Marquee Sports Network surpasses NBC Sports Chicago in original programmingJeff Agreston August 19, 2021 at 8:25 pm

I was watching ESPN’s trade-deadline show when the Cubs sent closer Craig Kimbrel to the White Sox on July 30. After picking up my jaw from the floor, I changed the channel to see how the Cubs’ and Sox’ stations were covering the big news.

They weren’t.

It took Marquee Sports Network a little over a half-hour to take the replay of the Reds-Cubs game from the previous afternoon off the air and put on studio host Cole Wright and analyst Ryan Sweeney to discuss the trade and those that followed. But at least the network provided programming.

NBC Sports Chicago stuck with a repeat of a triathlon.

(In fairness, Chuck Garfien and Ryan McGuffey jumped on their “White Sox Talk Podcast” and put it on Facebook Live a little over an hour after the deal. It was nice, but they belonged on TV.)

Chicago has had two regional sports networks for a year and a half now, and deadline day showed the modus operandi of each. Marquee is complementing its games with original programming, while NBCSCH is leaning on its games to carry the freight.

This is strictly about linear TV. Both networks have digital and social platforms, though NBCSCH has more going on there with coverage of all five major teams in town. But on the air, Marquee is putting more around the Cubs than NBCSCH is around the Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks.

Perhaps that should be expected given that the Cubs are Marquee’s sole tenant. But in its previous iteration as Comcast SportsNet, NBCSCH aired the news and highlight show “SportsNet Central” several times a day. Even after the network was rebranded, it aired “SportsTalk Live” and “Beer Money.”

Marquee partners with VSiN to air a live sports-betting show in the morning and with Chicago-based Stadium to air a news and highlight show in the evening. It has produced documentaries and created shows for former Cub Doug Glanville and Fox sportscaster Chris Myers.

But NBCSCH is in a tough spot. Its parent company, NBC Universal, has reorganized its management teams and consolidated where it can. Kevin Cross used to be solely responsible for NBCSCH as senior vice president and general manager. Now he’s the president and general manager of NBC 5, Telemundo Chicago and NBCSCH.

Here’s the network’s biggest dilemma: Viewers generally turn it on for games. Maybe they’ll catch the end of a pregame show and stick around for the postgame show. But with so many competing platforms, from social media to streaming services, the RSN has had a tough time maintaining TV viewers. So does it create content when people aren’t watching, or does it focus on what they are watching?

The people at NBCSCH would love nothing more than to replace all those informercials, poker games and NBC Sports reruns with original content. They will bring back the popular Bears postgame program, “Football Aftershow,” this season. But it’s hard to justify the expense for much more if it won’t garner ratings. If you’re pining from the lack of content, make sure you have a Nielsen box in your home.

This isn’t meant to paint a dire picture for the network. After enduring multiple rounds of layoffs in the last year, it celebrated the promotion of John Schippman to vice president of content this week. With Cross now at NBC Tower, the highly regarded Schippman becomes Cross’ point man at NBCSCH’s offices in River North. His job is to ensure that the network is creating the best content for all of its platforms.

But losing the Cubs was a blow to the network, and down times for the Bulls and Hawks haven’t helped. If, as some in the industry say, an RSN is only as good as its teams, the Sox’ success couldn’t have come at a better time. And the Bulls and Hawks appear poised to return to relevancy.

It will be interesting to see how the teams themselves view the network. Bulls and Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and Hawks chairman Rocky Wirtz are partners, along with NBC Sports Group, and their contract runs through the 2024 MLB season. Granted, that’s three years away, but that’s not a ton of time in the sports-TV business.

Might the three teams venture out on their own, like the Cubs did? It’s possible, but it’s hard enough running a team, let alone a network. More important, it’s a no-risk relationship for the teams. The RSN bears the burden of distribution while paying the teams a rights fee. Though the business model has come under attack because of cord-cutting and streaming, it still can work.

But by then, the question might be whether the teams are satisfied with what else NBCSCH can provide.


Marquee Sports Network added 12 Cubs minor-league games to its broadcast schedule, with games from each of the organization’s full-season affiliates. Next up are games Friday and Saturday nights between the Cubs’ and White Sox’ Double-A teams, Tennessee and Birmingham. Elise Menaker will serve as the network’s minor-league reporter, contributing to Cubs pregame and in-game broadcasts.
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