I was thinking about what happens when the Cubs finally get sold and are no longer under the Tribune corporate umbrella. We could see something that we've never seen before: a bidding war for the television and radio rights for Cubs games.
Doing a little research, I found this article from Baseball Prospectus. Granted, it is from 2001, but we can get some useful information. The Cubs placed 8th on that list with a total of $23,559,000. The teams that placed ahead of them were the Yankees, Mets, Mariners, Red Sox, White Sox, Dodgers and Rangers. What is interesting to me is that White Sox made $7 million more than the Cubs. When you factor in that Cubs have both higher television and radio ratings than the White Sox (excluding 2005 and 2006), this doesn't add up. This tells me what we've all known for years: the Cubs were not given full value for their broadcast rights.
When the contracts run out for television and radio in the next few years (when I don't know excatly), there could be stations other than just WGN that would want those rights. On the radio side, WGN-720 would want to keep those rights as the Cubs have been a ratings hit for them for decades. Another interested station could be ESPN-1000 who lost the White Sox to The Score-670 in 2006. There would some minor conflicts since they also have Bulls basketball, but their schedules only overlap a couple of months during the year and a sister station could air one game if there is a conflict. Another possibility could be the Cubs setting up their own radio network. The Cardinals did this in 2006 when they sold their radio rights to KTRS for 50% ownership in the radio station. The upside is that they get to keep nearly all of their advertising money for themselves. The downside is that you're not going to get a 50,000 watt station and decreased wattage means lower coverage. If this happened, you could see more affilates where WGN can be heard now, but a smaller radio station couldn't. These areas would probably in Illinois outside of the Chicagoland area.
Now onto the television rights. Assuming that the Cubs' 25% ownership of Comcast SportsNet gets sold to the new owners of the team, we could see two things happen. The first more likely scenario would be the status quo and we see roughly the same amount of games on over the air (OTA) tv and cable. The rights of the OTA games would then go up for bidding just like the radio rights. I think there would be three interested stations: WGN, WCIU and WPWR. WGN would be obviously interested because WGN and the Cubs have been virtually synonymous for decades. A wrinkle in this relationship could be that MLB wants to stop WGN from showing Cubs and White Sox games because they want people to subscribe to their Extra Innings package. WCIU would be an interesting choice since they already air about 8 games a year anyway and they really don't have any programming that would cause conflicts. However, I don't know if they have the financial resources to pay the high rights fees for Cubs games. WPWR is also interesting because they are owned by FOX, they might have the financial resources for the rights. After the end of the UPN, WPWR is now affilated with MyNetworkTV. Since MyNetworkTV is mostly junk, WPWR would have no problems bringing in the extra ratings the Cubs would bring in over their current lineup. The second more unlikey scenario is that the Cubs go all cable and show their games exclusively on Comcast SportsNet. This is unlikely because Comcast SportsNet already airs a lot of other programming including Sox games and we could see games on Comcast SportsNet++. Also they would have to split their profits with the Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks.
The one hope I have with the sale of the Cubs is that they finally get full market value for their broadcasting rights. And with this extra revenue, make the team better and win the World Series.