The end of the line for WGN Sports

WGN sports vanishes after a 71 year run

Saturday night marked an end of an era as WGN-TV aired its final sports telecast featuring a game between the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox.

Many memorable moments were carried by WGN from Sammy Sosa hitting his 62nd home run to Mark McGuire’s 70th; from Ernie Banks’ 500th home run to Michael Jordan’s game-winning shots; from Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane; the first night game at Wrigley Field; the 23-22 Phillies-Cubs game in 1979 (and even reran on WGN in early 1980); and Cub no-hitters from Ken Holtzman, Milt Pappas, and Carlos Zambrano. They aired on the one of the most-recognized television stations in North America.

WGN continued to broadcast sports long after most local stations were unable to do so, due to the arrival of The WB and UPN and the rise of the regional sports network such as Marquee and NBC Sports Chicago.

WGN Sports began carrying Cubs and White Sox games in 1948. Several years before CBS and ABC began carrying their entire prime-time schedules in color, WGN Sports did so in 1962.

In 1961, the Chicago Blackhawks joined WGN’s schedule, followed by the upstart Chicago Bulls in 1966.

In 1978, WGN was beamed onto satellite becoming a “superstation” seen around the country, beaming Cubs games across the country and showcasing Michael Jordan’s greatness. During the 1990s, Bulls games on WGN often beat prime-time network programming in the Chicago market.

But not everybody was happy with WGN Sports’ superstation status. In 1992, Tribune Co. (the then-owner of WGN and the Cubs) contested a plan by Major League Baseball to move the team to the Western Division, which would have resulted in later start times and less revenue due to lower HUT levels. The NBA and the Bulls were embroiled in a long legal dispute over how many superstation games WGN could carry.

But market changes began to shape WGN’s sports focus. In 1995, WGN joined the upstart WB network and three years later, moved numerous Cubs games to Tribune-owned local news cable channel CLTV in an unpopular move. By 2004, the Cubs struck their first RSN deal, with the now-defunct Fox Sports Net Chicago for 100 games a year.

After years away at other local stations, the Bulls, Blackhawks, and White Sox returned to “Good ‘Ol Channel 9” and made WGN a powerhouse station with local sports, even cutting ties with The CW. But by this time, the number of Cub games airing on WGN were reduced to 45 per year as it was revealed in 2014 the station was losing money on the contract. During this time, WGN America (the former WGN Superstation) decided to remove all sports in order to broaden its focus outside of Chicago.

The changing television and sports landscape finally caught up to WGN. After Tribune sold the Cubs to the Ricketts family in 2009, they were looking to monetize the team’s value and were kicking around the idea of their own cable network. Earlier this year, NBC Sports Chicago restructured its network around the Bulls, Blackhawks, and White Sox meaning the end of over-the-air games on WGN. Then, the other shoe dropped when the Cubs officially announced the new Marquee network, effectively ending 72 seasons of Cubs baseball on WGN.

Changes also happened on WGN’s front as the parent company felt it no longer could compete with the emergence of streaming services and cord-cutting amid declining ad revenue. After a deal with Sinclair Broadcasting fell though, Tribune Media made one with Dallas area-based Nexstar Broadcasting, ending local ownership of WGN after 71 years.

It is sad to see WGN Sports end after such a long run, but nothing lasts forever. While WGN did carry the White Sox and the Bulls, most viewers associate them with the Cubs given their long relationship with the station. Haray Caray, Jack Brickhouse, Steve Stone, and others brought the game to life and their fans not only in Chicago and even around the world. It seems fitting the Cubs’ final game on WGN was a victory over the hated Cardinals.

Below is a timeline of the memorable WGN Sports moments:

1948: WGN-TV signs on and carries Chicago Cubs and White Sox games. Cubs games would become exclusive to WGN beginning in 1952. Jack Brickhouse would do play-by-play for both teams until 1967 when he did Cubs game only.

