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Fan Engagement

‘Baseball and TV – They’re Always Changing’: An Interview with WGN Director of Production Bob Vorwald

By: Stats Perform

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 has been broadcasting 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 has never settled for a reliance on recognizable names to drive engagement. It has also been at the forefront of incorporating advanced metrics into its telecasts. And Stats Perform’s industry-leading historical database and groundbreaking analytics team have provided the network with compelling data and storylines since 1999.

Stats Perform’s Taylor Bechtold sat down with WGN Director of Production Bob Vorwald before an Indians-White Sox game in late September to discuss his career, how the analytics movement has changed the telecast, the network’s relationship with Stats Perform, and what the future of the baseball broadcast might look like.

Part of this interview was condensed into a 2-minute, 48-second video, which omitted some interesting takes on technology’s influence on the broadcast, why it’s important to stay disciplined when it comes to using data, and how second-screen use and gambling might impact sports telecasts.

Here’s the conversation in its entirety:

Taylor Bechtold: What was the journey like that led you to working 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. A year later, one of my first big decisions was switching over to Stats Perform and (we’ve) used the company to work with us for all our numerical needs ever since.

TB: So many people remember watching baseball on WGN growing up. How big of a deal is it for you to be a part of that tradition?

BV: It’s a huge deal. 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.

It’s different than the national broadcast, which has to set the scene for a wide audience and has to layout storylines. This is more of an ongoing conversation when you’re doing a local broadcast like we do. Our fans know us. We think we know them. Again, it’s part of being the family, relating to them, being easygoing and familiar and just something that they can feel comfortable with because you have an ongoing relationship with them. WGN is very unique in that regard. We have the greatest, most loyal fans in the world and around the country thanks to the years that we were on the Superstation. It’s a huge responsibility and we want to make sure they have a good time, have the best information possible and the best chance in the world to go to the ballpark through our eyes.

WGN began broadcasting baseball games in 1948

TB: How has the job changed or progressed as technology has 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 our viewer? Does it inform or entertain our 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.

WGN Director of Production Bob Vorwald

TB: Along those lines, how has the relationship with the announcers evolved over the years?

BV: We’re in a business where there’s more and more and more and more. Part of our job is to filter those things so that they get the best information, but we also leave them time to do their job. You have a million things you can talk about and show in a game but sometimes you have to have the restraint to slow down, listen to the announcers, and let them guide you along because there are certain replays and certain graphics that can wait.

They might be in the middle of a story. They might be in something that they’ve seen on the field that the cameras can follow. Despite the fact that we have so much of everything now, you still have to follow their lead and make sure that it’s a team play. Everybody’s pulling in the right direction, but it’s the guys who are calling the game on the air – they’re going to take the lead.

TB: WGN has shown Stats Perform’s revolutionary Command+ metric on the broadcast and the network uses our bullet points and game notes and data for the Game Zone. Have you got an idea of what this has added to the baseball coverage?

BV: I think the best part about our long relationship with Stats Perform is everybody knows that we’re talking about the gold standard here. The information is right, it’s timely. It helps people understand the game. For us behind the scenes, it’s something that we can count on that we don’t ever have to think about. It’s just there.

From a partnership standpoint with Stats Perform, there’s always an ongoing discussion of, “Here’s what’s available. Do you think you guys can use this this way? Hey, we saw what you guys are doing with this. Have you ever thought about doing this?” There are all sorts of questions that we’ve had along the way. Some didn’t pan out, some were incorporated into the broadcast but we’ve always felt like these are great people who have our best interest at heart. (They’ll) work with us on anything and genuinely know our product and our broadcast and don’t try and force anything on us, but try and give us things that they think can complement what we’re doing on a daily basis.

TB: There are a lot of networks that have stayed away from using advanced analytics in their broadcasts. You guys are, in some ways, at the forefront of informing viewers with data. Where does that willingness to try new things 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.

When we work with Stats Perform, we’re speaking the same language in that regard of, how do we make this worthy for the fans and something that they’re going to appreciate as opposed to something that they have to endure? And there are times that you just have to pull back. The people we work with at Stats Perform always understand what things are relatable to our viewers and offer plenty of ideas and suggestions of ways that maybe we can think about continuing to introduce this information into every telecast.

Inside the WGN Sports truck

TB: From your experience, what has WGN’s interaction with Stats Perform been like over these past 20 years?

BV: There’s a generous amount of interaction in the offseason. What do you need? What are you thinking about? What works? What doesn’t work? We have noticed this in other broadcasts. We’ve noticed this about the game. Have you ever thought about doing this? There’s a lot of give and take that goes forward in the offseason. Then, on game day, if specific things come up or specific questions come up, our guys never hesitate to reach out. They always get a timely answer. Usually, it’s more than just an answer. It’s “Here’s the information you want. Have you thought about this? Here’s a couple of other things that may be germane to what you’re talking about.” That’s one of the great things about working with Stats Perform, is usually, we get more back than we asked and it takes us in helpful directions.

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 for all of us is to get our audiences invested in that information as much as we can, 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 our 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. …We’ve always been able to count on Stats Perform to help us with those types of things.