How Chicago sports talkers are adjusting to world without sports

Mark Giangreco

I caught up with Mark Giangreco just as he was heading home Sunday from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to ask the obvious question: What does a sportscaster do when there’s no sports going on?

For Chicago’s No. 1 sports anchor, the answer is to play your greatest hits.

“Starting tomorrow we’ll be bringing back my ‘Make Mark Do Your Job’ segments from the late ’90s,” said Giangreco, lead sports anchor at ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7 and a fixture on Chicago TV since 1982. “Plus our great Bulls championship specials as well as commemorating milestone events like Michael Jordan’s return from baseball 25 years ago this week.”

As he prepared to board his flight — armed with sanitizer to wipe down his seat and armrest — Giangreco added: “My ABC 7 sportscasts will become Chicago’s ‘Sports History Channel’ as we provide the best alternative programming in town along with all breaking sports news as it pertains to the virus. . . . I might try to come up with some alternative hybrid virus-proof sports.”

The shutdown of virtually all major league and college sports because of the coronavirus threat has forced everyone in sports media to recalibrate their roles for the time being.

At WGN-Channel 9 it means putting “GN Sports” on hold just two months after its debut. In place of the half-hour sports show at 10:30 p.m. weeknights (hosted by Dan Roan and Jarrett Payton), the Nexstar Media Group station will begin airing “WGN News Special Report: COVID-19 Pandemic.”

WGN news anchor and medical reporter Dina Bair will host the daily review of the pandemic, featuring analysis from experts and focusing on the local impact and outlook.

“Viewers are looking for information on this ever-changing pandemic,” said news director Dominick Stasi. “As Chicago’s Very Own, we want to provide the up-to-the-minute facts and information as the COVID-19 virus impacts Chicagoland.”

CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2 dropped the sports segment from its 10 p.m. newscast one night last month. Nothing they do would come as a surprise.

The derailment of sports is having an even greater impact on Chicago’s two major all-sports radio stations.

Mitch Rosen

“Sports radio is personality radio,” said Mitch Rosen, director of operations and programming at WSCR 670-AM, the Entercom sports/talk station known as The Score. “Our listeners look at our hosts as trusted friends and people they can rely on for information at times and to just be there. With more of the public working from home, live and local radio becomes more important. We feel The Score is there more than ever for our audience over the air and through all our platforms.”

How will that translate into what listeners hear? “We will talk about how people are living their lives, and we will talk about movies and music, et cetera,” Rosen said. “We also plan to replay some great Cubs games from 2016, some great Bears games that aired on WBBM, and a White Sox classic or two that aired on The Score when we had the rights.

“The bottom line is that listeners look to us as comfort, information and friends. That is what live and local radio is.”

Mike Thomas

It’s a similar story at WMVP 1000-AM, the ESPN Radio sports/talk station managed by Good Karma Brands. There’s only so far you can milk news of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement and the start of free agency.

Then what? “We have a lot of creative, interesting teammates at ESPN 1000,” said Mike Thomas, market manager of ESPN Chicago. “We have kicked around a lot of fun ideas. Maybe our own basketball tournament — but on video games? We have launched our new “ESPN 1000 Chicago” channel on Twitch, and we will be doing a lot more video content to stay engaged with fans.

“We all need to stay positive and we have a really positive team. The saying ‘Out of adversity comes opportunity’ is very true. This will be a test for all of us.

“The world is going to change forever. So the challenge to the content team [is] entertain me! Let’s try not to lose our sense of humor. If you can entertain me when there are no games to be played, you are truly talented!”

Friday’s comment of the day: Kevin Killion: Coronamania is exposing the lack of math aptitude in newsrooms. If one doesn’t deep dive into the numbers and trends, it’s so easy to get lost in panicky qualitative soundbites that carry little real substance. Without really understanding the numbers, it seems reporters don’t even know the most vital questions to ask.