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An update on Marquee Sports Network and Comcast/Xfinity

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One analyst thinks a deal between these two is tougher now, but there’s another side to the story.

Marquee Network

With no live Major League Baseball this year, the Marquee Sports Network has busied itself with classic game re-broadcasts and Cubs-related talk shows.

The issue that dogged Marquee before the season started, then, still confronts the network if and when baseball begins this summer: Will Comcast/Xfinity subscribers be able to see Cubs games on TV? The largest cable provider in the Chicago area — over 50 percent of subscribers in the area have Xfinity service — had not been able to come to an agreement on coverage when MLB suspended operations March 12, just two weeks before the scheduled Opening Day. Cubs President of Business Operations Crane Kenney told season-ticket holders in a call earlier this month that the parties were “close” to an agreement and the consensus was that such a deal would have been made, even if it happened just before the season opener March 26.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has changed a lot of our expectations for how things work in the USA. With millions out of work, Comcast has had a lot of people cancel subscriptions for reasons completely unrelated to Cubs coverage.

A recent article in Crain’s Chicago Business sums up the issue:

“Even pre-virus, I would have given Comcast the edge,” says Geetha Ranganathan, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst. “But the pandemic changes the dynamics and definitely weakens the position of (the Cubs).”

That’s a problem for the team, which is losing millions with the baseball season on hold. Major revenue streams from Wrigley Field, such as concession and merchandise sales, have vanished. Now it’s looking less likely that a lucrative cable TV deal will soften the blow.

Comcast, for its part, has more reason to stand firm now. Convincing cable subscribers to stomach another fee increase would be difficult during a period of record cancellations. According to research firm MoffettNathanson, traditional cable TV subscriptions fell in the U.S. by a record 1.8 million during the first quarter as the pandemic squeezed household budgets.

That is, of course, simply one analyst’s view. But here’s what the Cubs are potentially losing if they can’t make a deal with Comcast:

The provider’s 1.5 million local subscribers represent around half of the entire Chicago cable market. If the Cubs struck a deal at their preferred valuation, it would be worth $72 million annually, according to Bloomberg Intelligence’s Ranganathan.

That’s in addition to whatever the Cubs are already expecting to receive from the deals they already have in place with DirecTV, AT&T and RCN, the other major providers in the Chicago area, as well as agreements they have with dozens of other cable providers in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana and Minnesota.

There’s something I think the Bloomberg analyst is missing, though. If there is a baseball season in 2020, the only way to watch Cubs games will be on TV, given that it appears unlikely that any fans will be in ballparks this summer. Further, since at this moment there are no live team sports being played anywhere in North America, there’s got to be a large amount of pent-up demand for televised sports. That was borne out by last weekend’s charity golf match involving Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning:

Now, if a charity golf tournament is providing record ratings like this, imagine the demand for baseball or other team sports when they finally resume. If you are reading this article, you certainly would love to see a baseball season in 2020 (although based on the owners’ latest offer to the players, that’s been put in doubt). TV ratings for baseball games on Marquee, other RSNs and national networks could be the highest they’ve been in years. If Comcast signs, that would provide over 90 percent of Chicago-area viewers access to Marquee.

Marquee knows that. Comcast knows that. I reached out to Comcast for comment and was told that they’re still in discussions with nothing new to report. I also reached out to Marquee; they declined to comment on what was reported in the Crain’s article.

But based on what I’ve heard, if MLB owners and players can come to an agreement and set up a baseball season to begin around July 1, there will be a deal between Comcast and Marquee rather quickly. It makes sense for both parties. People will want to see the games. Comcast knows that, ratings would be high, money would be coming in.

Here’s hoping all the stakeholders involved in a potential 2020 baseball season understand the high-wire act they’re currently doing, understand that nothing less than the future of the sport itself is at stake, and come to agreements so that we can enjoy the sport we all love.

One last note about Marquee since I’m writing about the network. There seems to be a misunderstanding by some about exactly how you’ll see Marquee content depending on where you live. Once baseball starts, if your cable/satellite provider in the Cubs market territory (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, parts of Wisconsin and Michigan) carries Marquee, you will see all the games as well as the non-game content on Marquee via that provider. If you live outside the Cubs market territory, you will see the games the way you have in the past — via MLB.TV or MLB Extra Innings.

However, outside the market territory the non-game content will not be available. Why? Because Marquee would have to have an agreement with carriers outside the market territory for that content. This is a common practice for regional sports networks, most of which have little demand for non-game content outside of the local market. This isn’t the case for Marquee, since the Cubs have a national fanbase. The Yankees’ YES Network has some agreements like that outside of the team’s market area. At the moment, though, Marquee doesn’t have such deals, though as I noted in this article here in February, they are interested in having those sorts of agreements in the future.

So if you live outside the Cubs’ market territory and subscribe to a service that has a channel number “reserved” for Marquee, you won’t see anything on that channel until and unless Marquee makes a deal with that service for non-game content. And even if that happens, you’ll still have to pay for MLB.TV or MLB Extra Innings to see the games.

Hope that clears things up. And again, hoping there’s real baseball to watch soon.