We've heard a lot about the Cubs' deal with WGN-TV, which expires at the end of the 2014 season, and the team's desire to open it up for bids.
But that's not the only WGN deal that's up soon, as Ed Sherman reports in the Tribune, and this time it's the station, not the team, that's opening the contract for re-negotiation:
If the Cubs want to continue their long relationship with WGN-AM 720, dating back to 1925, they likely will have to do it at a reduced price. Strapped with an expensive rights deal and sharply declining ratings because of the Cubs' struggles on the field, WGN is exercising an option to re-open their contract with the team. Broadcast sources say WGN is losing significant money on the Cubs broadcasts, with listeners and advertisers tuning out a team that has lost 197 games in the last two years. Cubs games still will air on the station in 2014, but beyond that, the two sides will have to agree on a new deal.
As noted by Sherman, the relationship between the Cubs and WGN radio is even longer (88 years) than the WGN-TV deal, which dates back to 1948. Cubs games were carried on other radio stations as well at times in the past when broadcast rights weren't sold on an exclusive basis. WJJD and WIND carried games during the 1940s and 1950s before WGN became the exclusive radio home of the Cubs in 1957.
As with WGN-TV, WGN radio has been the a radio home of the Cubs for so long that most current fans can't remember a time when they didn't turn to 720 AM to get their favorite team's broadcasts on the radio. The list of broadcasters includes names you might not recognize, such as Hal Totten, the original WGN broadcaster, and also those you might, such as Bob Elson (who also broadcast White Sox games for many years), Bert Wilson, Jack Quinlan (who died far too young, aged just 38, in a car accident during spring training in 1965), Vince Lloyd, and Pat Hughes, who will be calling Cubs games for his 19th season in 2014.
Of course, these days many people, including a lot of you, don't "dial 720" for your Cubs radio broadcasts. You're listening on your computer, or your tablet, or your smartphone. Still, it would seem very odd to have any Chicago radio station other than WGN carry Cubs games, and as Sherman points out, there aren't really many alternatives in the market:
WSCR-AM 670 is locked in with the White Sox. WMVP-AM 1000 would seem to be an option. However, its deal with the Bulls means potential game conflicts with the Cubs in April and May, and perhaps June if the Bulls go deep in the playoffs. That situation would be difficult to resolve as neither side is likely to agree to be shuttled to a shadow station. Also, it appears unlikely that the ESPN-owned station is in the position or mood to drop big bucks on the Cubs. WBBM-AM 780 and WLS-AM 890 are not considered to be options, given the volume of Cubs games and the price tag. Going to an FM station isn't a viable alternative for the Cubs.
Sherman's article also points out the difficulty of getting bigger rights fees -- whether for TV or radio -- during a time when the team is in a down phase:
WGN probably is the only radio choice for the Cubs. It is quite possible that a reworked deal could be tied into a new TV deal with Tribune Co. to keep some Cubs games on WGN-Ch. 9. Negotiations for a new contract beyond 2014 are taking place on that front too. Indeed, the promise of a sunnier future at Wrigley Field remains the Cubs' best card in its negotiations with WGN in both TV and radio. If the Cubs win again, the ratings will explode, likely shattering all records and making their broadcast partners very happy. At this point, both the Cubs and Tribune Co. have to come to terms on a key question: What is the exact price of hope?
It would seem to me that Sherman is correct, and the Cubs will wind up with some kind of medium-to-long-term deal with WGN radio, with any WGN-TV extension timed so it expires at the same time as the CSN Chicago deal does (after the 2019 season), so that the team can then offer all its television rights in one package. Presumably, by then, they'll have a better team to sell, too.
So it's very likely you'll still hear Pat Hughes calling, "This ball's got a chance... gone!" on 720 AM for many years to come.