Let’s cut right to the chase here. John Ourand, a well-respected sports business journalist, came out with a number of predictions for the industry he covers Thursday, and one of them involves the Cubs:
Comcast is going to play hardball with the Cubs’ RSN, which is going to come to market with a price of at least $6 per subscriber per month. To gain leverage, the Cubs will not put any games on WGN or any other over-the-air station. And Sinclair will use the leverage it has from its national network of around 150 local broadcast stations to work out a deal. Comcast will hate it but the popularity of the Cubs, combined with the leverage from Sinclair, will force it to carry the channel when it launches in 2020.
$6 per subscriber per month for a channel that has a single purpose (Cubs coverage) is... a lot. When the Dodgers originally proposed SportsNetLA, Time Warner asked $4.90 per subscriber. The result: only about 30 percent coverage in the L.A. market. The Yankees’ YES Network was charging $6.50 per subscriber as of the end of 2017, which is probably where the Cubs came up with their $6 figure (a TV market about half the size of the New York market).
At Bleacher Nation, Brett Taylor sums up the issue this way, presuming the Cubs do in fact partner with Sinclair, as has been rumored:
The Cubs do have an ace in the hole, though. Because Sinclair is the largest operator of local networks in the country, they could wield significant leverage against any provider that doesn’t want to pay the Cubs’ RSN price: either you carry the Cubs channel at $6 per month in the greater Chicago area, or we cut off your access to your local ABC/FOX/NBC/CBS stations owned by Sinclair. It’s a cudgel Sinclair used before in getting the carriage it wanted for the Tennis Channel after it purchased that network in 2016. (Notably, Sinclair does not currently own any local providers in Chicago – they tried to buy WGN-9 recently, but were blocked – but they do own stations in downstate Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, and Indiana. Plus, there’s nothing to say they couldn’t leverage stations in other markets if they wanted to be really aggressive.)
How this jibes with people cutting the cord, I don’t know. MLB still controls streaming rights, so it’s doubtful at this point that they would make the Marquee Channel (the rumored name) an OTT (over-the-top) option where individuals could simply, say, pay the $6 per month and stream the Cubs. You’d surely be willing to pay that much, I’m sure, but that’s not the way these things work. You can currently buy a one-team MLB.tv option to see only Cubs games, but that works only if you’re out of the Cubs’ market territory. Remember our favorite map?
Someday I hope that map won’t exist anymore, that everyone willing to pay for a MLB television subscription service will be able to watch any game anywhere.
But in practice, the territorial issue is what has happened with SportsNetLA. People with MLB.tv can watch Dodgers games outside the Dodgers’ market (which, as you see on the map, is a lot physically smaller than the Cubs territory), but many people in Los Angeles can’t.
The scenario Brett Taylor describes above sounds like the way the Cubs would try to leverage coverage of their channel throughout the Cubs’ territory, which covers 15 local TV markets in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa. And the fact that all Cubs games (save about a dozen a year on Fox or ESPN exclusively) would be on their channel does give them some leverage as well, because there would certainly be howls of anger if people in the Chicago metropolitan area who have certain TV providers couldn’t watch the games.
We just heard from BCB reader Easy Ed in a FanPost about his decision to cut the cord. He’s certainly not alone, and I doubt there are many (if any) people willing to change TV providers just to get a Cubs channel — they’re going to want the provider they have to carry it. The question is whether the leverage described above is enough for those providers to all carry the channel in-market — and also, whether the channel can make a deal, as the current Fox and NBC RSN’s have, for in-market streaming. If they can do that, coverage will be more or less universal worldwide — presuming you are willing to pay either your cable/satellite provider’s fee, or pay for MLB.tv if you are out of market.
Whichever one of those you’d choose, the $6 per sub cost is certainly going to be passed along to you, the consumer. And it’s likely going to be more than just $6, as the providers are going to want to do more than just make their money back.
It’s an interesting time for baseball and television. For more than seven decades there have been at least some Cubs games on free, over-the-air broadcast television, generally about half the schedule, and Cubs fans also got used to more than 30 years’ worth of national cable broadcasts on WGN-TV and WGN America. That’s something that helped create many Cubs fans who have never lived in Chicago, a nationwide fanbase, just as WGN-TV’s early broadcasts in the 1940s through the 1970s helped create several generations of fans locally.
That type of Cubs broadcasting won’t exist after 2019. Will the Cubs be able to make a deal that will satisfy everyone enough so we can all continue to watch the ballgames?