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.

  • FFP

    Could this subject have a bigger impact on building a winning team than any other subject tackled in a story this off-season? Good pick-up Brett (and Liam). We need lots more TV(-type) revenue.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      This and the Wrigley renovation are as big as anything. The TV story, though (until now), seemed a little less imminent.

  • http://Bleachernation Bob

    Leaving WGN could be a huge mistake, Those of us old enough, remember what happened when the White Sox tried SportsVision back in the day. The result was an entire generation of lost Sox fans because Reinsdorf put profit ahead of his fans. To this day, my brother-in law is mortified that his children and grandchildren are all Cub fans, (much to my enjoyment), all because the Sox put profit ahead of fans. I’m sure there is a middle ground, but team needs to look at the history of the White Sox and do their best to avoid their mistakes.

    • Tommy

      Wow Bob! You have a good memory. I had forgotten all about that Sportvision debacle, but I do remember it causing a stir and fans thinking it was all driven by the bottom line (which in fairness, it was).

      I grew up watching both the Cubs and Sox (don’t crucify me), so I am a fan of both. My dad was a huge Cub’s fan, but if they weren’t on T.V., we’d be tuned in to the White Sox broadcast. I remember being disappointed myself when they went to the whole Sportsvision deal because we weren’t going to be spending extra money to watch baseball! How times have changes, huh?

    • fearbobafett

      Part of Sports Vision was that was still in a time that cable or dish or whatever was not pretty much in every houshold. Today’s arena is totally different.

  • cubchymyst

    I don’t think the Cubs become the road draw they are without the national broadcasts on WGN. Since I’ve moved away from Chicago land area WGN has been almost the only way I can watch a cubs game live. I’d like to see the cubs maintain a nation wide broadcast of a portion of their games.

  • cubsin

    I grew up downstate, listening to Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau on WGN radio. I’d occassionally see the Cubs on TV on the Game Of The Week with Dizzy Dean or the Sunday games on the Champaign station when weather conditions were just right. By the time WGN became available on cable, Harry had replaced Jack Brickhouse. I still hear far more games on the radio than I see on TV.

    So I’d miss the “free” games on WGN-TV, but I’ll remain a Cubs fan forever.

  • ihop

    When I think the cubs and wgn I remember warm memories of the 2004-2005 seasons

  • Carne Harris

    Huge mistake if they move away from WGN. If anything they should stop splitting games with CSN and put them ALL back on WGN. I’m an out of state Cubs fan, grew up in Arizona. I wouldn’t be a Cubs fan if it weren’t for WGN. I even choose my cable company on whether they have WGN. WGN plays a big role in the Cubs consistently leading spring training attendance, being near the top on road attendance, and national merchandising. You just can’t overestimate how important it is to have a national media presence year in and year out. 100 times better than being carried on national broadcasts… just when they’re winning… just on weekends. You leave WGN, you substantially lower your market share anywhere there isn’t a team nearby. New baseball fans will pay the $150 for MLB.tv and then the Cubs have a 1 in 30 chance for a new fan like everyone other team. The effects may not be immediately felt, but in 10, 20 years they will… maybe to the point where people say, “Remember when Cubs fans used to come out en masse to road games like Yankee and Red Sox fans still do.”

    • Mick

      But what if Cubs games were on the History Channel, USA, TNT, FX, ABC Family, etc.? WGN isn’t even in the Top-20 for TV ratings.

      • Carne Harris

        Not sure what you’re saying. How does WGN not being a top 20 station keep you from watching Cubs games on it? If you’re saying what if they jumped over to another national channel, I’d be fine with that. I’d be fine with anything that maximizes the number of nationally televised games. But I haven’t heard that as a possibility and don’t see them jumping over to the History Channel anytime soon.

        • Mick

          I was looking at a network change as a way to increase competition and revenues for the Cubs. I’m not in TV network business but I think revenues are greatly tied to ads and ads to viewers. If WGN doesn’t rank in the Top-20 of all cable TV networks for viewers, then how much revenue are they actually generating from ad sales to pay towards the Cubs? Probably less than the top cable networks.

          Top 20 Cable Networks In Primetime: Total Viewers (in millions)/% difference from last year
          1. USA 3.165 +0.3%
          2. Disney Channel 2.647 +3%
          3. ESPN 2.342 -2%
          4. TNT 2.232 -0.8%
          5. History 1.987 +21%
          6. Fox News 1.883 -7%
          7. TBS 1.614 -10%
          8. A&E 1.561 +7%
          9. FX 1.532 +21%
          10. ABC Family 1.462 +1%
          11. Nick At Nite 1.344 -22%
          12. SyFy 1.330 +11%
          13. Discovery 1.288 +2%
          14. Adult Swim 1.237 N.A.
          15. HGTV 1.205 -2%
          16. MTV 1.189 +21%
          17. AMC 1.182 +8%
          18. Food Network 1.177 +3%
          19. Comedy Central 1.006 +3%
          20. Bravo 0.926 +6%

          • Carne Harris

            I’d be down with that. WGN is being carried less and less on cable networks probably because of its sucky ratings. (I know there was some sort of dispute with DirecTV too though I don’t know the details.) My main thing would be to ensure continued national viewership. What % of homes a cable channel’s in multiplied by how many games they’ll broadcast sort of thing. I haven’t heard about any other station having any interest though, but hope they do.

