Sprinkled throughout the conversation about the Cubs’ next color broadcaster, who will technically be hired by WGN-TV, you hear reminders that the Cubs’ contract with WGN, which allows the station to broadcast a little less than half of the Cubs’ games, expires after 2014. The rights to the majority of the remaining games are held by CSN, under an agreement that does not expire until 2019. With television rights fees exploding in recent years, it’s been assumed that the Cubs would seek a huge bump on that WGN contract when it expired, and there has been reason to wonder whether the Cubs might have to move on to another network, try to renegotiate with CSN to take over the whole lot of games, or try to buy out the CSN deal in favor of creating their own network, a la the Yankees and YES.
Well, based on a survey the Cubs recently sent a random selection of fans, it’s fair to guess that the Cubs are feeling out what life without WGN would be like. The survey touched on a wide variety of subjects including what folks like/dislike about the experience at Wrigley Field, how much folks spend at the ballpark, why do folks choose to attend certain games, etc.
But the portion that caught my eye, passed on by BN’er Liam, was this set of questions:
“How much of a role did WGN TV or Radio play in making you want to start following the Cubs?”
“How many Cubs games did you watch on WGN in 2012?”
I’d say the implications of these questions is pretty clear.
Why would the Cubs be asking about the importance of WGN to their national fan base unless they were arming themselves with data to make a decision about that relationship? I’d imagine the Cubs have been collecting this kind of data for a while now.
And it’s all designed to determine just how valuable it is to keep a portion of Cubs games on WGN, if, for example, the rate WGN is willing to pay per game is lower than that of a competitor (or a Cubs network).
The Cubs do have to be careful here, as (present company included) a huge number of non-Chicago-based Cubs fans became fans because of WGN. Without a national broadcast like that on a semi-daily basis, why would 12-year-old Joey Johnson in Columbus, Ohio become a Cubs fan? He probably wouldn’t.
But there is a certain reality here that we must confront: at bottom, cultivating new fans at a national level is really all about revenue (more fans = more money), and your average fan who doesn’t live in Chicago probably generates less revenue than your average fan who does live in Chicago. When you factor in the possible huge return on TV rights, working hard to retain a “national” TV presence feels less important.
Further, if and when the Cubs are actually good again, they’ll pick up some more of a national presence in the form of more national broadcasts, and media attention. Also, the baseball-viewing world is a lot less flat than it was 20 years ago – with products like MLB.tv and other forms of Internet consumption, preserving and growing a national fan base is easier than it was when it was WGN and a newspaper or bust.
In other words, as much as it pains me to be a child of WGN and to see that on the precipice of fading away, I can understand the Cubs’ desire to move on.
This survey is just the first of many steps, leading to something new. What that something will be, we might not know for another couple years.