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A few thoughts about Marquee Sports Network’s Cubs game broadcasts

Cubs games are getting hard to watch, and not for the play on the field.

Marquee Sports Network

It doesn’t make me happy to write this article and I really wish I didn’t feel I had to, but... I have to.

Marquee Sports Network’s Cubs broadcasts are verging on unwatchable.

There, I said it. And it’s not just me; I’ve spoken to quite a number of Cubs fans who share this opinion, some of whom I’ll quote below.

I’m going to take some time to explain my position, so strap in, this isn’t going to be fun. I should note that since I am at Wrigley Field for all the Cubs’ home games, I only watch away games on Marquee. I doubt, though, that what I’m about to describe is any different on home game broadcasts, and I have heard from people who have watched many home games that no, it’s not really any different.

I had high hopes for Marquee when the Cubs announced they were starting their own channel. All Cubs programming, all the time? Sure, sounds great.

Now, I will give Marquee this: They launched their channel at possibly the worst time ever to begin a new business, in the middle of a pandemic. They spent the better part of two years not being able to send their announcers to away games. Broadcasting games where your crew is not present in person is an extremely difficult task and I give them great credit for being able to call the games off monitors through all of 2020 and much of 2021. Also, I’ll give Marquee’s general manager Mike McCarthy a lot of credit for steering his staff through the pandemic without any COVID cases at all, as he told me last year. Marquee also has a first-rate graphics package.

Why are Cubs broadcasts edging toward unwatchable?

Because Boog Sciambi and whoever he’s with in the booth, whether it’s Jim Deshaies, Rick Sutcliffe or Ryan Dempster, frequently ignore what’s happening on the field and go off on random tangents. It feels like I’m watching a podcast, with certain topics they feel they must bring up and the action on the field is secondary. There are times an entire inning will go by and maybe a couple of pitches will be called.

There are also a lot of distractions in the broadcast, such as the sponsored internet poll. Look, I get it: The network is in business to make money, and as such they sell off sponsorships to various companies for pretty much everything. This isn’t uncommon for any regional sports network. But that poll? It blocks part of the field of play for the better part of an inning and often is largely irrelevant to the game. Again, it feels like I’m watching some random talk show (that sometimes isn’t even related to baseball) and oh, yes, a baseball game is going on in the background. What this means is that if I want to find out what’s happening in the game, I have to rivet my eyes to the screen because I’m certainly not getting the game info from the announcers.

Much of this extraneous information feels like it would fit better on the pregame show.

When I’m watching a Cubs game, I also don’t need to have deep dives into players on the opposing team. Sure, tell me what the pitcher throws (again, the graphics are excellent), but I honestly don’t need to know where he went to school or what round he was drafted in eight years ago or what he did with a different team last year. This is something I hear frequently on Marquee broadcasts.

I’m not sure where all of this comes from, but I can tell you this: I watch a fair number of games on other teams’ RSNs, particularly the Brewers (as the Cubs’ division rival) and the White Sox, as they’re a Chicago team and I’m interested in Chicago teams. Let me focus on the Sox for a moment. They have one of the best broadcast teams in baseball in Jason Benetti and Steve Stone. And though NBC Sports Chicago’s Sox broadcasts do have some fun asides, like “Sox Math,” they are generally linked to the Sox or baseball and Benetti and Stone don’t let them distract from calling the game. The same is true for almost all RSN broadcasts. I’ve also watched a fair number of Dodgers and Giants games on SportsNet LA and NBC Sports Bay Area and they don’t mess around with things that aren’t pertinent to the game. Neither do the Brewers announcers on Bally Sports Wisconsin.

Vin Scully was a master of telling stories during play, but when action happened on the field, he’d immediately stop the story and call the play. This isn’t happening on Marquee, where a story can continue for at-bat after at-bat and irrelevant banter between the announcers often almost spills over into a commercial break.

If you are outside the Cubs market territory and watching on MLB.TV, you now have the choice of audio sources for watching the game. I honestly wouldn’t blame you at all for switching the audio to Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer’s radio call.

As noted above, I asked several friends who watch nearly all Cubs games on Marquee for their thoughts on the channel. I am identifying them here only by the area where they live.

Resident of the north side of Chicago:

Cubs fans have a long history of great broadcasting for their favorite ballclub. We know our team and we expect to have games called with excitement and knowledge. We want broadcasters who are fans of the team and the sport. What Marquee has offered from the beginning does not even come close.

When Len Kasper left the television booth, Marquee, in its “wisdom,” hired a national broadcaster. This has been a colossal flop. Jon “Boog” Sciambi is a total flop in the Cubs television booth. He is dull, sounds bored and too often talks about things not related to the Cubs or even baseball. He drones on, missing plays and often missing full innings of play. He makes Jim Deshaies sound stupid, and JD isn’t.

In short, these broadcasts are unwatchable at best and getting worse. Cubs fans don’t want to hear an inning’s worth of talk about a player who isn’t even on either of the teams playing. They don’t want ludicrous polls that have nothing to do with baseball and that take up at least half of the screen when the game should be shown. They want to hear what’s going on in the game. That isn’t happening.

