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Some further thoughts on the new proposed Cubs TV network

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2020 will see major changes in the way you watch Cubs games.

For decades, Cubs fans have been used to watching their favorite team’s games either on over-the-air broadcast TV, or on a cable/satellite channel the team contracted with to carry a portion of their schedule. (For this discussion, we’ll ignore games carried by national networks, as all teams have some games broadcast that way.)

Before I talk about the team’s new proposed TV channel, a bit of history.

WGN-TV has been at the forefront of that Cubs broadcast history. Since 1948, games have been shown on WGN in Chicago. Between 1948 and 1966, Cubs home games were shown (with a handful of road games), along with White Sox home games. The Sox went their own way in 1967, and WGN began to carry somewhere around 140 games a year, sometimes more. In 1978, these games began to be shown nationally as WGN was picked up on cable and satellite systems. Eventually a separate channel, WGN America, was created, that carried different programming from WGN-TV Chicago, but still carried Cubs games.

In 1998, a portion of the Cubs schedule was moved to cable channels and off WGN. First, these were carried by Fox Sports Chicago, later Comcast SportsNet Chicago, and a couple of years ago the latter was rebranded NBC Sports Chicago.

About half the schedule remained on WGN-TV and WGN America. After 2014, WGNA left the sports business and WGN’s games returned to local over-the-air TV only. At the same time, the Cubs sold a small package (around 25 games) to ABC7 Chicago on a five-year deal. WGN kept about 45 games per season.

Those five years are up, as is WGN’s contract. The 71-year relationship between the Cubs and WGN-TV is the longest for any sports team in North America, and I will miss it, even though in 2019 there really isn’t any substantive difference between Cubs games shown on NBC Sports Chicago, WGN-TV or ABC7 Chicago other than the channel number and the graphics. Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies are the announcers for the locally-carried games and they’ll almost certainly continue in that role for the Cubs network.

The network has been reported to be named the Marquee Network, or Marquee TV. This would match up a name with the Marquee Sports Group, a company recently created by the Cubs to host concerts and other non-baseball events at Wrigley Field and Gallagher Way. Until the official announcement of that name, if it’s true, I’ll continue to simply refer to it as the Cubs TV network (or “Cubs network”).

At The Athletic, Patrick Mooney posted an article over the weekend with more details on this network to come. Here are some portions of the article with my comments.

During Saturday’s presentation at Cubs Convention, president of business operations Crane Kenney hinted that the bidding process could close within the next 30 days and reveal the franchise’s future in broadcasting.

Sinclair Broadcast Group, the Cubs’ rumored partner in the Marquee TV venture, has reportedly emerged as a potential buyer of those 22 stations, a portfolio that features Fox Sports affiliates in Milwaukee, St. Louis, Kansas City, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit and Minnesota. That Midwest cluster has longstanding connections to teams in Major League Baseball, the NBA and NHL.

COMMENT: Sinclair had bid for Tribune Broadcasting’s stations, but that deal fell apart. It’s still unclear whether Sinclair will actually be the Cubs’ partner (Kenney referred at the convention to “a strategic partner, which we’ll be able to reveal more about shortly”), or whether it’ll be someone else.

I’ll simply say this about Sinclair: They have been controversial at times in the broadcast industry for their political views. I am not going to make any comment about that at this time. As per site policy, I would appreciate you keeping your views on Sinclair to yourself as well, especially since we don’t know for certain if Sinclair is, in fact, that “strategic partner.” Specifically, from Kenney: “We’re not talking about who the partner is.”

By 2020, Kenney said the Cubs are hoping to broadcast all of the Cactus League games from their home stadium in Mesa, Arizona.

COMMENT: “2020” still sounds like one of those far-future science fiction years, doesn’t it? But it’s less than a year away. And carrying all the Cubs’ home spring training games live would be a very popular thing to do. In recent years, a large percentage of the Cubs’ spring games have been available via NBC Sports Chicago or WGN, as well as broadcasts from the opponents’ TV channel. People seem starved for baseball on TV in March, so I’m glad the Cubs plan to give that to us.

