Nexstar’s purchase of The CW fueled by….a Chicago casino? (updated)

Chicago Tribune’s Freedom Center (By Sea Cow – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.)

Nexstar financial chief says money from sale of printing press property helped purchase The CW

[Editor’s Note: This story was updated November 19.]

It turns out there is a Chicago connection to the recent purchase of The CW network by Irving, Tex.-based Nexstar Media Group – and it involves a future casino in our town.

As reported by Hollywood trade website Deadline on Wednesday, the recent sale of the Chicago Tribune’s Freedom Center printing plant to Bally’s casino is helping fund Nexstar’s purchase of 75 percent stake in The CW. The revelation was made public today by Nexstar chief financial officer Lee Ann Gliha Wednesday at an investment firm conference.

“From a funding perspective, we’re in the process of selling one of the remaining properties we had in Chicago for $155 million of net cash,” Gliha said at the conference. “That goes a long way to funding the investment that we’re going to have in the CW.” 

The property she’s referring to is the Chicago Tribune printing plant – known as Freedom Center, where Bally’s plans to build their casino on Chicago’s near northwest side on the banks of the Chicago River. Opened in 1981, Freedom Center was once owned by the Tribune Co. but when the conglomerate split in 2014 into Tribune Publishing and Tribune Media, it was the latter who wound up with the printing plant – not Tribune Publishing, who owned the Chicago Tribune and several other newspapers.

In 2019, Nexstar purchased Tribune Media for a little over $4 billion – including Freedom Center, while Tribune Publishing was sold to Alden Global Capital last year. Nexstar owns independent WGN-TV and WGN-AM here in Chicago and its upstart cable news channel NewsNation is headquartered at WGN, located in the North Center neighborhood some four-and-a-half miles away. Earlier this year, Nexstar purchased its 75 percent stake from co-owners Paramount Global and Discovery Warner Bros., leaving them with only 12.5 percent each. No money exchanged hands in the deal, in which Nexstar assumes existing debt from the previous owners.

On November 18, the deal to buy Freedom Center from Nexstar closed, as reported by the Tribune. Now there is speculation Freedom Center might not be demolished after all as Bally’s may build the casino adjacent to the plant as the Tribune has exercised a ten-year option to stay at the plant. Bally’s does have the right to force the Tribune to vacate the site. 

In an interesting coincidence, the chairman of Bally’s Corporation – the same company involved in building the casino in Chicago, is Soo Kim – who happens to be co-founder and current managing partner and chief investment officer of Standard General – a hedge fund who is currently trying to buy rival Nexstar broadcaster Tegna, Inc. in a deal yet to close with the FCC. Like Nexstar, Tegna owns stations in key major markets including Houston, Washington D.C., Atlanta, and Phoenix, among others. Once known as a Chicago-based company known for its ownership of health clubs and a pinball and video game machine manufacturer, the name has resurfaced in recent years as a Rhode Island-based primary casino and online sports betting operator.

Bally’s also licenses its name to Sinclair’s regional sports networks, who recently ran into financial trouble. 

Chicago has long coveted a casino, but had to get a change in state law to make it happen. Once Chicago received its license, city officials named several locations to build a casino and opened up bidding to potential suitors. At the end of the day, it was Bally’s who won out, and the city picked the site of the Freedom Center to build the new casino, located off Grand Ave. near Des Plaines street just northwest of downtown. Bally’s must compete with other Chicago-area casinos, including those in Joliet, Aurora, a new one opening soon in East Hazel Crest, and four in Northwest Indiana.  

The CW is undergoing numerous changes as Nexstar is trying to remake the network into one more friendly to older demos as most local TV stations air programming targeted to the 25-54 demo outside of prime time. Since its inception in 2006 from a merger between The WB and UPN, The CW’s key target audience has been women 18-34 but in recent years, the audience has shrunk as viewers in the age group has defected to streaming. As The CW looks to be profitable by 2025, the network is expected to shed much of its million-plus dollar scripted drama lineup for more cheaper, non-scripted fare. Ironically, one of those “broader audience” The CW is looking for is ending as Whose Line Is It Anyway is calling it quits after twelve seasons.

There is speculation The CW and former affiliate WGN could reunite now both are in the same Nexstar family and The CW plans to air programming more in line with WGN’s hard-news focus. Currently, The CW resides at Chicago-based Weigel Broadcasting’s WCIU-TV where it’s been since September 2019 after three very low-rated years at Fox-owned WPWR-TV. WGN aired CW programming from 2006 to 2016.  

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