Chicago Fire strikes exclusive deal with ESPN Plus

Three-year pact means no linear TV – for now

If you want to watch Chicago Fire, you can still watch it on NBC.

But if you want to watch the soccer team of the same name…well, you are out of luck – for now.

The Major League Soccer team announced Friday it has struck a deal with the new over-the-top service ESPN Plus for all games not nationally-televised. In the process, the Fire declined to renew its deal with NBC Sports Chicago (formerly Comcast SportsNet Chicago and CSN Chicago). The deal means for the first time, most Chicago Fire games would no longer be available to linear TV viewers in the Chicago area.

And yes, viewers will have to pay $4.99 a month to access the service. Fire games are part of the Major League Soccer Live package, which is available exclusively on ESPN Plus’ service.

With the new over-the-air service not launched yet, Fire fans can only watch their team via MLS’ website as ESPN Plus is scheduled to debut later this spring. The service is being made available on all platforms, including iOs, Roku, Chromecast, Android, and others. ESPN Plus plans to air more than 500 live events a year, including MLB and NFL games, boxing, golf, college sports, and more. Recently, the Sun Belt conference signed a deal to air almost all its events – basketball included – on the ESPN Plus platform.

The Fire becomes the second MLS team to sell its television package to an over-the-top service as Los Angeles FC (not to be confused with the Los Angeles Galaxy) struck a deal with Google’s YouTubeTV.

This is the latest in a number of deals between sports leagues and big tech. Last week, Facebook announced it will stream 20 weekday afternoon MLB games paying $30 to $35 million for the privilege to do so, with the games are being produced by MLB Network. Earlier, the NFL struck deals with Twitter and Amazon to live-stream selected Thursday Night Football games.

As expected, the Fire deal came under criticism. A sampling of them are below:

For the last two years, the Fire has grown in popularity, signing key players (such as German sensation Bastian Schweinsteiger) among other moves. But the team remains a blip on the Chicago sports radar, thanks in part to the team playing in the middle of nowhere (Toyota Park in southwest suburban Bridgeview near 71st and Harlem is not easy to get to – especially on public transportation, only served by shitty Pace bus service.) By comparison, all other sports teams’ games are easily accessible via transit within the city. The new “television” deal does not help matters.

As many people pointed out, the scenario is similar to what the Chicago White Sox did in 1982 and took a lot of games off of “free TV” and put them on subscription television services (STV) ONTV and Sportsvision, airing on over-the-air broadcast TV but with their screens scrambled – meaning you needed a box to decode the signal. Though no effects on attendance were felt immediately at Comiskey (the White Sox won the AL West Pennant in 1983 and had a strong 1984), moving the team to pay TV hurt the team’s viability in the long run and is still being felt today.

The growing popularity of premium cable and home video killed off STV services, with ONTV closing its doors in 1985. In terms of cost, STV was more expensive than today’s streaming services, even with inflation factored in.

Another example: the Chicago Blackhawks were a low-profile, struggling franchise until a decades-old policy on not televising home games was reversed in 2008. Since then, Blackhawks games at the United Center have continuously sold out (putting a winning team on the ice also helped.)

But this deal could be positive down the road for the Fire. Currently, the Chicago Cubs are looking to start their own regional sports network in 2020 as they are likely to exit their deal and their ownership stake in NBC Sports Chicago. With 21st Century Fox in the process of selling its entertainment and its regional sports network assets to The Walt Disney Company, there is a possibility the Cubs could strike a deal with Disney-owned ESPN to launch a RSN – and if they choose to, the Fire could continue their relationship with ESPN by airing games on the new Cubs network. But this could be a tall order.

But in the meantime, if you watch to see a Fire game, good luck. In an era where thanks to its tremendous reach, television is an important tool in promoting your product – the Fire just threw theirs away. It’s about selling the experience to a wide audience. But the experience is now behind an additional paywall.

These type of decisions usually get people fired, no pun intended. At least the OTT deal isn’t about “protecting the season-ticket holders” as former Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz stupidly said years ago. But it’s just as aggravating.