’ve been lucky to work with women broadcasting pioneering roles, like Doris Burke at the (Madison Square) Garden.  Beth is confident. She is not demure. She’s legit. You hear it in her voice. You see it in her body language. She’s right where she is supposed to be. And it really went over well here in Chicago, which was not surprising.”

McCarthy added that Mowins being a Syracuse University Newhouse graduate was held against her. Us Orange-folks tend to stick together.

BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 44

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This week’s episode is all about the NFL. Demetri explains why the league embracing kids is long overdue, Andy Masur stops by to breakdown the first Manningcast, and Ryan Maguire explains why some sports radio stations are missing a golden opportunity to shine on Sundays.

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BSM Writers

Interviews Thrive On Podcasts In A Way They Can’t On Radio

“Opportunities that a podcast creates open doors to audio that is simply superior to live radio.”

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Live radio vs. podcasts seems to be a heavyweight fight that isn’t ending anytime soon.  Podcasts are growing so much that companies that do radio are also now offering podcasts. This column is hardly about that fight. 

Instead, this is about how a podcast interview is a better way to get the best out of the guest than anything live on a radio station. This is not about downloads or clicks or sponsors. Solely about the content that is being produced.

A podcast makes the guest more comfortable and is more intimate than a live radio show.  Especially in sports.

Since 2015, I have hosted and produced 656 podcasts (yes it was fun to count them) and hosted many radio shows. My current shows are called Sports with Friends, Hall of Justice, and Techstream. That last one I host with tech expert Shelly Palmer.

On radio, there is a myriad of things the host has to do besides focus on the guest.

First, there are the IDs. Program directors have always told me ID the guest every chance I get. “We are talking with Eli Manning on WFAN,” is heard 7 times during an eight-minute segment.

On a podcast, the name of the guest is on the player or app that is playing the podcast. “Episode 1. Eli Manning, New York Giants” scrolls across smartphones, car radios, or other devices constantly.  Never interrupt the guest with an ID.

Then, there’s the fact that it is recorded and not live. I have a standard preamble that I say to any guest before any record light turns on.

“I will push,” I explain. “I will see where the conversation takes us, but I do tend to push. However, I’m on your side. This isn’t some expose’. If something comes up that you don’t like your answer, tell me. I’ll take it out. If there’s something that I say that is bad or wrong, tell me, I’ll take it out. This is a conversation, not an interview.”

In 656 podcasts, only one player, Bryce Harper (then of the Washington Nationals) asked me to take something out of a podcast.

We were doing Episode 54 of Sports with Friends when the subject of Dusty Baker came up.  He had just been hired to manage the Nationals. I mentioned in passing that Dusty had given the eulogy at my best friend Darryl Hamilton’s funeral.

Bryce was so intrigued that he recalled the comments I had made and asked if we could pause. We then spoke for a good 10 minutes about the kind of person Dusty was. Why Darryl held him in such regard.  It was a really inciteful chat.  Never was on the podcast.

Still, guests do relax when told that the editing option exists. They let their guard down. The host of a podcast can ask deeper questions.

“Who was the first person you called when you found out you were traded?”

“Have you seen a life for you after football?”

“How much do you hate a certain player?”

All questions, that if asked live, could seriously backfire. So not only does the guest have a guard up, but the interviewer also has to play it relatively safe, when they are not IDing the guest for the umpteenth time.

Time constraints also don’t exist in a podcast where they are beholden on live radio. The guest is just about to tell you they did cocaine during the World Series, and you are up against the clock.

ShinStation - Game Over - #017 - Wrap it Up - YouTube
Courtesy: Comedy Central

I have hosted shows over the years where the guest was phenomenal, but I screwed up the PPM clock. That was the takeaway.  The clock is important on a live medium that needs to get that quarter-hour.

I try to keep my podcasts short. You wouldn’t see it from looking at the lengths of my episodes. Still, I feel that if someone wants to talk and dive into a topic and it goes a little long, I will never cut the guy off.

Ken Griffey Jr. spoke for 45 minutes with a cigar and his feet up on the phone by his pool. He was telling jokes and stories. I wouldn’t have stopped that if a train was coming. When I hosted Mariner content at KJR in Seattle, our interviews usually last 5 minutes.

Jon Morosi broke down the future of clubhouse access and how he traveled during Covid. Then he told an amazing story of his wife working in the medical field and how that impacted all of his family. Shannon Drayer of 710 KIRO got so in-depth in her arduous journey from being a coffee barista to the Mariners on-field reporter. It was split into two episodes.

