EVEN SANS FANS, WRIGLEY IS STAR

Park was al­ways go­ing to be a big part of Mar­quee broad­casts; now its role will be even more prom­i­nent

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - JEFF AGREST ja­grest@sun­times.com | @jef­freya22

Mar­quee Sports Net­work gen­eral man­ager Mike McCarthy chuck­led at his own ques­tion.

“Did you no­tice that we put the at­ten­dance up last night?” he asked in ref­er­ence to the MSN broad­cast of the Cubs’ scrim­mage Tues­day at Wrigley Field.

In­deed, the win­ning num­ber for the Guess the At­ten­dance game was 186 — a far cry from the roughly 41,000 the ball­park can hold.

There’s noth­ing wrong with a lit­tle lev­ity dur­ing a pan­demic. The coro­n­avirus likely will keep sta­di­ums fan-free for the short­ened 2020 sea­son, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be fun at the old ball­park. And for­get all those va­cant seats. As Mar­quee pre­pares to broad­cast its first Open­ing Day at Wrigley Field next Fri­day, McCarthy said air­ing games with­out fans will only en­hance the ball­park’s ap­pear­ance.

“This sounds like I’m try­ing to write like John Stein­beck or some­thing, but I think it’s more beau­ti­ful when it’s empty,” McCarthy said. “I’ve gone in there with peo­ple that have never been in there, and if you’re go­ing in on a Tues­day morn­ing, and there’s a cou­ple of guys mow­ing the lawn, and that’s it, I’ve seen peo­ple break down be­cause you feel like you’re go­ing back in time.”

To be sure, McCarthy would rather have fans in the stands to give Wrigley the en­ergy it’s known for. And be­fore the coro­n­avirus de­layed the fledg­ling net­work’s reg­u­larsea­son de­but, the plan was al­ways to make the ball­park a co-star of the broad­cast. McCarthy said that can be done even bet­ter by putting ro­botic cam­eras in places where they would have oth­er­wise ob­structed fans’ views.

“Do we wish we didn’t have this sit­u­a­tion? Of course,” he said. “But there are so many things we can do in the fan­less en­vi­ron­ment — microphone­s, cam­eras be­ing mounted — to bring per­spec­tives to Wrigley that peo­ple haven’t seen be­fore. I think it’s go­ing to be re­mark­able.”

But first and fore­most, it has to be safe.

The ro­botic cam­eras can be mounted hours be­fore any­one else en­ters the sta­dium and op­er­ated from out­side. MSN em­ploy­ees are tested for COVID-19 ev­ery day. The net­work in­stalled plex­i­glass be­tween work­sta­tions at its stu­dio across Wave­land Av­enue.

Play-by-play voice Len Kasper and an­a­lyst Jim De­shaies have am­ple space be­tween them in the booth. Field re­porter Tay­lor McGre­gor will work from sev­eral rows back in the stands and con­duct in­ter­views re­motely. The Cubs and Mar­quee are dis­cussing how

to han­dle ac­cess to play­ers.

Cole Wright will host the pregame and postgame shows from the MSN stu­dio, which will make its de­but be­fore the opener. It re­mains to be seen if he’ll be joined on the set. At the Cubs Con­ven­tion, Mar­quee in­tro­duced a cadre of con­trib­u­tors. But given the pan­demic, they’ll most likely work re­motely.

“It turns out some of them are in hot states, like Ari­zona, where Mark Grace lives,” McCarthy said. “We’re not likely to get him on a plane any­time soon. As I said, we’re go­ing to lead with safety. If some­body ap­pears on a lap­top in­stead of sit­ting next to Cole in the stu­dio, that’s a very small con­ces­sion to make in the en­vi­ron­ment we’re in.”

That en­vi­ron­ment also in­cludes ar­ti­fi­cial sound. Mar­quee is work­ing closely with the Cubs to make the au­dio com­ing from the Wrigley speak­ers as nat­u­ral as pos­si­ble, and they’ll con­tinue ad­just­ing as they go. They’ve run the gamut from the mur­mur of a crowd to an all-out “Javy!” chant for Javy Baez.

“It’s prob­a­bly go­ing to take a lit­tle time for peo­ple to get used to it,” McCarthy said. “I watch a lot of sports, ob­vi­ously. When I first heard the canned au­dio on soc­cer, it gave me a lit­tle bit of trep­i­da­tion. And then 20 min­utes in, I for­got about it.

“The big­gest con­cern in a fan­less en­vi­ron­ment, and noth­ing is close, is: Are you pick­ing up col­or­ful things that aren’t meant for air? Our man­date is, we’re not go­ing to have that. Every­body’s mindful of it.”

That’s prob­a­bly a re­lief to the vis­it­ing team’s TV crew, which will use the home team’s feed for its broad­casts. But McCarthy said the vis­i­tors will have com­plete con­trol of one cam­era. Oth­er­wise, what you see com­ing out of Wrigley is what the op­po­si­tion’s fans will see.

But only Mar­quee view­ers will see what the net­work has lined up for Open­ing Day. It be­gins with a two-hour pregame show start­ing at 4 p.m. (look for Bill Mur­ray to pop in), fol­lowed by Brew­ers-Cubs at 6:10. Af­ter the postgame show, Ed­die Ved­der will be the guest on for­mer Cub Ryan Demp­ster’s weekly talk show, “Off the Mound.”

It beats an­other round of clas­sic games, which car­ried Mar­quee’s Cubs con­tent dur­ing base­ball’s shut­down. The net­work also de­vel­oped al­ter­na­tive pro­gram­ming that will re­main, such as Chris My­ers’ “Play at Home Trivia” show. But Mar­quee was cre­ated to carry live games, and those fi­nally start for real next Fri­day.

“I think the way this group an­swered that call [dur­ing the shut­down], not only did we stay rel­e­vant for a nice chunk of time there, but we learned a lot about our­selves, and we got through a lot of grow­ing pains,” McCarthy said. “I think we’re all go­ing to be bet­ter for it once our sea­son starts next week.”

MAR­QUEE SPORTS NET­WORK

Len Kasper (left) and Jim De­shaies have am­ple space be­tween each other in the booth.

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