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Another Cautionary Tale For A Possible Cubs TV Network

The Dodgers are starting to lose fans because of their new TV contract. The Cubs should take careful note.

No, the Dodgers have not made Hanley Ramirez pull double duty as a TV camera operator.
No, the Dodgers have not made Hanley Ramirez pull double duty as a TV camera operator.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

I've written on this topic a number of times, but a new Los Angeles Times article prompts me to write about the subject of a Cubs TV network again this afternoon.

To refresh your memory, the Cubs' WGN-TV contract expires at the end of this season. The Cubs have made no secret that they are contemplating starting their own TV channel. This might have to wait until 2019, when their CSN Chicago deal expires, and they could then control the TV rights for all 162 games on one entity.

The Dodgers' issue is that the contract is with Time Warner, who has paid $7 billion for 25 years' worth of Dodgers TV rights. That's great for the Dodgers dollar-wise, but not so great for their fans, because none of the other cable providers in the Los Angeles area are interested in ponying up the bucks to carry this new channel. (One cable executive in LA said, "The Dodgers already had a perfectly good channel. Why did they need another one?") Also, Time Warner cable is generally not even available in many parts of the Los Angeles area, so even if some Dodger fans want to switch their cable provider so they could watch the games, they can't.

The Dodgers are apparently getting a bit tired of being asked about this. Testy, even. From the article linked above:

I sent half a dozen questions to [Dodgers President Stan] Kasten through Dodgers PR, including a query about why the Dodgers didn't anticipate programming conflicts and try to resolve them before stuffing their pockets with Time Warner cash and turning their backs on fans.

"They are not going to comment," was the reply I got from PR. "Time Warner continues to negotiate with DirecTV and the other carriers."

Based on Kasten's April claim that he was "doing all that we can behind the scenes," I asked Time Warner if Kasten or Johnson have put much work into a resolution.

Their response: I should refer those questions to the Dodgers.

Yeah, I tried that.

The Time Warner flack said in an email, "We hope that providers will come on board soon. We continue to work tirelessly to make that happen. But DirecTV has shown no sense of urgency in getting a deal done."

So they're all standing around pointing fingers, but they speak with one voice when they say: Drop Dead, Dodgers Fans.

The article quotes a Dodgers fan who's followed the team since they (and he) were in Brooklyn in the 1950s. That fan, who says he's followed the team on TV and in person since he moved to Los Angeles in 1971, said:

"I'm starting to watch Angels games," he said. "I point a finger at both Time Warner and DirecTV, and the Dodgers too. The Dodgers were greedy and I think it's unfair to fans to take all the free games that were televised on Channel 9 off the air."

I'm certainly not going to be sympathetic to the "free games" argument. In the year 2014, the reality of sports television is that fans are going to have to pay, whereas decades ago, teams were happy to send their games on free, over-the-air TV and pay for it with ad sales. That just isn't feasible in the multi-billion dollar sports universe we now live in.

But the Dodgers did get a bit greedy. You can't blame them for turning down billions, but they should probably have made a bit more certain that cable and satellite operators other than Time Warner would carry the channel before they started it.

What does this mean for the Cubs? Well, probably that they shouldn't try what the Dodgers have done. They already have "a perfectly good channel," CSN Chicago, in which they have a 20 percent ownership interest. CSN says they probably don't want to carry the entire Cubs schedule starting in 2015 -- that'd require too many "Plus" channels. So the Cubs have come up with another idea, which I wrote about last week, in which they'd cobble together a Midwest-based over-the-air network of broadcast subchannels to create a sort-of Cubs network. The issues with that idea are covered in the link.

The Cubs don't really have a lot of good choices going forward, unfortunately. The cable TV rights bubble might not have completely burst yet, but it's showing signs of bulging toward a "pop," really soon. That's too bad for Cubs executives who thought they might see a "b," representing "billions," in front of the dollar number of their next television contract.