Chicago Cubs joins baseball teams betting on a home run with cable TV

Jason Schott

Add the Chicago Cubs to the growing roster of Major League Baseball teams moving all their games to cable television.

In the past decade or so, teams have increasingly demanded games on their own networks and not on free over-the-air television. The first was the Boston Red Sox with NESN in 2006, a trend continued when the Los Angeles Dodgers put all of their games on Time Warner (now Spectrum) SportsNet, and later when the Baltimore Orioles put theirs on MASN in 2018 after having been on WJZ for 64 years.

When the Cubs announced that the team would create the Marquee Sports Network -- named after the classic red sign that has greeted fans at Wrigley Field, with a logo that mimics it as well -- they emphasized that it will be airing all of the team’s games.

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That means fans will no longer to be able to see games on free over-the-air channels WGN – which has had the Cubs for the past 72 years – and ABC 7, where they have aired since 2015.

“The Cubs are just incredibly popular,” said media consultant Brad Adgate. “They’re like the Yankees in New York and the Dodgers in LA. The Cubs have a loyal following, even though they’ve had a lot of lean years up until five years ago. It’s really a very interesting question” what the fan impact will be.

The Cubs and Sinclair Broadcasting Group will be asking $4 per month for Marquee, which will bring up what Chicago-area cable subscribers pay for regional sports networks to $13 a month.

“Four dollars (a month) is really kind of below the market price for a lot of regional sports networks,” said Adgate. “You look at New York and LA, it seems to be kind of in line; it doesn’t seem to be totally outrageous. It’s outrageous for a cable network, per se, but for a regional sports network, that’s pretty much in step with what they’re charging in other markets."

Sinclair’s partnering with the Cubs on Marquee is consistent with its recent activity in sports broadcasting. The company finalized its $9.6 billion purchase of 21 Regional Sports Networks from the Walt Disney Company on Friday, August, 23.

That marked the completion of a months-long transfer of the properties that were once owned by Fox and were part of Disney’s $71.3 billion purchase of film and television properties from 21st Century Fox. Antitrust regulators required Disney to divest itself from the sports networks due to its ownership of sports media giant ESPN. Sinclair also recently closed on a separate deal with Amazon and the New York Yankees to purchase the YES Network from Disney.

“I would think they would sell a national package of Marquee with the other regional sports networks to national advertisers,” Adgate says of Sinclair’s role. “Being that Sinclair has other regional sports networks and they have huge over-the-air stations that are also getting retransmission fees, they do have some leverage."

The ability to reach a large audience "is very important to compete and get good pricing that you want," he added. "Having a big media company behind you is going to be very helpful, and that’s what I think is going to help Marquee be pretty successful financially coming out of the launch” in February 2020.

Two teams that have bucked the trend are New York’s teams -- the Mets and Yankees -- which both have over 20 games on PIX 11.

"Our partnership with PIX11 provides SNY [SportsNet New York] and the Mets continuity with a long-term broadcast partner which does a great job promoting and distributing our games," said SNY President Steve Raab. "25 games is meaningful to PIX11’s schedule, while also allowing SNY to maintain its dominant position with Mets fans." 

The Cubs’ move to create its own sports network is essentially an effort to recoup the equity stake the team had when both it and WGN were owned by Tribune. That changed in 2011 when the Cubs were sold to a group led by Tom Ricketts, which still owns the team today and has made its mark on the franchise by renovating Wrigley Field and breaking a 108-year curse with a championship in 2016.

Adgate wonders “what took them so long” to break away from WGN. “It was borrowed time on this. They have to be the only team that was actually available as widespread for the last 50 years. I think when you see all the ownership changes – when Tribune sold the Cubs and now they sold the station, it’s now part of NexStar – the handwriting was on the wall."

WGN broadcast Cubs games nationally until 2014, and its radio station’s deal with the Cubs ended the season before.

“Obviously, you’re going to get people who are angry that they have to pay to see the Cubs after seeing them on WGN for decades and just may say, you know, 'I’m not going to pay for this,' and they’ll find some other way to spend their downtime," Adgate said. "If you’re a Cubs fan, and they’re putting out a good product, I’m sure you probably look at the four bucks and just cough it over.”

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