With team set to move back to Soldier Field, there are no plans to alter deal with streaming service
With the Chicago Fire heading back to Soldier Field for the 2020 season, there is new optimism over the soccer club.
But one thing that isn’t changing next year is the television deal.
In an article in Saturday’s Chicago Sun-Times, the team said all of its non-network games would remain on Disney-owned ESPN Plus for the 2020 season, the subscription digital platform only available as a streamer.
Speaking to the Sun-Times, Fire President and General Manger Nelson Rodriguez said the move to ESPN Plus was a success. “As we expected, ESPN (Plus) has become the home of soccer in the United States. It’s been positive for our club. More people are watching our games than before.”
Despite a losing season and lackluster attendance at Bridgeview’s Seat Geek Stadium, The Fire noted viewership for its games were up 124 percent this season from 2018, and is drawing more viewers the last year their deal with Comcast SportsNet (now NBC Sports Chicago.) However, the Fire did not provide ratings or hard numbers, and wouldn’t say if the data came from Nielsen. This comes as the team opted out of its deal with the village to play at the taxpayer-funded stadium as fans complained about the tough commute to the southwest suburb, returning to Soldier Field where they played from 1998 to 2002 and again from 2003 to 2005.
In this space, this blog criticized the move from linear TV to a streaming service when the deal was announced in 2018, reducing the reach of the team to an audience. But it turns out reach isn’t what it’s cracked up to be as the potential to earn more revenue makes up for the lack of it. Fox’s RSNs are no longer on Dish due to retransmission consent disputes, as is Altitude, who is also no longer available on DirecTV or Comcast due to the same issues, depriving Colorado fans the right to see the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche.
The Cubs formed their own network with Sinclair Broadcasting called Marquee Sports, with all non-network games airing on the channel in 2020, removing 70 over-the-air games from ABC-owned WLS-TV and longtime rights holder WGN-TV. NBC Sports Chicago made a similar deal with the Bulls, Blackhawks, and White Sox, with all games airing exclusively on the RSN effective October 1.
By contrast, the Chicago Wolves struck a deal with Fox-owned WPWR-TV to air 40 games this season, making the team the only one offering broadcast TV games. This came as the station lost CW programming to crosstown rival WCIU after just three years.
Even though WGN is now all but out of the sports business, the Fire has no plans to air any games on the Nexstar-owned station or any broadcast outlet next year.
While the team is planning to aggressively market the team in order to lure fans (and casual ones) to the Lakefront, leaving the games on ESPN Plus makes it an even harder challenge. The Fire isn’t holding any discussions on any future television deals for 2021, opening the door for the team to extend their current deal with ESPN Plus.