In January 2021, I wrote that Chicago was entering its next golden age of sports broadcasting.
National jobs had affirmed our announcers’ place in the industry. The Cubs had just hired ESPN’s Jon Sciambi to replace TV voice Len Kasper, who left for the White Sox’ radio booth. Sox voice Jason Benetti had increased his profile at ESPN, Bulls voice Adam Amin had done the same at Fox and Blackhawks analyst Eddie Olczyk was on NBC’s top crew. Plus, Hall of Famer Pat Foley was still in the Hawks’ booth.
Pan to Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend.”
Five months later, the Hawks announced that the 2021-22 season would be Foley’s last. Thirteen months after that, Olczyk and the Hawks couldn’t agree on a new contract, and he left for the Kraken. Sixteen months after that, Benetti left the Sox to join the Tigers.
My “golden age” comment didn’t age well.
Which leads to our top story on the list of the 10 biggest Chicago sports-media stories of 2023.
1. Jason Benetti leaves White Sox for Tigers
It wasn’t a secret that the Benetti-Sox marriage was on the rocks. At the end of January, the Sox announced that they had picked up the two-year option on Benetti’s contract. But the run-up to the agreement was, in Benetti’s words, “kind of a pain.”
Fast forward to Nov. 9. The Sox announced Benetti was leaving, the Tigers announced he was coming and Sox fans, already reeling from a tumultuous season, announced their disgust. After losing 101 games, they lost a beloved broadcaster who was a lifelong Sox fan himself.
Later, we revealed that tension between Benetti and Sox executive Brooks Boyer played a big part in Benetti leaving with a year left on his deal. There were other factors, including those national commitments, but it was clear that the Sox didn’t like how Benetti called a game.
Never mind that most of their fans did.
2. Pat Hughes inducted into Baseball Hall of Fame
The longtime Cubs radio voice officially became a Hall of Famer in July when he received the Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in broadcasting. His induction speech was what you’d expect: eloquent, humorous and filled with gratitude. Here’s hoping to many more years behind the mic.
3. Olin Kreutz returns to The Score
After being off the air for the 2022 NFL season because of an incident in sports-media startup CHGO’s office, Kreutz returned to The Score in July. “I guess you could say we took a break, and [The Score] treated me fairly,” Kreutz said then. “I know what I did was wrong.” His biting analysis was missed.
4. Darren Pang becomes Blackhawks TV analyst
Pang’s return to Chicago softened the blow of losing Olczyk. The former Hawks goalie, who began his broadcast career in Chicago in 1990, brings enthusiasm and levity to the broadcast, which is no easy task in another difficult season. He and play-by-play voice Chris Vosters are off to a good start together.
5. Chicago Street Race delivers on TV
In July, Chicago hosted the first street race in NASCAR’s 75-year history, and it was a spectacle on TV – when it wasn’t raining. Despite weather delays, the broadcast on NBC and Peacock averaged 4.795 million viewers. It was the network’s most-watched NASCAR Cup Series race since 2017.
6. WNBA delivers record viewership
The league had its most-watched regular season in 21 years. Viewership across national-TV partners ABC/ESPN and CBS was up 21% over the 2022 season. The postseason, on ESPN channels, was the most watched in 16 years. And the Sky-Lynx preseason game in Toronto sold out, drawing about 20,000.
7. Cubs launch DTC service
All of the Cubs’ programming dreams have come true. After launching Marquee Sports Network in February 2020, they debuted a direct-to-consumer service in July, allowing in-market viewers to stream the channel for the tidy sum of $19.99 a month – all of which is going straight toward the team, right?
8. Baseball adds pitch timer
While fans wondered how it would affect games, broadcasters wondered how it would affect broadcasts. They ended up handling it fine, but the production crews must’ve gone nuts trying to run replays without missing a pitch. And for the first time, a clock regularly appeared on the screen.
9. Former Bears tight end Greg Olsen calls Super Bowl
It might end up being the only Super Bowl he calls, but Olsen, the Bears’ first-round pick in 2007, did an outstanding job calling the game in February with Kevin Burkhardt. Olsen has been a quick study in the booth, but Tom Brady is expected to knock him to the No. 2 team next year. Olsen doesn’t deserve that.
10. Jon Sciambi is national voice for World Series
Since networks stopped using local announcers to call the Fall Classic in 1979, five men have had the honor: Vin Scully, Jack Buck, Jon Miller, Dan Shulman … and Cubs TV voice “Boog” Sciambi, who called this past Series on ESPN Radio. “It feels silly to be in that grouping with those guys,” he said. It shouldn’t.