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The Cubs And TV Rights Beyond 2015-2019

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Now that the Cubs actually have all 162 games assigned to TV outlets for the next few years, what happens after that?

The Cubs will have all their games televised in 2015, at least in the Chicago area. Recapping:

  • 80 games on CSN Chicago
  • 45 games on WGN-TV (local only)
  • 25 games on WLS-TV, ABC7
  • 10-12 games on national networks Fox and ESPN

For those of you outside the Chicago area but in the blackout areas, Bruce Levine reports you might be in luck for at least some of these:

Local channel WLS/ABC-7 will make its broadcasts available to smaller Midwest ABC markets in such cities as Des Moines. Channel 7 will be paid at a rate per broadcast picked up.

Presumably, WGN-TV could do the same. I know many of you in the blackout areas have CSN Chicago available to you on your cable/satellite system. If you live in one of those areas and do not have CSN Chicago, I'd like to hear about it in the comments.

This is all news that covers the next five years (though, according to Levine's article, there could be "opt-outs" for both sides. What happens after that? In Friday's Tribune, Ed Sherman reports there could be considerable uncertainty even though it's been assumed the Cubs will want to package all their games as one unit:

Ed Desser, a sports media consultant who advises teams on their TV deals, believes the Cubs have much to offer on the TV front as "an iconic brand."

"The Cubs matter to Chicagoans in ways you don't see in other markets," Desser said.

However, one industry observer fears the local TV sports bubble has burst and says, "The Cubs may be too late to the party."

The quote from Desser is undoubtedly true and will become even more true if the Cubs improve on the field over the next few years the way we hope they will. They appear positioned to be a contending team soon, and that would likely translate into higher TV ratings and (presumably) higher ad rates and TV rights fees. However:

For the fortunate teams it was all about hitting the market at an all-time high when networks were placing a premium on live sports. But as has often been the case through their history, the Cubs could be the victim of bad timing again.

In fact, the Dodgers' deal could be a red flag. It might not be such a windfall after all but an indicator that distributors have begun to push back at the rising costs of sports programming.

Several cable and satellite providers balked at the reported $4.50 to $5 monthly per-subscriber fee for the Dodgers' new station. As a result SportsNet LA was seen in only 33 percent of area homes in 2014.

That's the cautionary tale I've been warning about for some time. Now, Chicago isn't Los Angeles and the Cubs aren't the Dodgers. The Cubs might come up with some sort of TV channel that would have fees that would be acceptable to local cable/satellite providers, unlike the situation in Los Angeles.

Sherman posits this suggestion:

The Cubs could look at Los Angeles and decide to remain in their partnership with the White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks as co-owners of CSN. The setup probably means more certainty in getting distribution but a lower ceiling for overall revenue.

"There are advantages and disadvantages (to going alone)," Desser said. "There is huge strength in numbers — that Comcast SportsNet partnership has been extremely successful. Having said that, what are the Cubs' priorities going forward? These things do change over time."

Desser is exactly correct. 10 years ago, could anyone have predicted that many people would be cord-cutting and watching TV shows on mobile devices? There's high demand for watching Cubs games this way, and you can do that -- but only if you're not in the blackout areas. How could a Cubs network avoid these kinds of pitfalls? Perhaps online streaming is the way all baseball broadcasting will go from 2020 and beyond, but it's impossible to know that now. The Cubs, as noted, own 20 percent of CSN Chicago, so that part-owner interest could make them money if they chose to put all their games on that channel. That would likely require a third full-time CSN channel, as it would seem likely the White Sox are going to have to go in an all-cable direction in the future as well.

Sherman's article suggests this possible endgame for Cubs TV rights:

According to one industry source, the media uncertainty could prompt all the local pro teams to nail down long-term TV-rights deals in 2015. There is concern the market isn't going to get better and that "they should take advantage of it now," the source said.

This could be one of the reasons for the opt-outs in the WGN-TV contract; if the Cubs can figure out a way to do a longterm deal this year, WGN might be out of the picture after 2015.

Stay tuned, as they say in the biz.