As the Chicago Cubs front office undertakes a rebuild in an effort to return the team to contender status, many fans have turned their eyes to the team’s farm system in recent years. With elite talent like outfielders Pete Crow-Armstrong and Brennen Davis ascending the Cubs’ minor-league ranks, Marquee Sports Network has dedicated much of its programming to covering the farm system. The Chicago-based RSN is taking it a step further with Road to Wrigley: a first-of-its-kind minor-league baseball whiparound show that showcases multiple Cubs minor-league broadcasts simultaneously.
“In this day and age where almost all of the minor league games are being streamed, we wanted to give Cubs fans a chance to see these young kids coming up firsthand,” says Marquee Sports Network SVP Programming and Production, Mike Santini. “The Cubs have got all these great young players and they’ve made a bunch of trades and are building up their system. We feel this is a way bring that to the fans so they can see these guys and get excited and get to know them and make a connection.”
After a soft launch on July 15 and its official debut on Aug. 12, Marquee is trotting out its third edition of Road to Wrigley tonight at 6:30 p.m. CT / 7:30 ET. The broadcast features live in-game look-ins from Cubs’ affiliate Triple-A Iowa, Double-A Tennessee, Single-A South Bend, and Single-A Myrtle Beach. Hosted by Elise Menaker and featuring player development analysts Lance Brozdowski and Jim Callis, Road to Wrigley broadcasts include concurrent split-screen feeds, plus highlights, analysis, and breakdowns.
Santini and senior coordinating producer Nick Steger are both MLB Network veterans, who are well acquainted with the whiparound format thanks to their days working on MLB Tonight. Associate producer Mike Norman, who is at the front bench along with director Kevin Dusold for Road to Wrigley productions, also played a key role in the show’s ideation and development.
Inside the Workflow: From Minor League Parks to Wrigleyville
According to SVP of Technical Operations Deb Schneider, Marquee’s engineering team worked closely with Major League Baseball, LTN Communications, and the in-house production teams at each minor league venue to establish a reliable transmission workflow. Marquee is taking in the program feed produced at each venue via an encoder deployed by MLB at the minor league ballparks for streaming on MiLB.TV.
“It’s an interesting workflow in that the feed goes to AWS for streaming on the MLB app and then MLB gives LTN the entitlement to grab that feed and then they are able to send it to us in the studio,” she says. “So it took a bit of coordination by some very smart engineers on our side and at Major League Baseball side. They did a terrific job ideating this and making sure that it all got coordinated properly. And it’s really worked out very smoothly for us.”
Schneider credits Marquee’s Sr Director Of Technical Operations Kevin Reilly and Director of Engineering & IT Gabe Joseph along with MLB VP of Media Operations Dan Blanchard for putting the transmission workflow together.
Bringing in four feeds at the same time and maintaining the signal integrity so that that all of the feeds look good and sound good is challenging, especially when you consider that these stadiums are not necessarily set on the level of a major league stadium from an infrastructure standpoint,” says Schneider. “But we have really gotten the hang of it that’s thanks to the hard work of our engineering team.”
The broadcast itself is produced back in Marquee’s Wrigleyville control room with Norman and Dusold at the front bench and separate team led by Steger monitoring all the games and helping to decide which game to go to depending on the situation.
“[Steger] He is feeding information to the front bench and then the final calls come from [the director and producer],” says Santini. “Since there four games going on at once, the producer can’t follow every single play because there is just so much traffic going on. So we’ve got [Steger] leading the second team that is aware of what’s going on in each individual game and helps Mike and Kevin go to the right place and the right time.”
The Look and Feel: Whiparound Style Presents Unique Challenges
Although Marquee already produces a bi-weekly half-hour Road to Wrigley studio show and is scheduled to air up to 39 full minor league games this year across all 4 full-season affiliates, the network created a new graphics package for the new whiparound show. Marquee’s creative team created the graphics package with a Wrigley Field theme in mind and included custom two-box, three-box, and four-box elements for whiparound portions of the show.
“Nick Steger and I both came from MLB Network, so we had a pretty good idea of the elements that we would need to be able to do this since we’re borrowing from MLB Tonight and how they go from game to game,” says Santini. “For example, you don’t want to go to a four box too often: only when you’re transitioning somewhere else. It’s that kind of [knowledge] that allowed us to sort of hit the ground running.”
While the ultra-fast pace of the whiparound style presents its own unique challenges, Santini says its actually the intense preparation and research prior to the live show that is most challenging for the on-air talent and production team.
“I think the biggest challenge is knowing enough about all of the levels of the Cubs minor leagues and being familiar with all these players,” says Santini. “Doing all the research to have knowledge and familiarity with the teams and the players has been a huge undertaking. Luckily, we have a great group of talent and [production] people that came into this with vast knowledge and have only increased that knowledge since.”
Looking Ahead: More ‘Road to Wrigley’ Likely Coming in 2023
While Santini says tonight will likely be the last Road to Wrigley broadcast of the season, Marquee is expected to bring back the program next season.
“I think this will be here to stay and is something that we’ll continue to do next year and beyond,” he says. “I believe that the more that we show these young players, the deeper the connection will be with the fans. And, hopefully at some point in the future when these guys reach the major leagues, we will see a benefit in the ratings because people have grown up with these kids through the Cubs system. It’s just created a stronger bond between the fan and the players.”
Road to Wrigley begins tonight at 6:30 p.m. CT / 7:30 ET on Marquee Sports Network.