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Marquee Sports Network’s ratings are down... but it’s not just because the Cubs have been bad

There are other factors causing the Cubs channel’s numbers to not be good.

On Friday, the Tribune published this article by Robert Channick on the fortunes of the Cubs’ TV channel, Marquee Sports Network.

It’s paywalled for subscribers, but I can sum up the issues delineated by Channick. He writes that viewership on the channel is down 56 percent. Here are some of the reasons:

“We launched into a headwind,” said Crane Kenney, president of business operations for the Cubs. “We had a pandemic when we launched, but also cord-cutting had become a big obstacle.”

No doubt, this is true. The 2020 season was probably the worst possible time to launch a TV sports channel, for the reasons Kenney cites, and cord-cutting was absolutely a major factor in the ratings drop. The article notes there could be a solution to that in the near future:

The Cubs plan to introduce their own direct-to-consumer streaming service, perhaps as early as next season.

“That is certainly the goal,” said Mike McCarthy, Marquee’s general manager. “And we’re watching very closely what the others have done.”

This will be good news if you live in the Cubs market territory and have cut the cord and thus so far have not had access to Marquee (since it’s not on many popular streaming services). There are already several MLB teams that have such an option:

In June, New England Sports Network launched the first direct-to-consumer streaming subscription service, offering more than 220 live Boston Red Sox and Bruins games for $30 per month, or an annual $330 payment. NESN is owned by the Red Sox and Bruins.

Bally Sports rolled out a streaming service across all of its markets in September. For $20 per month or an annual fee of $190, subscribers get local NBA and NHL games, with baseball initially limited to five markets — Detroit, Kansas City, Miami, Milwaukee and Tampa Bay — pending further negotiation for streaming rights with Major League Baseball, according to a Bally Sports news release.

Here are the details on the ratings drop for Marquee:

The nascent network debuted with a 3.57 rating during the inaugural season, reaching about 116,000 households per game, according to Nielsen data supplied by the Cubs. By comparison, the team averaged a 4.5 rating on NBC Sports Chicago during its championship season in 2016.

This year, Cubs games on Marquee fell another 25% during a second consecutive losing season, averaging a 1.57 rating. The Cubs averaged a 1.5 rating on NBC Sports Chicago, then known as Comcast SportsNet, during the last pre-World Series losing season in 2014.

“Our ratings have declined with the team’s performance,” Kenney said. “We know that they’ll go back up when the team starts to compete a little more.”

Well... sure, that’s generally true of any channel carrying a sports team. More people go to the games, and more people watch, when the team is winning. The question is: Even if the Cubs are a contending team in 2023, will viewers return? Because the article I posted here earlier this month cited some other factors that I think have contributed to the drop in viewership, specifically: The game presentations are almost unwatchable. That’s because, as I noted in the article: The announcers talk too much, often don’t call the action and throw in too much extraneous information. (There’s more, and you can read the link to refresh your memory.)

I’m just going to throw this out here for contemplation.

From the beginnings of Cubs baseball TV on WGN in 1948 — and on other Chicago TV channels two years before that — Cubs fans have almost certainly watched more of their own team on TV than any other fanbase. No one else televised every home game in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s — it was thought by many teams that would depress attendance and ticket sales. P.K. Wrigley might not have been a good team owner in putting a team on the field, but he understood the marketing value of putting the Cubs on live TV. He believed, and this turned out to be true, that televising the games would be a marketing tool, that it would make fans want to come to the ballpark, or at least become bigger Cubs fans. It worked, first locally, then nationally when WGN-TV went to national cable, and even before that WGN was televising 140 games a year starting in 1968. No one else did that back then. Local television for most of a MLB team’s games didn’t become a thing until the 1980s.

My point here is that I believe with the exposure of so much Cubs baseball on TV, with great direction by Arne Harris and beloved announcers Jack Brickhouse and Harry Caray, we all became pretty good at deciding what is good baseball TV and what isn’t.

Now, I am not saying that a Cubs TV broadcast in 2023 should be exactly like one in 1993, or 1973, or 1953. The sport has changed, times have changed, technology has changed and people have changed.

What hasn’t changed, I believe, is one thing: Cubs fans want their announcers to root for the same team they are, and to describe the action as a Cubs fan would — and indeed, describe the action, not spend tons of time telling stories and ignoring the action on the field. That doesn’t mean the announcers have to be rah-rah like Brickhouse, and in fact, the honesty about the team we heard from Caray (and again from Len Kasper for many years) is refreshing.

When the World Series began I was reading up on Joe Davis, Fox’s new World Series voice, who has done an outstanding job so far, in my view. As you surely know, Davis became the guy who succeeded Vin Scully as the Dodgers’ lead announcer, and of course no one could ever “replace” Scully. but Davis does good work on Dodgers games.

This video clip is what aired on SportsNet LA the night that Scully passed away last summer. Watch it carefully and note how, even as Davis is telling a cool story about Scully, he pauses to call the action on the field.

That’s often not happening on Marquee, and it makes the broadcast flow so much better. Sure, tell baseball stories, especially if they’re related to the players in the game or some newsworthy item. But please, always pause to call the action. It’s my belief that this is something that’s driving people away from Marquee, in addition to the Cubs’ bad performance in 2021 and 2022. Many of those people have switched to listening the Cubs radio broadcasts — I’d love to see whether the Score has seen a similar ratings drop. (I’d guess not.)

If the team improves next year, will more people watch? Absolutely. But even more than that number will tune in if the quality of the broadcasts improves. Here’s hoping.