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Does the Marquee Network have a Comcast problem?

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The network and the biggest Chicago-area provider don’t yet have a carriage deal.

Six weeks from this coming Saturday, the Cubs will play their first spring-training game of 2020, against the Athletics at Sloan Park.

The Marquee Sports Network is supposed to launch by that date and had previously announced they’d be carrying at least all the Cubs home spring-training games (and perhaps some of the road games as well).

But as of this writing, Marquee doesn’t have a carriage deal with Comcast in the Chicago metropolitan area. Comcast has 1.5 million home subscribers in the Chicago area, which is more than all the other metro area operators combined.

Is this a problem? The Tribune’s Phil Rosenthal examined the issue in an article earlier Monday and compared the current Comcast/Cubs issue to a similar issue the Yankees had with their YES Network and Comcast in the New York area in 2016:

The argument then, as it will be over Marquee, is that the regional sports network business model — frankly, the model for most cable networks — calls for customers to subsidize channels whether they watch them or not.

That, Comcast said, was unacceptable “given the network’s minimal viewership, which is why we have decided we can no longer justify continuing to carry (it). YES simply does not present an appropriate price-value proposition for our customers.”

Dropping the channel, predictably, did not go over well with the Yankees.

”It’s a typical gutless act by a cable carrier seeking to promote its own self-interest,” Randy Levine, the team’s president, told the New York Daily News.

Pretty strong words from Randy Levine. Rosenthal goes on to say that Comcast finally made a deal with the Yankees in early 2017 because Fox (which at the time was an equity partner in the YES Network) wanted carriage for some of its other channels, including several other regional sports networks.

Rosenthal writes that Sinclair, which is a partner in Marquee, could exercise similar leverage in getting Comcast coverage for the channel:

Sinclair used a similar tactic last year to ensure Marquee was picked up by AT&T’s DirecTV, U-verse and AT&T TV. It leveraged its 191 local stations in 89 markets across the country to secure carriage deals for the former Fox regional sports network, Tennis Channel and the soon-to-launch Marquee.

It didn’t hurt that AT&T was vulnerable and in no position to risk alienating customers.

Sources have said the DirecTV deal puts pressure on Comcast to pick up Marquee, although the AT&T services are in less than half as many Chicago-area households as Comcast’s Xfinity.

For those who have Comcast service in Chicago — and that includes me — let’s hope this deal comes to fruition soon. If fans in Chicago have to miss a few spring-training games, which are mostly on during workday hours, that’s not a big deal — but if it goes past March 26, the network will have an outright fan revolt on its hands. Marquee certainly doesn’t want to find itself in a situation like the Dodgers’ SportsNet LA:

Everyone tends to point to the Dodgers and SportsNet LA as a bright flashing beacon of caution.

While the 25-year, $8.3 billion TV deal has been supremely lucrative for the team, it has been a difficult proposition for fans. The channel heads into its seventh season this year still unavailable in a majority of Los Angeles-area homes because carriers consider it too expensive.

Yikes. Seven full seasons without most Dodgers fans being able to see their team on TV?

I should note here that Cubs fan culture has been accustomed to seeing many, if not all, games on free, over-the-air television in Chicago for seven decades. That wasn’t the case in Los Angeles, where the Dodgers didn’t televise home games at all until the 1980s and before then, carried only about a dozen or so weekend road games. That’s a far different TV experience than Cubs fans are used to.

In conclusion: The Cubs pretty much need Comcast in order to give their fans essentially the same TV viewing experience they had from 1948 through 2019. I’m guessing Comcast knows this. That gives the cable provider a certain amount of leverage.

Let’s hope the Cubs, Marquee and Comcast come to a deal soon, if not by February 22, then certainly by March 26. Otherwise, we enter uncharted Cubs TV waters.