No matter where you grew up, if you’re a fan of a certain age odds are you remember watching sports on WGN and its national superstation WGN America.
That’s because the network broadcasted sports for a remarkable 72 seasons, beginning with Chicago Cubs and White Sox games in 1948 and later, the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks for many years starting in the ’60s. WGN has also aired many games and events featuring other leagues and sports over the years.
While it’s known for a rich history that includes some legendary announcers, WGN never settled for a reliance on recognizable names to drive engagement. It was also at the forefront of incorporating advanced metrics into its telecasts.
Our Taylor Bechtold sat down with former WGN Director of Production Bob Vorwald to discuss his career, how the analytics movement has changed the telecast and what the future of the baseball broadcast might look like.
Here’s the conversation in its entirety:
Taylor Bechtold: What was the journey like that led you to work in television and how was it that you ended up at WGN?
Bob Vorwald: I was a baseball fan as a kid. I grew up in a very small town in southwestern Wisconsin and my family (members) were Cub fans. My grandfather had a tractor radio before he had indoor plumbing. Before my dad shipped off to Korea, he took the train to Wrigley Field. In 1969, he took me to my first baseball game at Wrigley Field when I was seven years old. I was hooked. I would watch the NBC Game of The Week on Saturdays. We got the Cubs network and WGN on Sundays.
I had this thing called the Kessler’s Baseball Guide. This whiskey company would put out this baseball guide. It had a page on every team and its schedule, ballpark and roster. It had everybody in the Hall of Fame, and the numbers, the leaders, and the all-time numbers like 714 and .367. Those things just became a part of my life because really, that’s what baseball is, the numbers are sacred, much more so in other sports. I always wanted to get to Chicago. I came to Northwestern to go to school. I was lucky enough to land a job at WGN-TV in 1982 (and) did all kinds of sports TV work. Then I landed the job as head of production at WGN and as executive producer for WGN Sports in 1998.
TB: So many people remember watching baseball on WGN growing up. How big of a deal was it for you to be a part of that tradition?
BV: For those of us that work at WGN, first of all, you stand on the shoulders of giants like Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse. Seventy-two seasons with the Cubs is something that’s unmatched in television anywhere in the world. There’s this idea, especially with baseball – and we’ve carried all the sports – that you’re family. People bring you into their living room on a regular basis. There’s a familiarity that you have with your viewers.
TB: How did the job change or progress as technology improved over the years?
BV: You have more technology every year and sometimes that requires more restraint every year. Just because you have a new toy doesn’t mean that you don’t think about how best it can be used. That’s not just a camera or a replay. It can be a statistic. It can be information. It can be just about anything. Just because we have it, doesn’t mean we use it. Does it add value to the viewer? Does it inform or entertain the viewer? Does it have a frame of reference that they can understand?
Certain things start off as, “Well, let’s try this across the industry,” and then (they) quickly become the norm, something (we) can’t live without. The score box (on the baseball broadcast) is only about 23 years old. …When you see an old tape, you can’t tell the immediate score or balls and strikes. You don’t know what to do. The pitch cam where you can see the pitch zone is only about eight or nine years old on a regular basis. Now it seems like we’ve always had that because it’s such a valuable addition.
There are things that come and go. ESPN tried to do bat speed (but you) don’t necessarily know how fast that should be going. Sometimes those things don’t work, so you want to keep trying them, but at the end of the day, you want to make sure that the viewer can enjoy it and understand it. Those are the things that usually work.
TB: There are a lot of networks that have stayed away from using advanced analytics in their broadcasts. Where does that willingness to try new things like command+ come from?
BV: The analytics question is really interesting because it’s a bigger and bigger part of all games, especially baseball right now, but your viewers don’t necessarily want a math lesson. How do you marry those two together where you give them information and teach them? Because these are things about why (a team’s) lineup is constructed a certain way, why guys are on the team. But get it back to a frame of reference that (viewers) can understand and compare it to (and) make the viewer feel that they’re not being force-fed, but instead getting information that helps enhance their viewing experience, and helps them understand their team.
TB: What do you think the future of the baseball broadcast is going to be like? How much is data going to be a part of that?
BV: I think the information explosion in the game of baseball is going to be a bigger and bigger part of television. It’s going to be a bigger and bigger part of the in-stadium experience. There’s no running away from any of that. The challenge is to get audiences invested in that information, make them feel as comfortable with it as they can, and find ways that they can engage during the game in that information. Second-screen (use) for everybody is more and more prevalent, people watch the game with a phone, with something else. How can you engage them with that?
The other big hurdle out there is gaming, gambling, whatever we want to call it. Wherever it’s legal, it’s going to impact the telecast. What information are we going to provide there? What opportunities does it provide, not just for viewer enjoyment, but will they watch the game longer if they have different ways to be involved? Is that a way to increase viewership? Is it a way to increase sponsorship?
There’s just a whole bunch of great new ideas and information that are on the horizon. That’s the great thing about baseball and television. They’re always changing. You’ll always have your bedrock principles and things that you can hearken back to, but there’s always going to be new and exciting things on the forefront that we can all be invested in.