Former porn star Lisa Ann talked about her decision to quit the business. Even Jason Barrett himself was Episode 173 of Sports with Friends.

(When in the past has Jason Barrett been in the same paragraph as a porn star? Note to Demetri: please leave it in.)

The radio industry is seen to be cutting costs wherever it can. Mid-market stations are not doing night shows anymore, instead offering nationally syndicated programming. 

Weekends are another avenue that perplexes me. Talent that is not deemed good enough to be on during the week is often given weekend shifts. Also, some Monday-Friday hosts add a weekend shift to their duties. Here’s a theory: play podcasts. Format them to hit your PPM time marks. 

They don’t have to be my podcasts, but in the crowded podcast space, surely there are sports talk podcasts that are intimate, deep, and fun. Since we live in a data-driven age, let’s see how a radio station fares playing high-quality podcasts or portions of them, vs. weekend hosts.

Program directors often worry about the outdated nature of a podcast. That sells the podcaster short. As someone who has been in the podcast space since 2003, I know how to make them timeless, and companies make shows often enough, that rarely would they be outdated.  

Quality shines through the speakers.  The spoken-word audio format is continually evolving. Opportunities that a podcast creates open doors to audio that is simply superior to live radio.

How to Start a Podcast: Podcasting for Beginners - RSS.com Podcasting

The podcast industry is continually evolving.  Radio needs to evolve as well.  Then, it can be a fair fight.

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BSM Writers

National Voices Can Work For Local Clients

“Distance, like absence, can make the heart grow fonder.”

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Selling personalities is one of the hottest trends in media today. Sure, most of the buzz is around social media influencers, but radio has long had a relationship with its audience based on personal connections between host and listener. And nobody has a better relationship with their audience than a sports radio host.

I am sure you are leveraging your local hosts by now. Live spots, testimonials, remotes, and promotions are all great tricks of the trade, as well as sponsored social media posts. But does your station carry syndicated shows? I am sure you do either from 7 pm-12 am Monday-Friday or on weekends.

In 2018, The Ticket in Boise, Idaho brought CBS Sports Radio host Damon Amendolara and his co-host, Shaun Morash, to town for a Boise State football game. Damon had just switched to mornings from evenings, and his show aired in Boise from 4 am-8 am Monday – Friday. His ratings were decent, but nothing that stood out considering the daypart. It was thought to be risky to sell him into sandwich shops, pizza places, appearances at local legend hangouts, and so forth.

Boise State head football coach and QB Bryan Harsin and Brett Rypien did a live shot on the show from the on-campus bookstore. At dark thirty. It all worked. DA and Morash were hits! Everywhere they went, lines and crowds awaited them and they hit spots in a two-county area.  The few days of appearances worked so well that DA is back in Boise three years later, this time for a week. Now, DA is doing his show from resort hotels 2.5 hours away, taking riverboat adventure fishing trips in Hell’s Canyon, craft beer tours for his sidekick Andrew Bogusch and hosting college football viewing parties at brewpubs. Every station that carries syndicated shows probably has a DA success story waiting to happen. 

Start by listening to the shows, know the benchmarks and quirks of the national personalities or call the affiliate rep and ask. Does the talent discuss their love of beer, BBQ, pizza, whatever? If they do, then go ahead and sell them to a local client. The national talent can do the spot and endorse your client. If it’s a product, send one to them. Figure out how to get them a pizza. If it’s a service, do a zoom call with the client and let them start a relationship. Include some social media elements with video. The video can be used in social media and can sit on the client’s website. Yours too!

If you want to bring the talent to town, do it for a big game, local event, or 4th of July parade, and the sponsors will follow. Run a promo during the talent’s daypart asking local sponsors to text in to reserve their promotional spot. Have the talent cut liners asking the same thing. Take the NFL Sunday morning host and sell a promo to a sports bar where the host zooms in to a table or room full of listeners, and they watch a portion of a game together. Or sell the same idea to a national chain and do an on-air contest for a listener to have a home watch party with the zoomed-in host complete with food and beverages from your sponsors sent to both locations. How about sending your #1 BBQ joint that handles mail orders and sends some food for the talent? They can videotape themselves reheating the BBQ and make some great Facebook and Instagram videos.  

Distance, like absence, can make the heart grow fonder. Try selling a nationally syndicated host inside your market. I promise you’ll like it. 

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