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A few thoughts on the proposed Cubs TV network

The team will have a new network within a year or so. What form will it take?

News item: The Cubs are possibly going to go it alone on their new TV channel, which would start carrying live games for the 2020 season, said President of Business Operations Crane Kenney.

“We have a big passion for controlling our own destiny,” added Kenney, the Cubs president of business operations. “It’s sort of like conversations in the real estate market. We like controlling our own destiny. You start adding partners and it becomes a lot more complicated.”

That likely indicates the Cubs are looking to walk away from their 20 percent share of NBC Sports Chicago, a share similar to ones owned by the White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks.

“(Bulls and White Sox Chairman) Jerry Reinsdorf has been an amazing partner, as has Comcast,” Kenney said. “It’s been a very successful thing. If it made the ultimate sense, it would (make sense to stay). But I’d say at the moment we’re 80 percent inclined to do it on our own.”

Later in the Tribune article linked above, Kenney said that four games the Cubs simulcast on Facebook last year produced results “off the charts,” bringing in viewers “watching from work or [who] weren’t cable subscribers.”

The TV market is fracturing so quickly that it’s likely impossible to predict where things are going to be even a year from now. Many of you might be cord-cutters who no longer have a cable or satellite subscription, but still want to watch the Cubs. It’s my guess that the team will want to put all 162 games (or, more likely, 150 or so, once national broadcasts on Fox or ESPN are subtracted) on their network and not have any games on local over-the-air broadcast channels, which would eliminate viewers who don’t have access to TV other than OTA.

So where do they go? Here’s something else Kenney noted:

“Our ratings are up, which is good for us,” Kenney said. “What is interesting, though, is you see Disney, who wants control of local (programming) and had never really played into local, buying the Fox regional (networks). That’s created a change. So we’re going to wait for that transaction to close.”

Of course, the ratings are up because the team is good, which figures to be the case for at least the next four or five seasons. It’s interesting to note that Kenney mentions the Disney deal, in which 15 Fox Sports regional networks will, presumably, come under the ESPN banner whenever that deal closes.

Could Kenney want to partner with Disney? He did mention wanting to “go it alone,” but how would such a channel be distributed? Over the top, as a standalone network that could be subscribed to over the internet? Possibly, but what does that do for people who don’t have fast broadband connections? And how much would a standalone Cubs channel cost? That’s the key to everything, I think, because by going it alone they aren’t going to generate a big rights-fee payment. They would have to generate their own revenue through a) subscriptions and b) advertising. Would those numbers be that much more than getting a rightsholder to pay an upfront dollar amount?

As you can see, there are a lot more questions than answers here. I recall Kenney stating earlier that he would like to have a Cubs channel on the air sometime in 2019, even though they can’t carry live games that year. That would allow them to work out any bugs, and also carry other programming, while they wait for the live game rights to revert to them.

It’ll be an interesting thing to watch over the next year, to be sure.