TV firsts: CSN’s spot-free games, ‘catcher-cam’ usage

Josh Phegley wore “catcher-cam” in his helmet

Here’s a likely first for a live sports broadcast. Comcast SportsNet Chicago (CSN) won’t be airing commercial breaks in its White Sox Cubs spring training telecasts March 15-16, respectively.

Another first will replace the spots. The viewer will watch batting practice pitches from the catcher’s eye, via a camera mounted on the catcher’s mask. Such a view of pitches boring in at 85 mph or faster has never been captured on film or video.

Both ideas were conceived by award-winning CSN Chicago producers Ryan McGuffey and Sarah Lauch. They had taped all their Arizona segments prior to CSN Chicago opting to make the two games commercial-free. Some 18 to 20 feature segments will be used in the Saturday night Sox telecast.

CSN Chicago was able to sacrifice revenue for headlines and possibly more viewers than in previous seasons.

 “Normally, we would be airing seven total spring training games,” said Phil Bedella, CSN Chicago VP/general manager. “This year, we are airing a total of 15.  So there is significantly more in-game inventory available to recoup the dollars.

“Obviously, we’re giving up valuable air time by airing these two games commercial-free, but we feel it’s worth it. We have the opportunity to showcase all the great features, interviews and player profiles that were recently shot in Arizona, with the goal of making fans aware of these solid, emerging players on both sides of town, that will be building blocks for many years to come.”

Go-Pro camera a quick sell to Sox

Comcast producer Sarah LauchIn the process of showing views of players and spring training not commonly portrayed in dozens of commercial breaks, McGuffey and Lauch came up with the concept of affixing a “Go-Pro” camera to the catcher’s mask.

Sox catcher Josh Phegley immediately agreed to wear the camera during a batting-practice session with lefty pitcher John Danks.

CSN Chicago previously had used the Go-Pro — made by the company with the same name — in sailing and running features, but never in a team-sports environment.

“Sarah and I really loved the Go-Pro camera because it gives everyone a unique angle,” said McGuffey. “Honestly, I thought at best it was 50-50 going in asking (the Sox) to do it. A couple of days they said it’s good to go.”

Phegley wore the Go-Pro for half an hour. Even with Danks not throwing at maximum speed, the image is that of pitches coming in faster than a non-pro could swing at it.

“Anybody who thinks they can get in the box against John Danks is out of their mind,” said McGuffey. “When you see the video of (pitches coming in at) 80 mph, it looks like 120 mph. It literally looks like you’re getting into the batter’s box.”

McGuffey and Lauch, assisted by camera operator Mike Cappozzo, also employed the Go-Pro attached to Sox center fielder Adam Eaton on a fishing jaunt and groundskeeper Roger “Sodfather” Bossard as he worked the fields in the Glendale, Ariz. training complex.

The network will coordinate the introduction of the segments between the truck at the ballpark and CSN Chicago’s River North studios.

George Castle is a longtime Chicago sportswriter, author and sports historian