The Bears are also seen as a potential match for the Cubs with their rabid fan base, offseason programming and expanded studio capabilities at Halas Hall. A template would be SportsNet New York, a channel partially owned by the Mets that has forged a TV/marketing partnership with the Jets.

COMMENT: Of course, Bears games wouldn’t be available for carriage on the Cubs network due to the NFL’s national TV deals. The network could possibly carry preseason games, which aren’t subject to those national contracts, presuming they don’t conflict with Cubs game times in August.

In this cubs.com article by Jordan Bastian, Kenney hinted there could be other teams involved:

“We have a really good sense of who our partner is,” Kenney said. “Our transaction is a little bit [complicated]. We’re involved in a multi-dimensional negotiation. It’s not just us and a partner. It’s us, our partner and multiple others, so there’s just some moving pieces. ... There might be other teams involved. Not local teams.”

COMMENT: There is a Tribune article by Phil Rosenthal that’s not yet available online in which he quotes Kenney as saying he “forced” a meeting with MLB, involving teams with territories adjacent to the Cubs’ market, including the Twins, Tigers and others, trying to get permission for the Cubs to televise games into neighboring markets, but MLB “wouldn’t budge,” according to Rosenthal. More on blackouts below.

The Los Angeles Dodgers once set a benchmark when their 25-year deal with Time Warner — estimated to be worth $8 billion — closed before the 2013 season started. As the cable bubble began to burst, the Cubs admitted that Dodger contract would be an exception, not the rule. Now the lesson should be how the disputes with distributors like DirecTV have blacked out Dodger games across parts of Southern California.

That will be another chapter in this ongoing saga, the Cubs facing off against Comcast, which has projections of reaching an audience of more than 2.5 million in a market that will also have to pay to watch NBC Sports Chicago.

“Carriage is a concern,” Kenney said. “It hasn’t gotten easier since the Dodgers.”

COMMENT: This is my main concern with this new network. There were rumors last month that the Cubs were going to be asking $6 per subscriber for the channel, which is likely more than any cable or satellite provider would be willing to pay. Note: This doesn’t mean you the subscriber would pay $6 for a Cubs channel, something you’d surely pay to see Cubs games. It means the provider pays that — then passes along the cost, plus profit, to you the subscriber, likely making for a large increase in your bill which perhaps might prompt you to cut the cord — you see the problem here, I’m sure.

This is why I had hoped Comcast might be the Cubs’ partner in this venture. NBC Sports Chicago already has two full-time channels carried throughout the Chicago market. Comcast/NBC Universal recently announced they’ll be carrying a full-time channel with White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks games beginning in 2020. What’s going to happen to their other channel? You’d think that would be a perfect home for the Cubs network.

Lastly, Sara Sanchez attended a separate blogger session with Kenney Saturday and wrote about this potential issue for the new channel:

He also indicated that there will continue to be streaming options for people who are cutting the cord, however when asked about the blackout map he mentioned that there was little the Cubs could control there, even with their own network. The blackout map and restrictions remain under the purview of MLB, and they haven’t indicated they will be changing it.

COMMENT: Territorial blackouts are the bane of baseball fans’ existence. Let’s have another look at that awful map, shall we?

The bottom line for Cubs fans is this: The Cubs have to figure out a way to get their channel onto cable/satellite systems in the Cubs’ market territory, which comprises almost all of Illinois, all of Iowa, and parts of Indiana and Wisconsin. Can you imagine living in the six-county Chicago metro area and not be able to watch Cubs games on TV? Unless the channel is on the cable or satellite system you subscribe to, you won’t be able to. MLB.tv isn’t an in-market option, unless the Cubs channel signs an in-market streaming agreement, which they probably can’t do as a stand-alone, since, as noted above, MLB controls streaming rights.

I hope Kenney is correct about having streaming options for the new channel.

There are a lot of moving parts here. Stay tuned, as they say in the biz.