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Where Would The Cubs Go, If Not WGN-TV?

The Cubs' deal with WGN-TV expires after 2014. Can they make a new deal with someone else? Sure. Will it benefit the team as much as staying on WGN? That's the key question.

There's a kerfuffle brewing Monday among Cubs fans because of this Tribune report that the team could leave WGN-TV, its television home for 65 years, after the current contract expires in 2014:

Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts is always looking to increase the team's revenue sources, and now it appears likely the team will wave goodbye to their longtime TV home when its contract ends after the 2O14 season.

Ricketts declined to address their plans on Sunday, except to say a discussion on rights fees will begin in 2O13.

"Obviously local media rights have been increasing in value," he said. "Hopefully at some point we will be able to get more value for our media rights. It's just something that's playing out over time."

I'd fundamentally disagree with the "appears likely" conclusion drawn by Paul Sullivan, based on a vague statement made by Tom Ricketts that is absolutely true: local media rights have been increasing in value and the team would like to have more money for its media rights.

The question you have to ask yourself isn't "Oh noes! The Cubs are leaving WGN and I live outside of their local market and how will I see the games?" Instead, the right question to ask is, "Where else could the Cubs possibly go for local broadcast rights and get more than they're getting now?"

Tribune Co. helped create the current Cubs monster with national cable telecasts beginning in the early 1980s. Many of you here are Cubs fans, having never lived anywhere near Chicago, but fans because you grew up with the team on WGN every day, in the afternoons only until 1988, just like those of us who grew up in Chicago watching the team every day after school in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Current Cubs ownership doesn't have many options if they want to keep that national fanbase. The Cubs' current deal with CSN Chicago -- where they have a 25% ownership interest -- runs for seven more years (including this year), expiring in 2019. So let's say they want to move all their games to CSN.

First problem: does CSN have the money to pay a significantly increased rights fee? Actually, the answer to this is probably "yes", because CSN is now part of the huge Comcast/NBC conglomerate, which is trying to increase its sports roster.

But if they did this, it causes a second problem: where are they going to put all those extra games? CSN carries White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks games, and adding 80+ Cubs games to that mix would create schedule conflicts, particularly in April, when all four teams are in action.

Second problem: if they did in fact put all their games on CSN, they could very well alienate the national fanbase. Sure, people can watch the Cubs outside of Chicago if they buy MLB Extra Innings or MLB.TV... except if they live in one of the blackout areas. One of which is... most of Iowa, where the Cubs' Triple-A team is located and where the Cubs are very popular. MLB is behind the times; the blackout policy is aimed at pushing cable and satellite systems to carry regional sports networks (RSNs).

I don't think I need to tell you that it's extremely unlikely that any such system in Iowa is going to carry CSN Chicago. Why would they?

So the risk here is blacking out a significant portion of the fanbase -- not real good business or PR, if you ask me. Further, CSN's contract with the Cubs prohibits games from being sold to any other Chicago-area cable entity, so forget that.

What about another broadcast channel in Chicago?

To which the answer is, what channel are you talking about? None of the network stations in Chicago -- all of them owned by the parent network -- would be interested; the costs would far outweigh any money they'd make. There are two independent stations in Chicago besides WGN, WCIU and WPWR. WCIU doesn't have the money to make a serious bid; the eight games a year they carry are produced by WGN and farmed out. WPWR is owned by Fox; presumably, they might be willing to bid, and they do carry some Chicago Fire soccer games, but this seems like a longshot.

The Cubs' best bet is to try to negotiate a bigger rights fee from WGN; there's tradition involved, as well as out-of-town fans to be concerned with. One idea -- and I don't know if this would actually work, just off the top of my head -- would be for WGN to produce all the games, air them on WGN America nationally, but on WCIU locally. This would allow the local version of WGN to be free to carry whatever CW shows they want, plus other syndicated programs that could make them money. Chicago-area viewers would see the games on WCIU, while outside of Chicago they'd be seen on WGN America.

Would that work? I don't know, but that seems a more likely outcome than "the Cubs are leaving WGN". The relationship has benefitted both parties for 65 years; granted, for 28 of those years, the team and station were co-owned, but the benefit began before 1981 and has continued since 2009.

So if you're outside of Chicago and like your WGN-TV games, I wouldn't panic.