Chicago to become next battleground in retrans battle between RSNs, satellite providers
If you are going to gloat when Marquee launches with a lack of distribution while NBC Sports Chicago is in your Dish and DirecTV channel lineup, you might be in for a rude awaking come October 1.
That’s because with the Cubs dropping out of the NBC Sports Chicago consortium after 15 years, the Chicago White Sox, Chicago Bulls, and Chicago Blackhawks are now taking up more of a ownership interest. As a result, new deals had to be negotiated with cable, satellite, and streaming services to carry the channel as the Chicago Tribune first reported last week.
So far, RCN, Wide Open West, and of course, Comcast’s Xfinity (Comcast and NBC are corporate cousins) have signed carriage deals, and so did streaming carriers Fubo, YouTube TV, Hulu TV, and PlaystationVue. A number of smaller carriers have also signed deals.
But notably missing is Mediacom and the nation’s two biggest satellite providers: Dish and DirecTV, who are often in squabbles with channels. Without a deal come October 1, NBC Sports Chicago could go dark on those systems, including AT&T U-Verse and related streaming services Sling (Dish) and AT&T Now.
On Sunday night, a commercial from NBC Sports Chicago ran during Sunday Night Football featuring Blackhawks commentator Eddie Olczyk, Bulls analyst Stacey King, and White Sox play-by-play voice Jason Benetti urging fans to contact their cable and satellite providers if they have yet to strike a deal. NBC Sports Chicago also launched a website at mysportschicago.com.
Getting a deal with the satellite providers may be easier said than done. Already, Dish pulled the plug on the former Fox Sports regional sports networks, while both Dish and DirecTV (and Comcast) have pulled Colorado’s Altitude off their systems in a carriage dispute. And despite reports ESPN parent Disney and DirecTV are close to an agreement, no official deal has been announced as the sports network and its related channels are still on the service.
In fact, NBC Sports Chicago may face as much as uphill battle to get the satellite carriers to sign on as the Cubs’ new Marquee network does. Both Dish and DirecTV have been steadfast in keeping bills low for consumers, with Dish CEO Charlie Ergen stating they may not renew any upcoming RSN deals, although pundits state this is nothing more than a negotiating tactic.
So far, the only carriage deal Marquee has signed is with Charter Communications, who Spectrum cable service whose service area in the greater Chicagoland area is in Kenosha, Wis.
All this comes as distributors – especially DirecTV as owner AT&T is cutting costs amid mounting debt. And it also comes at a time when sports are completely vanishing from the local broadcast TV landscape as WGN-TV lost the rights to all four pro teams, leaving only the Chicago Bears as the lone team available to over-the-air viewers through network deals with CBS, NBC, and Fox. With Marquee home to 150 Cubs games, NBC Sports Chicago will be home to all non-network Bulls, Blackhawks, and White Sox contests. In fact, no Bulls and Blackhawks games will be on local broadcast TV next season with neither team making any appearances on NBA’s ABC schedule and the NHL’s NBC schedule, respectively (the Blackhawks do have 12 NBCSN appearances.)
The Chicago Fire soccer team took it a step further and moved all of their games off linear TV last year to streaming network ESPN Plus.
Over the last few years, local MLB, NBA, and NHL games have moved exclusively to cable in order to draw not only ad revenue but also retransmission money. A small number of games are available for over-the-air TV in New York (Mets and Yankees), Los Angeles (Angels and Kings), and San Antonio (Spurs).
If viewers do walk away from Dish and DirecTV as a result of the duo shunning NBC Sports Chicago and Marquee, it may not make much of an impact: AT&T boss Randall Stephenson told investors he is willing to put up with huge subscriber losses rather than pay for deals that don’t make financial sense. Already, DirecTV and Dish have lost more than three million subscribers combined in the past year. Neither he or Ergen are compelled to cater to sports fans who just want to see their games.
And for a great sports town like Chicago, that’s a bigger defeat than anything taking place on the field.