After years of planning, it looks like the Chicago Cubs’ plan to launch their own regional sports network is one step closer to reality.
As first reported by Bruce Levine at 670 The Score (WSCR-AM) Monday, the Cubs hired Mike McCarthy, a former president of New York’s MSG Network to head the new venue. The move signals the team is exiting NBC Sports Chicago and possibly their current broadcast partners’ deals once their pacts expire on or around October 1, 2019. The team also has a 20 percent stake in NBC Sports Chicago, once known as Comcast Sportsnet.
In fact, the future of the NBC Sports Chicago channel could be in question as well. The White Sox, Bulls, and Blackhawks also own a stake, and has hired former CSN Chicago general manager Phil Bedella to “run their next regional sports network” as the report specifically states, suggesting NBCUniversal may or may not be a partner in the next venue for the teams. Formed in 2004 as a partnership with Comcast (before the 2010 merger with NBCUniversal), the pact between the four teams expires on or around October 1, 2019.
NBC Sports Chicago carries the majority of the Cubs’ non-network televised games, with 70 games split between WGN-TV and WLS-TV.
As reported here in June, the Cubs reportedly had few options with AT&T showing interest as a partner. Significant developments have occured in recent weeks regarding the future of Fox’s 22 regional sports networks, with reports stating Fox may re-purchase the RSNs from Disney, who has ninety days to sell them as part of the Justice Department’s approval of the Fox-Disney deal. Once it’s completed, Fox (or New Fox) would have just Fox Broadcasting, Fox News, Fox Business Channel, My Network TV, and the Fox-owned stations (including Fox affiliate WFLD-TV and CW affiliate WPWR-TV in Chicago). Should Fox retain or buy back the RSNs, it would be a sure bet “New Fox” would enter a bid as the Cubs would add value to the new company. For the Cubs, it gives them a much-needed another option to use as leverage.
Unless the new Cubs network strike a deal with WGN-TV to carry a limited amount of over-the-air games (an arrangement YES and SNY has with WPIX in New York with the Yankees and Mets, respectively), it would be a huge blow for the Tribune-owned station, and would end a relationship going back 71 years with the team. WGN dropped The CW in 2016 in order to air more sports contests involving the White Sox, Cubs, Bulls, and Blackhawks, but with these teams receiving more money from cable than their over-the-air counterparts, it may be impossible for WGN to stay in the sports business. Moreover, the uncertain future of Tribune Media is also an issue, after its planned merger with Sinclair Broadcasting collapsed earlier this month. Many experts expect Tribune to be put on the block again soon as broadcast groups continue to consolidate in order to better compete with Silicon Valley-funded giants such as Netflix and Amazon.
Despite pitfalls – cord cutting, reach issues (ask the Dodgers), etc., the allure of your own RSN in a major market with or without a partner is tempting, since the Cubs need the revenue generated from such a deal to keep key players in the fold. While fans may be upset at the potential reduction or elimination of free, over-the-air Cubs games on television, it may no longer be possible given today’s sports economics. It was one of the reasons Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) decided to pull over-the-air games this baseball season involving the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles, who have a rather uneasy (and at times hostile) relationship with each other over ownership of the network.