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The era of baseball on free over-the-air television is coming to an end

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As a Cubs fan, this is the end of an era for us. As a baseball fan, this has been a long time coming.

Illustration by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

If you grew up in Chicago anytime from the early 1950s through the late 1990s, one thing you could count on was Cubs baseball televised on WGN-TV. It began with all the Cubs home games being televised, and until 1988 all of those were in the daytime, meaning thousands of school kids could watch the end of games after school let out in mid-afternoon. After 1967, more than 140 games a year were carried by WGN — and in the late 1960s this was far, far more than any other team showed on free TV — further cementing the relationship between the Cubs, their fans, and the television station.

This isn’t even counting the many thousands of fans who got attached to the Cubs when WGN-TV began to be carried on national cable/satellite TV in the early 1980s. This led to many people who never lived in Chicago at all to become Cubs fans for life.

This article isn’t about them, though; it’s about the long-standing tradition of Cubs games being carried on free, over-the-air broadcast television, sustained by advertising for the station, who then paid a rights fee to the team for carrying the games.

P.K. Wrigley might not have been a great team owner; his benign neglect of the franchise on the field helped lead to decades of losing. But one thing he realized, long before most of his fellow owners did, was the value of TV as a promotional tool. He knew that putting games on television would create the desire of viewers to come to his ballpark, while his fellow owners feared that free TV games would reduce attendance. It was quite the opposite.

In 1998 the number of games on WGN-TV was reduced, as cable and satellite distribution became more common. About half the Cubs schedule migrated to cable, first on Fox Sports Net, later Comcast SportsNet, the channel now known as NBC Sports Chicago.

But Chicago is still the major-league leader in games carried on free, OTA television, both Cubs and White Sox games. Of the 30 major-league teams, 19 of them have all their games (save for a few on Fox-TV’s national broadcasts) on cable outlets, and according to my colleagues at other SB Nation baseball sites, for several of those teams this has been the case for nearly a decade.

Here are the 11 teams that will still have some games on free broadcast television in 2019.

Cubs: 70 games (45 WGN-TV, 25 ABC7 Chicago)
White Sox: 55 games (WGN-TV)
Yankees: 21 games (WPIX)
Giants: 13 games (KNTV/NBC Bay Area)
Dodgers: 10 games (KTLA, simulcast of SportsNet LA games)
Indians: 4 games (WKYC-TV)
Angels: KCOP, only games that conflict with NBA/NHL playoffs
Athletics: KOFY, only games that conflict with NBA/NHL playoffs
Phillies: WCAU-TV, home opener and “select” Friday/Saturday games
Mets: WPIX, did 25 games in 2018, no 2019 schedule yet
Brewers: WBME carried games in 2018, no 2019 schedule yet

The Rangers are televising two spring training games on OTA channel KTXA-21, but none during the regular season.

That’s a guaranteed total of at least 198 games, presuming the Mets once again have a 25-game schedule on WPIX. The Mets are carrying three spring training games on that station, so I am assuming they likely have a similar regular-season schedule planned. That means the Cubs and White Sox account for 63 percent of all games that will be televised free and over the air during 2019. The “conflict” games and others without a specific count above likely amount to a very small number, probably less than half a dozen for each of the teams listed.

Fox-TV will be carrying 25 games on free, over-the-air channels this summer. Thus the total number of free, OTA baseball broadcasts in 2019 will likely amount to about 250 games, which is slightly more than 10 percent of all games.

And next year, with the Cubs moving to the Marquee Network and the White Sox having previously announced they’ll be moving their entire schedule to NBC Sports Chicago, that number will be reduced even further.

The Dodgers will be televising a small number of games on free TV in the Los Angeles area largely because their cable channel, SportsNet LA, does not have widespread coverage in the L.A. area. They could add some more games late in the season as they have done in the past; their current OTA schedule contains no games after June 15.

The Cubs could please a large portion of their fanbase by putting a small number of games, maybe a dozen or two, on a free, over-the-air channel in 2020 and beyond. WGN-TV could be the outlet, or perhaps ABC7 Chicago. The Cubs wouldn’t lose any money here as they’d wind up charging a rights fee to carry the games, which would likely be produced by the Marquee Network, so the Cubs would continue to control the content. This is what I’d recommend to the Cubs, anyway. The 2019 season will be the 72nd year of WGN-TV Cubs broadcasts in Chicago, of at least 70 games a season, and it’s helped create the huge national fanbase for the Chicago Cubs. A bit of a nod to history, which could even make money for the team, would be welcome.

But otherwise, the 2019 season represents the end of an era. The 125 Cubs and White Sox games on free, OTA TV in 2019 are going to vanish at the end of the season, with perhaps a small number continuing beyond this year.

Times and technology change, and the way people watch television does, too. If the Cubs can come up with an online streaming option for fans that doesn’t conflict with the draconian MLB blackout policies or this awful map:

This map really doesn't have anything to do with this story, but I love showing how MLB has carved up its TV fiefdoms.

... then that could be an option for Cubs fans who don’t want to subscribe to cable or satellite just to view games on the Marquee Network.

2020, which sounds like a science fiction year far in the future but is less than a year away, will be a year of great change in local baseball television broadcasting, at least in Chicago. Later in the year I’ll be writing more about WGN-TV and that 72-season relationship with the Cubs, a span unmatched by any other sports team and a broadcast outlet.