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Marquee Sports Network, regional sports channels and streaming, explained

Let’s clear up some misconceptions you might have about the Cubs channel and how TV games are distributed.

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Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Last week, I wrote about Major League Baseball’s hire of an executive whose function will primarly be overseeing local broadcasts. The point, in a Sports Business Journal article quoted in the link above:

MLB already has started looking into creating a national product that would combine its local rights with its out-of-market Extra Innings package — an effort that would do away with blackouts.

This is what all baseball fans want, of course — the ability to watch any game from anywhere, regardless of location. Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts touched on this in an article by Meghan Montemurro in the Tribune over the weekend:

“The regional sports network ecosystem is under some pressure as people cut cords with cable,” Ricketts said. “I know the league is watching it very, very closely. I think the league also understands that some of these blackout policies don’t really serve the purpose they started with a long time ago.

“Ultimately, I hope the league comes up with a system where any fan can watch any game anywhere. But there’s legacy systems we’re going to have to work out.”

Tom Ricketts is absolutely right about cord-cutting and the pressure on the RSN system, and you can tell by that quote that the Cubs and MLB are keenly aware of this. It’s not like they are ignoring your cries of “no blackouts!”

Ricketts also mentioned “legacy systems,” and that’s where I’m going to start, at the beginning of the cable TV sports era, which began in the early 1980s. Yes, this is a history lesson, but it’s important to what’s happening now, so pull up a chair.

The local cable sports era began with channels like WGN-TV, WTBS (Atlanta), WOR/WWOR (New York) and WSBK (Boston) having their local carriage of their respective teams (Cubs, Braves, Mets, Red Sox) picked up by national cable and satellite distributors. This is what so many of you remember, being able to turn on your cable TV back then and watch up to 145 or so games of your favorite team, in this case the Cubs. It is, as Ricketts said in the Tribune article, one reason the Cubs have such a huge national fanbase:

“It definitely allowed the Cubs to be a national team,” Ricketts said. “We still have those fans. They have to get those games on MLB package or elsewhere. So I don’t know that there’s going to be a way to get back to that kind of special setup.”

There isn’t such a way. TV isn’t consumed the same way now as it was in the 1980s, or even the 1990s, when regional sports networks began to come into being, emphasis on the word “regional.” That’s the reason this map was created:

That carved the USA up into territories in which RSN’s had exclusive rights to games. The reason you were blacked out if you didn’t live in the region wasn’t, as some thought, to try to make you drive to a ballpark five hours away and buy a ticket to the game. No, it was because if you (say) live in Iowa, split between six different teams (Cubs, White Sox, Brewers, Cardinals, Royals, Twins), you were supposed to get on the phone and call your cable/satellite provider and tell them to carry whatever RSN your team was on.

For a while, this actually worked. But as time went by, the amount of money RSN’s were asking for became larger than cable/satellite providers were willing to pay. Cable/satellite bills were getting larger, people began cutting the cord, and so there was even less reason for many local cable/satellite providers to carry RSN’s.

The Cubs were pretty late to the RSN revolution, in part because the city of Chicago was one of the last big cities to become cabled. While some Chicagoland viewers had cable in the 1970s and most by the early 1980s, the city itself didn’t get cabled until 1988. That’s why the White Sox’ creation of a local RSN called SportsChannel didn’t work. Co-owner Eddie Einhorn, who was from New York, had made SportsChannel work there — but for more teams and with larger cable penetration. It didn’t work in Chicago.

The Cubs didn’t have their first cable channel game until 1998, when Fox SportsNet made began carrying Cubs games in metro Chicago and the Cubs market territory as shown on the map above. In 1997, WGN-TV still showed 143 games nationally; that dropped to 92 in 1998 and between 2000 and 2014, the number of Cubs games on cable ranged between about 60 and 70 a year on FSN Chicago and its successor channels, Comcast SportsNet Chicago and NBC Sports Chicago.

It was around this time that MLB.TV was created, in 2002, to allow out-of-market fans to watch their favorite team. Twenty years later, this system still exists. If you live in a team’s market territory, you watch them on your team’s RSN — there are almost no games anymore on over-the-air broadcast TV. The Cubs were one of the last teams to broadcast a significant number of games OTA, from 2015-19 carrying 70 OTA games on WGN-TV and ABC7 Chicago. Note that although those OTA games were on WGN-TV, those were only local to Chicago. WGN America, the rebranded “superstation,” dropped sports altogether by 2014. This confused some out-of-market fans who heard games were going to be broadcast on “WGN” and said, “Well, I get WGN, where are the games?” The “WGN” those out-of-market fans were watching was a completely different channel than WGN-TV in Chicago.

At the time the national WGN deal ended, the Cubs announced a five-year deal for those games on WGN and ABC7 and said that after it ended, they were going to create their own channel.

Enter Marquee Sports Network. In 2020, which was, of course, probably the worst time ever to launch such a channel, in the middle of a pandemic and with an empty-ballpark, 60-game season.

