It’s official: Cubs to launch their own network, powered by Sinclair

Controversial broadcaster to run local baseball team’s new network; officially ends relationship with WGN-TV after seven decades

Sinclair Broadcasting failed to get Chicago’s WGN-TV, but they were able to snare the next best institution in the Windy City.

In a deal speculated since December, the Chicago Cubs announced Wednesday they were launching a new regional sports network named Marquee with the team as the main attraction, beginning approximately a year from now. All regular season Cubs games – excluding those on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball and Fox’s Saturday night baseball package – will appear on the channel, ending WGN-TV’s relationship with the team after 71 years.

Marquee plans to air extensive pre-game and post-game programming, in addition to all-access shows, classic games, and other programming. The team also said it would carry other local sports, but wouldn’t specify.

WGN currently carries 45 Cubs games, with WLS-TV carrying another 25, and NBC Sports Chicago carrying the rest. None of these outlets will carry any Cubs games come 2020.

“This partnership brings together one of the most iconic sports franchises in the country with one of the largest television broadcasting companies,” said Sinclair president and CEO Chris Ripley. “It is hard to imagine any content that is more unique and valuable than the live sports entertainment the Cubs have been delivering to their fans for more than a century. Sinclair’s strength in production, distribution and local sales will support bringing more content to more viewers, all while leveraging the latest technology.

What’s also notable is no more over-the-air games, outside of Fox. The Cubs are following a trend in the last decade of sports teams striking exclusive deals with regional sports networks – something Chicago teams have largely avoided until now. In hooking up with Sinclair, Cubs owners the Ricketts family believe they have great leverage here:

– The Cubs are the market’s most popular team not named the Bears, and they believe fan demand will drive the channel

– Though Sinclair doesn’t own any local stations in Chicago (it tried to buy WGN owner Tribune Media in a deal that collapsed late last year), it does own stations downstate and in Iowa and Indiana, where there’s a significant amount of Cubs fans. For example, Sinclair owns CBS affiliate WSBT in nearby South Bend, home to a Cubs-affiliated minor league team. They can use this type of leverage to strike a deal with the local cable operator the next time their retransmission consent deal is up for renewal.

However, this won’t guarantee placement on cable or satellite channel’s lineup. Adding Marquee – who is reportedly seeking $6 a subscriber, would certainly drive up cable bills in the Chicago area – something local residents certainly would not appreciate given the metro area is already taxed to death, and dread the thought of surging entertainment expenses with numerous streaming services on the way. And this situation is even worse if you’re a non-baseball or White Sox fan.

And there’s the RSN itself. Disney has had trouble selling the 22 Fox sports networks for the last few months as the value of such channels are declining in the face of cord-cutting. Latest suitors include Liberty Media and even Major League Baseball. Sinclair is also in the running, and would add Marquee to its portfolio if it were to pull it off.

There is no word if Marquee would let viewers stream their programming – many RSNs are already doing so, including NBC Sports Chicago and Fox Sports nets (though you would have to be an authenticated cable subscriber to do so.)

There is also a potential issue with Comcast, the dominant cable provider in Chicago with more than two million subscribers – who also owns soon-to-be rival NBC Sports Chicago, who’ll retain the Blackhawks, Bulls, and White Sox in a deal announced last month. Marquee could also have trouble securing channel space on other area systems – especially satellite providers DirecTV and Dish, neither carry the Los Angeles Dodgers’ SportsNet LA channel. Keep in mind however, the Big Ten Network had these same obstacles in obtaining distribution at launch and were eventually overcome.

Reaction to the deal of course, was negative – not only for the possibly of future Cubs games being inaccessible, but hooking up with Sinclair, who is known for its right-wing tilt in its local newscasts.

And Sinclair were up to their dirty tricks again Monday night, as reported by the Baltimore Sun:

The real question here is, why would the Cubs take this plunge on launching a new regional sports network when they are clearly falling out of favor as viewers are cutting the cord? Simple – the team wants control of its own product, and can earn more revenue in a dual revenue stream – via advertising and fees paid by cable and satellite companies (MSOs). By distributing their product with Sinclair, they don’t have to pay anything to a cable company.

But this also means is limiting access to the product – especially after Cubs fans have been getting games for free basically since forever. And this is just more backlash for the Ricketts family – especially after racist e-mails from Joe Ricketts surfaced a couple of days ago and the family is trying to oust 44th Ward alderman Tom Tunney, home of Wrigley Field. The Ricketts family are increasing their investments in and around the park, much to the chagrin of local residents, leading some to nickname the area “Disneyland by the L”.

Now the Ricketts are looking to become some sort of media moguls. Given the reputation they’ve achieved in the last few years, I’d say they’ve arrived. How much this is grounded in reality of Marquee being successful remains to be seen – but climbing into bed with one of the most arrogant and ethically bankrupt broadcast groups in the country doesn’t help.

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