1949: WGN carried professional wrestling from Marigold Gardens in downtown Chicago until 1957. Jack Brickhouse did the play-by-play and Vince Lloyd did commentary.

1951: WGN begins carrying Chicago Bears and Chicago Cardinals NFL games and continued to do so until 1956.

1960: WGN aired Cubs pitcher Don Cardwell’s no-hitter.

1961: Months after they won the Stanley Cup, WGN begins carrying Chicago Black Hawks away games until 1975.

1962: WGN begins carrying Cubs home games in color.

1966: After 18 years, the White Sox exit WGN for a deal with upstart UHF station WFLD-TV starting with the 1967 season; WGN begins carrying Bulls telecasts until 1972, returning in 1976 for another run that would last until 1984.

1969: Cubs pitcher Ken Holtzman throws no-hitter and would throw another in 1971.

1970: Ernie Banks hits his 500th home run on May 12.

1972: Cubs pitchers Milt Pappas and Burt Hooton each throw no-hitters.

1976: In a bizarre incident during a Cubs-Dodgers game at Dodger Stadium, two people try to set fire to an American flag in the outfield until Cubs outfielder Rick Monday comes in and snatches it away from them to the cheers of the crowd.

1978: WGN is uploaded up to a satellite and becomes a “Superstation”.

1979: The Cubs and Phillies combine for 45 runs in a marathon 23-22 game won by the Phillies. The game was re-broadcast by WGN in the winter of 1980.

1981: The White Sox return to WGN for one season only. Jack Brickhouse retires as Cubs broadcaster.

1982: Haray Caray joins Cubs’ broadcast team; would add Steve Stone a year later.

1984: The Cubs clinch the pennant for the first time in 39 years on September 24 in Pittsburgh.

1988: On August 8, WGN carries first Cubs night game, but was rained out after a few innings.

1989: The Bulls rejoin WGN and White Sox would also do so a year later.

1991: Ken Harrelson joins the White Sox broadcast team.

1998: Haray Caray dies; replaced by grandson Chip Caray.

1998: Kerry Wood strikes out 20 in a game against the Houston Astros, tying a Major League Baseball record; Mark McGuire hits record-breaking 62nd home run in St. Louis against the Cubs; Sammy Sosa hits his 62nd home run at Wrigley.

2004: After rejoining Cubs telecasts a year earlier, Steve Stone exits and so does Chip Caray at the end of the season.

2005: Len Kasper hired as new Cubs play-by-play man with Bob Brenly as commentator. Brenly was replaced by Jim DeShies in 2013.

2008: Carlos Zombrano throws no-hitter against Astros at a game played in Milwaukee due to a hurricane hitting the Houston area; Blackhawks games return to WGN-TV after 32-year hiatus.

2014: WGN reduces Cubs schedule to 45 games; WGN America (formerly known as Superstation WGN) decides to drop all Chicago sports programming to expand their appeal.

2018: After splitting schedule for two years, White Sox broadcaster Ken Harrelson retires effective at end of season.

January 2, 2019: With the Cubs launching Marquee and the Bulls, Blackhawks, and White Sox making their games exclusive to NBC Sports Chicago, WGN Sports loses rights to all teams.

September 19: WGN’s sale to Dallas-based Nexstar Broadcasting closes, ending 71 years of local Chicago ownership.

September 21: WGN-TV airs final game from Wrigley Field.

September 27: WGN airs final overall Cubs game from St. Louis.

September 28: WGN Sports carries final sporting event, a White Sox home game against Detroit, closing out a 71-year run.


2 thoughts on “The end of the line for WGN Sports

    • Very good article about WGN-TV and its history of sports programming. Now if only Channel 9’s management could see its way clear to bring Chicago Wolves hockey over to WGN starting with the 2020 season along with the IHSA sports that will be on Weigel Broadcasting’s Chicago outlets this season. WGN can begin to regain momentum as a destination for sports.

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