But the channel persevered, and for the last two years has broadcast about 150 Cubs games.

Let me right now note a bit of an aside to the main point of this article, and then I’ll get back to it. I have been told by some that “Marquee promised to put every Cubs game in one place and they’re not.” No, no they did not, if you think that you have misunderstood. Contractually, there are Cubs games (and games for all 29 other MLB teams) carried by national networks, including Fox, ESPN, YouTube, Apple TV+ and Peacock. Local RSN’s, including Marquee, cannot carry these games. It doesn’t break any “promises” made. In 2022, Marquee carried 146 of the 162 Cubs games, which is about par for the course. I would expect about that many in 2023 with the others going to the services noted above.

Having said that, yes, it is an issue for Major League Baseball to ask people to subscribe to multiple streaming/cable channels to watch games. They got their money upfront, so I’m not certain MLB actually cares about that. Granted and stipulated.

Now, let’s talk about how Marquee is distributed, and with that I will once again refer you to this map (and also post it again to break up a wall of text!):

If you live in the market territories denoted as “Chicago (Both),” which cover both the Cubs and White Sox, you will get access to Marquee Sports Network’s programming — both live games and other programming from the channel — by subscribing to it via your cable or satellite provider. As of now, my understanding is that Marquee is carried in about 92 percent of the market and here is a list of providers within the market. That includes streaming via DirecTV STREAM and fuboTV.

If you live outside that “Chicago (Both)” market territory, you must watch Cubs games via MLB.TV (online) or MLB Extra Innings (cable/satellite). That’s still watching Marquee programming, but it’s not subscribing to the channel itself, and it only covers live games, and in some cases pre- and post-game shows (the latter you’ll see noted on login).

As of now, the only way to watch Marquee’s non-game programming outside the “Chicago (Both)” market territory is by subscribing to DirecTV, because last May the channel and DirecTV came to a national carriage deal. Specifically, as noted in that article:

All of Marquee’s programming is now available to everyone with a DIRECTV subscription, with the exception of live Cubs games (and live Chicago Sky WNBA games). For live games outside the Cubs market territory, you will still have to subscribe to MLB.TV or MLB Extra Innings, even if you are a DIRECTV subscriber. DIRECTV will continue to carry live Cubs games on Marquee Sports Network on Channel 664 to those authorized subscribers living within the Cubs market territory.

Marquee is working to get carriage of non-game programming with other national providers, as has been done by the Yankees’ YES Network. But as noted above, even if you have a provider carrying that programming but you are outside the Cubs market territory, you’d still have to subscribe to MLB.TV or MLB Extra innings for live games.

Now, on to streaming. Some teams, mostly those that have deals with Bally Sports RSNs, have already begun over-the-top streaming arrangements. That means that a cord-cutter within their market territory can watch the team’s games by subscribing to a Bally Sports streaming service. Here’s how it works for the Royals, and for the Red Sox and here’s a general FAQ about those types of services. Like any other streaming app, you pay a monthly fee and you get the service — in this case, it would be watching everything the channel carries as long as you’re in market.

Which is what Marquee wants to do. Essentially, if you’re a cord-cutter, you could still get Marquee’s programming and live games by signing up to Marquee’s streaming service, once they start it, for a monthly fee — but only if you’re in the “Chicago (Both)” market territory shown above. If you’re outside the market territory you still have to watch games on MLB.TV or MLB Extra Innings.

The Red Sox app noted above costs $30 a month. Bally Sports Plus costs $20 a month. Figure it’d be somewhere in that range for a “Marquee Plus” streaming app. Keep in mind that if this existed and you subscribed to it, you could do it just during the season and it might cost you about $150, which is basically the cost of MLB.TV.

That’s how it would work if Marquee launched a streaming app, and they have been working on it for nearly a year. I would not be surprised if such a “Marquee Plus” (or whatever they ultimately call it) streaming app launches before the 2023 season begins.

And remember the quote from the Sports Business Journal above:

MLB already has started looking into creating a national product that would combine its local rights with its out-of-market Extra Innings package — an effort that would do away with blackouts.

It’s taken a while, and as Tom Ricketts says these are “legacy” deals that need to be unwound, but I believe MLB does actually get it regarding blackouts — and I remember asking Rob Manfred myself, at a Cactus League media day event, about those and his first words were, “I hate blackouts” — hey, look, something we can all agree on with MLB’s Commissioner. In my view, it won’t be too long before you will, in fact, be able to watch any game anywhere without blackouts.

Yes, it will cost you. That is, obviously, the name of MLB’s game. But it’s gonna happen, and sooner rather than later.

UPDATE: I’ve been told that Marquee’s non-game programming is now also available on fuboTV nationally, so if you subscribe to that service, you’ll get it. Details here. Note that if you subscribe to fuboTV outside the Cubs’ market territory, you’ll still have to subscribe to MLB.TV or MLB Extra Innings to watch live games, as described above.