Marquee Sports Network Spotlight, Part 2: Building Chicago’s New RSN in the Throes of the Pandemic
Despite challenges, Sinclair and Cubs have teamed up to create elite RSN operation
The launch of a new network is a monumental undertaking under any circumstances. But launching a network on the precipice of a global pandemic? That’s a Mission Impossible scenario.
However, Marquee Sports Network’s production and engineering teams somehow found a way not only to get the new Chicago-based regional sports network on the air in February but also to keep original and live-studio programming flowing in the midst of the pandemic and, over the past three weeks, to bring live baseball back into the homes of millions of Cubs fans.
“When you’re launching a network, you know that it’s going to be challenging,” says Marquee Sports Network SVP, Programming and Production, Mike Santini. “We had assembled a great team that we felt could meet that challenge, but, when that challenge became much more difficult because of the pandemic, our team was even more resilient than we could have imagined. We all take a lot of pride in what we do, and we’re humbled to be able to provide as much Cubs information, entertainment, and content as possible for fans during these times.”
CLICK HERE for Part 1 of SVG’s Marquee Sports Network Spotlight, focused the RSN’s state-of-the-art IP production facilities and unique game coverage.
Out of the Gate: Building a Production Team, Creating the On-Air Look
Shortly after Sinclair Broadcast Group and the Chicago Cubs inked a deal in February 2019 to launch a regional sports network, they brought in former MSG Network President Mike McCarthy as GM. McCarthy, in turn, brought in MLB Network veteran Santini last September to build a production team and cultivate the RSN’s on-air look.
“Right from the beginning],” says Santini, “we knew we wanted to have a really big-time broadcast that was on a similar level as a national [broadcast]. We have all brand-new resources: an incredible state-of-the-art truck from Mobile TV Group and state-of-the-art IP studios in the building that used to be the Cubs offices. We had all these amazing things at our fingertips to build an incredible network for one of the iconic teams in the world.
“But those things were all secondary to finding the right people,” he continues. “I was lucky to be at MLB Network from its inception and helped to launch that network, so I knew, when you get a chance to launch something brand new, you have an opportunity to really impact the culture. And you need to hire the right people to create that culture. My goal was to bring in first-rate people who were team players and knew how to make great TV and give them the tools to succeed.”
In the ensuing months, Santini and his team conceptualized and built a studio at the RSN’s broadcast facility across Waveland Avenue from Wrigley Field that features an abundance of LED screens and multiple on-air setups. In addition to live studio shows, the team began plotting out original programming, such as documentaries and player profiles, to keep Cubs fans engaged between games.
The network officially launched on Feb. 22 with the one-hour Marquee Debut program featuring lifelong Cubs fan Bill Murray followed by a documentary on Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks. The network was off and running with just a few weeks until Opening Day — and then COVID-19 hit.
Staying On-Air During the Pandemic: vMix, Unity Play Key Roles
Less than a month after launching, Marquee Sports Network staffers vacated their sparkling-new facility on March 16 due to the pandemic.
However, within a week of this shutdown, the RSN was already producing new original programming with staff working from home. Programming started with a half-hour weeknightly talk show produced remotely via video conferencing. Then, a second half-hour show was added soon after, followed by two more weekly half-hour shows, and it continued to grow from there.
In addition, the original-programming team continued to work remotely, working closely with MLB Network and Cubs Productions to create documentaries on Cubs legends like Banks, Harry Carey, and Ryan Sandberg, as well as other original programming, such as Cubs Countdown (going from five Cubs Countdown episodes when they vacated the office to more than 20 episodes today).
“We never stopped,” says Santini. “We were a brand-new network, and we didn’t have a big archive to lean on, so we needed to create a robust library of content and shows right away. On top of our daily shows throughout the week, we continued to produce high-quality documentaries and Cubs Countdown shows throughout the pandemic. So I’m really proud of what we were able to accomplish during the pandemic. If you look at what others were doing, I think we compare really favorably in terms of the amount of fresh content that we were able to do during that time.”
The Marquee operation was able to quickly adapt to this new normal, largely by leveraging the vMix Call live–interview-production system. Using the platform, Marquee’s director was able to cut cameras, insert graphics, insert up to four box effects, roll video packages, and cut the show while everyone maintained complete social isolation.
All on-air talent was brought in via laptops and cellphones by simply sending them a link to click; no software or accounts were needed. vMix also provided mix-minus and a program-video return to the talent, enabling seamless conversation with up to four callers.
“[We chose vMix] as a production platform for its overall stability, simplicity of use, and complete production capabilities,” says Deborah Schneider, VP, technical operations, Marquee Sports Network. “vMix was the only product we found that allowed us to capture iso records of calls and our program directly to our network drives. This saved us a significant amount of time in turning our daily programs around, which kept us current as news was breaking around the league. Our editors and programming department had access to the material the minute we finished recording.”
Like many broadcasters during the coronavirus lockdown, Marquee used the Unity cloud-based intercom system to keep the crew connected with each other. Unity provided all personnel with virtual “KP Panel” capabilities on their phones and provided instant communication.
“These two products [vMix and Unity] combined allowed us to produce original, innovative, up-to-date, daily, and weekly programming for our viewers during this challenging time,” says Schneider.
At the same time, Marquee continued building up its facility and game-coverage plans in the background, so that the network would be ready for whenever games started again.
Getting Back to Business: Live Studio Shows and Opening Day
In late June, a limited number of crew members returned to the studio, under full safety protocols and social-distancing guidelines, to get the studio up and running. Soon after, the crew and talent began rehearsing for pre/postgame studio shows, and, on July 24, Marquee Sports Network aired its first live Chicago Cubs game: a 3-0 win over the Brewers.
“The challenges we have faced together as a result of this pandemic made us even stronger as a group,” says Schneider. “We have worked extremely closely to find solution after solution in order to make Marquee Sports Network the premier sports network that it is, despite the restrictions placed on us in this COVID-19 environment.”
Having produced more than a dozen live game broadcasts and hundreds of hours of studio programming, the Marquee Sports Network Production team is looking ahead and aims to build a legacy at America’s newest RSN.
“We’re all incredibly appreciative to have this opportunity: to be in Chicago, to cover such an iconic team, and to have such a great partnership with Sinclair and the Cubs,” says Santini. “We’re humbled to be in the position to be able to broadcast these games when people need that distraction. I’m most appreciative of the team that we have and how hard they worked in difficult times. All we care about is doing the best job we possibly can for the Cubs fans, and no one ever wavered from that – from [the shutdown in] March all the way to today.”