WGN Or Not WGN? The Cubs' Dilemma

The Cubs have televised games on WGN-TV since 1948; the 66th straight season, which has just begun, is the longest run for any baseball team with any TV station. Can the Cubs afford to continue? What do they stand to lose if they leave WGN?

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona -- I meet people like this all the time, but this spring, it seemed as if there were more of them.

Who am I talking about? People who became Cubs fans via watching WGN-TV on national cable, people who have never lived in Chicago and have no connection to the city other than watching, and becoming fans of, the Chicago Cubs.

As you well know, WGN-TV's contract with the Cubs expires after the 2014 season, and the team has made no secret that they're after some of the big TV money that teams like the Dodgers have received. This Tribune article from February is a good summary of the situation, and tells exactly what the Cubs might hope to get from renegotiated broadcast rights:

Based on the $6O million revenue fee for combined broadcast rights, the Cubs get about $4OO,OOO per game, far below the market value potentially set by the Dodgers. Under their reported new deal, the Dodgers will be getting about $28O million per year, or about $1.8 million per game.

Can the Cubs get this much? Maybe; remember that their deal with CSN Chicago (of which they own 20 percent) runs through 2019. That deal accounts for about two-thirds of the current $60 million a year the Cubs receive for television rights. WGN, for its part, is going to be part of the bidding for the rights they now hold:

In a statement, Tribune Co. signaled it was willing to consider competing to keep the Cubs on WGN.

"WGN-TV has enjoyed a tremendous relationship with the Cubs and their fans since 1948," Tribune Co. spokesman Gary Weitman said in a statement Monday. "It is a relationship that we are proud of, and one that brings Cubs baseball to fans throughout Chicago and across the country. We're looking forward not only to the upcoming 2O13 season, but also to working with the Cubs on baseball broadcasts in the future."

There is no question that the Cubs are falling behind in TV rights fees; in 2010 the Texas Rangers signed a huge local deal:

There is in fact a 2O-year deal in place. A more accurate figure for the Fox Sports Southwest-Rangers deal, reports a TV executive in the know, "is somewhere between $1.5 billion and $1.6 billion." That translates into the neighborhood of $75 million to $8O million a year.

The Cleveland Indians -- operating in a much smaller TV market than Chicago -- sold their owned channel, SportsTime Ohio, to Fox Sports Media Group; they'll be getting $40 million a year from Fox, a nice chunk of change for the No. 18 TV market.

Even the San Diego Padres, operating in the No. 28 TV market, signed a new deal last year estimated to bring them about $60 million a year over 20 years, although a local cable operator dispute might mean the Padres won't be seen in 185,000 local households.

All of this means that the Cubs, given the market size and national fanbase, might be worth well more than the $60 million annual figure the Padres are receiving, and could approach the $180 million a year the Dodgers just signed up for, though likely any deal would be somewhere in between those two figures.

The key words in the above paragraph are "national fanbase". Do the Cubs still retain that fanbase if they're no longer on WGN-TV? I'm well aware that Cubs games can be viewed on MLB.TV or MLB Extra Innings just about anywhere, if you're out of the blackout areas, which is an entirely different issue. I've always said that if you are willing to pay to watch a game, you should be able to do so, no matter where you're located (right now, it's easier for a Cubs fan in Europe to watch the team than in parts of Iowa).

But will that fanbase -- you know, those of you who have no connection to Chicago other than watching the Cubs via WGN -- stay intact if the Cubs decide to go elsewhere? That's an open question. People I spoke to say that the fact that the Cubs are on one channel on their cable/satellite system for the 60 to 70 games WGN does every year is a factor. It becomes familiar, a habit, just like the habit I and several generations of fans picked up while watching the Cubs on WGN after school in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

So the dilemma becomes: say WGN comes in with a bid that's not unreasonably low, but they are outbid by a competitor. Both bids give the Cubs more on an annual basis than they're getting now. Do the Cubs then risk losing that national fanbase? Or do they just go for the most dollars? Here's a quote from Cubs spokesman Julian Green, from that Tribune article:

"I think there are a number of options that will certainly present themselves as we talk about this with WGN and other partners throughout the year," the Cubs spokesman said. "But at the end of the day, any final result needs to be a result that benefits the organization and most importantly, the baseball team."

You'll probably say the only choice for the Cubs is money. Obviously, that would be the "benefit" for the organization and the team that Green is talking about. But there are intangible benefits the Cubs have reaped for decades by being on national cable. I'm not necessarily arguing that they have to stay on WGN, if the money from somewhere else overwhelms.

But it's not as clear-cut as simply taking the highest bid, either.

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