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The cautionary tale for the Cubs TV channel can be found in Chicago broadcast history

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There once was a Chicago channel called SportsVision. It was a good idea, but in practice it failed.

The Cubs are reportedly going to ask cable/satellite operators for $6 per subscriber for their new Cubs-only TV channel when it launches in 2020.

This has created some consternation among Cubs fans. First, there’s a concern that cable/satellite operators will balk at that price, leaving the channel uncarried by certain carriers, similar to what has happened in Los Angeles with the Dodgers channel SportsNetLA. Second, because of a long tradition of Cubs baseball on free, over-the-air (OTA) television and nationally on basic cable, many Cubs fans are balking at having to pay more to see their team.

If you’ve been around Chicago long enough, both sides of this story should sound at least vaguely familiar to you, because these are exactly the things the White Sox found out after they were purchased by Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn in 1981. Einhorn, at first, was the public face of the Sox and as someone who’d made big money as a television mogul in New York, he had a great idea as to how to make the White Sox similar big money in ripping up the TV agreement that they’d had under previous owner Bill Veeck:

Einhorn overturned the deal and came up with the idea for SportsVision which became a reality in May 1982. The idea was to get Chicago sports fans to sign up for the service which would provide a steady diet of White Sox games (primarily home games) along with the Chicago Bulls, Chicago Blackhawks and Chicago Sting, a soccer team.The channel would be provided by local and area cable services as a premium service. At the time of launching, it cost most fans $50 just to get it installed as it required a special descrambler, not counting the monthly fee which varied from system to system.

The idea proved to be a failure as the original target of 50,000 subscribers was never met. Even during the playoff season of 1983 the subscriber base was far short of the original goal. The Sox claimed to have 30,000 subscribers but Bob Logan in his book, ”Miracle On 35th Street,” says the actual total was closer to 20,000.

Well now, that should sound familiar. Why didn’t this work? Partly because the Chicago area, in the early 1980s, was one of the least-cabled markets in the entire country. The city of Chicago didn’t have cable at all until 1984; the North Side area where I lived at the time didn’t get cabled until 1988, more than a decade after most of the USA was up and running with cable.

But beyond that:

By the time Einhorn came up with his idea of moving the Sox off of free TV in May 1982, Chicagoans were conditioned like no other city, to getting virtually the entire baseball season for nothing. The bottom line was that when the Sox announced what they intended to do, they were met with a bunch of angry fans who rightly or wrongly expected the right to get virtually an unlimited number of games for nothing.

Add to that anger was the fact that the nation, especially Chicago, was going through an economic recession, not seen since the early 70s. People were out of work and simply could not afford the hook-up fee, let alone the monthly charge to get the sports programming.

There was another thing at work here, and I can tell you this from my own personal recollections from what was happening at the time. Beyond the fact that Chicagoans — both Cubs and White Sox fans — were used to having nearly all their games on free OTA television, White Sox fans in particular resented Einhorn, seen as a carpetbagging New Yorker, telling them what was best for them. Eventually, Einhorn became so disliked that Reinsdorf became the public face of the White Sox franchise, where he remains to this day. Einhorn kept a piece of the Sox ownership group until he died just two years ago, though you’d never have known it, as he almost never made any public comments about the team after the SportsVision debacle.

But that Tribune obituary of Einhorn explains that Eddie was right, he was just ahead of his time:

Initially, the concept, launched as a pay TV model, didn’t work well as the fewer than 25,000 subscribers dealt with de-scrambling boxes that rarely worked properly. SportsVision, though, moved to basic cable in 1984. With a vastly upgraded delivery system able to reach larger audiences, Einhorn’s idea finally had traction. A local network, now known as Comcast SportsNet, eventually became the dominant outlet for Sox, Bulls, Blackhawks and Cubs games in Chicago.

”The idea was brilliant,” Reinsdorf said in 2005. “The idea of bringing all the teams together to own their own sports network rather than be selling their games to someone else was all his.”

The path taken by SportsVision eventually had it acquired by New York-based SportsChannel; those RSN’s were eventually taken over by Fox, and Fox Sports Net carried both Cubs and White Sox games until 2006, when CSN Chicago, now NBC Sports Chicago, took over the rights.

The point of telling you all this is that Cubs fans have been conditioned to getting at least half the team’s games on free OTA television — to this day. Even in 2019, that will include approximately half the schedule, around 70 games on WGN-TV and ABC7 Chicago and seven or eight on Fox-32. I still hear complaints from out-of-town Cubs fans about losing the WGN America broadcasts after WGNA got out of the sports business after 2014. Those fans, if they live outside the Cubs market territory, can still get all the games now if they are willing to pay for MLB.tv or MLB Extra Innings.

I think now is a good time to have another look at that MLB territorial map we all love so much.

Someday I hope this map will be consigned to the dustbin of history, where it belongs.

The bottom line is that unless the Cubs can get the 100 percent carriage in the market with their new channel that they now get via NBC Sports Chicago (and the two broadcast affiliates), there are going to be a lot of unhappy Cubs fans in 2020, similar to the situation in Los Angeles, where large portions of the L.A. area simply don’t have access to the games.

Maybe this will all work out and Cubs games will be available in 2020 just as they are today. Or maybe the Cubs network is an idea a bit ahead of its time. We should find out soon.