Back-to-back end-of-season collapses for the Chicago Cubs resulted in final 2019 TV ratings declining to a 4.13 local share from 4.38 in 2018, representing a 5.7 percent decline year-over-year in Chicago viewership, Nielsen media numbers show. The 2019 ratings are the lowest the team has seen since 2017, when ratings were 4.05. In 2015, the year before the World Series team took the field, the Cubs’ ratings were 3.32.
This is certainly the worst possible time for that to happen, as the Cubs are planning on launching the Marquee Sports Network next February. The channel is going to carry all regular-season Cubs games (save about a dozen that will be on national networks), as well as at least all the home spring training games at Sloan Park.
“It’s not ideal,” Adam Gajo, a sports network analyst at SNL Kagan, said of the timing of the ratings drop-off. “The TV ratings and viewer interest will be magnified for cable providers in negotiations.”
Negotiations over the new cable outlet, which is expected to debut in February, remain ongoing, with lingering questions over the price, distribution and waning fan interest after a lack of October baseball. Previously, the Cubs were available to the public for free on WGN and WLS-TV/Channel 7, with the team getting a percentage of the roughly $9-per-month fee for NBC Sports Chicago that residents pay as part of their cable bill.
And that last sentence is the real issue. Though for the last five years only 70 of the team’s 162 games were available on free, over-the-air TV on WGN-TV and ABC7, there is a long history going back over seven decades of Cubs fans being accustomed to at least that many games on free TV in the Chicago area, as I wrote here last week.
The Cubs are only going the way of almost all other MLB teams in taking their games exclusively to cable. The White Sox are joining the Cubs as well. In 2020, only the Giants, Mets, Yankees, Tigers and a couple of other teams will have free OTA games, and those teams generally carry 25 or fewer games a year on broadcast channels.
So it will be a big adjustment for Cubs fans to make. Had they been a postseason team this year and perhaps made a long playoff run, perhaps Cubs fans would be more willing to pony up the extra money for an all-cable show.
But with the team facing an uncertain 2020 roster- and manager-wise and fans unhappy, selling this new network to cable and satellite operators might be even more difficult than Cubs management and ownership had thought:
But if either side plays hardball during negotiations or if the cable companies or customers balk at the higher carriage fees, Cubs fans may experience outages, as happened when cable carriers battled over rights deals with the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers.
”There is no doubt about the way the team played at the end of the year . . . that it will be put pressure on Cubs management to make moves,” said Marc Ganis, co-founder of sports consultancy Jiaflix. “You have to always convince the fans you are trying and trying hard.”
“If a cable operator has NBC Sports Chicago and not Marquee Sports Network, fans will be quite angry,” says Ganis. “Come April, there will be tremendous consumer anger if the Cubs aren’t on.”
Further, as noted by Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein last week, the big money Cubs fans thought this network might bring isn’t coming right away:
“The new TV deal, at least for the first few years, basically means the exact same thing for us as the old deal,” Epstein said Wednesday in Pittsburgh. “The first few years will basically replicate the old deal, and then with potential for real growth.”
That’s problematic. “The first few years”? How long is that going to be, considering that the Dodgers, Rangers, Reds and other teams that have new TV deals have literally pocketed billions in advance by signing long-term TV deals. It doesn’t sound like the Marquee Network is going to accomplish that for the Cubs.
This is not going to be an easy offseason for the Cubs in any way. They have many decisions to make and for the future of the franchise, and we are at a point in Cubs history where they really need to get them all right.