It’s a fact that advertising is important, but there are ways to get an advertiser’s name on the screen without making the play on the field a small box that appears secondary to the ad. It should be the other way around. Other teams have figured this out. Why can’t Marquee?

Resident of the northwest side of Chicago:

I never thought I’d pine for the “glory days” of Chip Caray, Josh Lewin or even Joe Carter, but, hey, here we are. With apologies to Jim Deshaies, who, eventually jelled with Len Kasper and I grew to like, I find the current crew virtually unlistenable. Off-topic banter, unnecessary stats, mindless polls and sideline interviews with whoever is walking by have me reaching for the mute button before the first pitch. And that goes double for the pre- and post-game shows. In our house, “Pat and Ron are always on!”

Resident of the western suburbs:

I came into the creation of Marquee with a shrug, and a shrug is still how I feel about it. The production is quality. When the booth consists of only J.D. and Sciambi it’s a serviceable experience; when one or both are missing it goes downhill fast. I definitely don’t see any obvious improvements over broadcasts on NBC Sports Chicago and WGN; if anything, the broadcasts have never fully recovered from the loss of Len Kasper.

Marquee can try to get too cute at times — I can’t believe “‘Quees to the Game” is still a thing.

Resident of the north suburbs:

Flat out, they don’t need a third analyst in the booth, unless it’s a special occasion. On TV, less is more so why do you add a third voice to the mandated ration of verbiage?

All the other stuff is a red flag: the “school paper” coverage, the refusal to retain old WGN and NBC Sports Chicago personnel and elements that worked, too many rotating pre- and post-game analysts (“The College of Analysts”) and not enough original programming beyond the game-oriented video.

There had to be a reason Marquee was booed at the 2020 Cubs Convention. Tom Ricketts was stunned. He was tone-deaf. People like what came before. Retain that and IMPROVE on it, but don’t dumb it down.

Let’s make it clear — all of this is not just happening on Marquee. National channels are also doing it. I noticed a similar type of coverage when watching the Cubs on Apple TV+ a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve watched some other Apple TV+ games and they do much the same thing — shove gobs and gobs of semi-relevant information at you while, oh, yes, there’s a game going on. As I wrote in my recap of the Cubs/D-backs Apple TV+ game on May 13:

Visually, the broadcast is first-rate. The cameras look sharp and the graphics are easy to read. The announcers are ... just okay. As usual, a TV channel thinks a three-person booth is a good idea and it’s ... just not. I simply do not see what Katie Nolan added to the broadcast at all. If it had just been Stephen Nelson and Cliff Floyd with Heidi Watney as field reporter, that would have been fine, though there were times when Watney’s interviews distracted from the action. And Nelson mis-called a couple of plays, When Menez entered and retired Smith to end the seventh, Nelson said, “One pitch, one out,” except Menez had thrown two pitches to Smith. And when Hummel struck out to end the eighth, Nelson said he was called out on strikes — nope, Hummel swung and missed.

To get to the point where you’re so distracted that you call plays incorrectly... that’s not good.

ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball is guilty of all of this, too, with features interrupting play, players mic’d up who are actually in the game (how is this not distracting to the player trying to win the game?), and more.

All of this raises the question: Who are these channels trying to appeal to with these types of broadcasts? It’s certainly not the serious baseball fan, even though Boog Sciambi (who seems to be a good guy who loves the game) does throw in some advanced stats. Those are lost, I think, in all the other chatter that drowns out play-by-play at times. It can’t be the casual baseball fan, because I find it difficult to believe that the casual fan enjoys broadcasts that sound disjointed at best. Incidentally, when Boog graciously granted me an interview last year, he specifically told me: “I’m not interested in turning it into math class,” but honestly? Sometimes it feels like math class. Or it feels like I’m being constantly talked at without any of the folks in the booth taking a pause or letting the game breathe even for a second. Sometimes a bit of dead air, just hearing the crowd and crack of the bat or baseball smacking into a catcher’s mitt is good for providing atmosphere. Sometimes the best thing about a sports broadcaster is that he (or she) knows when to shut up.

Maybe this is the wave of baseball broadcasting’s future and maybe I’m behind the times, but given that I can watch almost every other team’s RSN and find a capable broadcast that calls the action, I don’t think I’m wrong.

What is the solution, then? I’ve got one. It’s great that Marquee does all sorts of Cubs-related programming, historic games, interviews with Cubs greats, pre- and post-game coverage. But when it comes to game coverage? Give it to us straight. Leave out the polls and the sideshows. Cubs fans watched more games on TV than any other fanbase for over 70 years before Marquee. We know what we like and we know what we want. Give us what WGN-TV (and later, CSN Chicago and NBC Sports Chicago) gave us, and what most other RSNs give their fans: Call the game action and leave the rest out.

Poll

Rate Marquee’s overall Cubs game broadcasts.

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    Excellent
    (65 votes)
  • 6%
    Very good
    (131 votes)
  • 14%
    Good
    (307 votes)
  • 37%
    Fair
    (803 votes)
  • 38%
    Poor
    (830 votes)
2136 votes total Vote Now