            • wilbur

              To build on this thread WGN and TBS out of Atlanta were ahead of the curve as super stations in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.

              Now, WGN is behind the curve when so much viewership is going to the network game of the week, MLB Network and MLB Internet services. The national market leverage WGN created appears to be a closing window regardless of what the Cubs do. While we’ll miss it, its a shrinking of its own accord among a sea of competitors. WGN is not what national viewers are choosing anyway so the potential for new viewers is shrinking not growing,

              The Cubs should move on as good alternatives make themselves known. I’ve been wondering when the Cubs will make an offer to WGN to buy out the last year or two of the contract and make a deal with CSN.

              It’s the end of an era and that’s emotionally sad, but it’s the start of another era/opportunity. Major revenue gains will come from a Cubs contolled network. If you want to play on the field like a major market team you financials like a major market team.

              Nationwide I do see a marginal erosion of fan interest, but watching the revenue returns for the Yankees on the YES network makes the transition to a Cubs network look very attractive

  • Mick

    I’m not trying to offend anyone here but WGN is garbage. The only reason I EVER watch a WGN program is to watch a Cubs game. Maybe there’s a difference between the WGN I see here in Minneapolis compared to those in the Chicagoland area but their programming is awful. IMO, the Cubs are WAY more valuable to WGN then WGN is to the Cubs. I’d have to question the financials to the Cubs creating their own network and how that would work under the current deal with CSN but looking into other cable networks to carry the minority share of the games could be advantageous. I wonder if there’s anything in MLB’s TV deals that prevents individual teams from seeking deals outside of their local viewing area where, WGN might be an exception since they’re a local TV network who also happens to televise nationally.

    • Al

      Mick, the WGN you and I see is different from the city signal. We get WGN America, which, I agree, isn’t good. Then again, I don’t know if the metro signal is any better as far as programming goes.

  • Spencer

    Tough balancing act…risk losing some potential (or current) fans by going away from WGN, but on the other hand if WGN doesn’t offer the same revenue that another network might, then it’s hard to say no to that other network.

  • Kevin

    The best trifecta ever, the Cubs, Wrigley Field and WGN.

  • TSB

    No WGN Cubs baseball? So out here in LA all I will have is: Dodgers, with Vin Scully telling another Duke Snyder story; Yankees on all national networks; or the Braves and Angels, whose announcers and camera work is not much better than the media department at NIU. What, don’t the Ricketts want the Cubs to have a national fan base, and increased advertising income?

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      The Cubs don’t receive the advertising income from television broadcasts, the television stations do. That’s why they buy the rights to broadcast Cubs games (from the Cubs).

    • Coldneck

      Just curious, how do you see the Braves out on the west coast? TBS hasn’t broadcast a Braves game in 5 years. The only baseball on TBS is the postseason variety. You know why? Because the Braves made a better deal with Peachtree/Fox South and left TBS.

  • XZ

    Let’s be honest, there are barely any Cubs games on WGN as it is. When I was growing up, and when WGN had the biggest effect with regard to drawing new fans, nearly every game was broadcast on the network. What we’re looking at now isn’t eliminating a huge national presence, it’d be losing the last handful of games the network carries. The real damage to WGN’s Cubs viewership was dealt gradually over time, and got things to where they are now.

    WGN’s huge national influence is long since gone; the bulk of the games have been on CSN for a long while now. Also, the baseball broadcast landscape has changed significantly over the past 10-15 years, with more basic cable broadcasts and PPV options like MLBEI and MLBTV. It used to be that if you wanted to watch the Cubs and lived out of the greater Chicagoland area, WGN was your only source. That’s no longer true.

    What all of this is moving towards is a Cubs network (like YES), which will bring in huge revenue. WGN losing the Cubs, is just going to be a step in that direction, albeit a sad one.

    • terencem

      Let’s be honest, there are barely any Cubs games on WGN as it is.

      Since I get WGN America and not what they get in the city, I have no idea what the difference is but this is my perception, too.

      • Spriggs

        Yep, me too. Being out of town, WGN gives me about – what 15 to 20 games a year? Mostly Sunday games. Since that is entirely inadequate, I resort to the MLB Extra Innings Package so I can watch all games (like I used to be able to do on WGN). So WGN is not that relevant to me anymore and I no longer care how many games they do now or how many they did when I was a kid. My wish is for whatever is in the best interest of the Cubs – assuming that helps them win.

        My next preference is to get them off the same station as the White Sox. Just that I hate tuning into Comcast only to see Melton and that other wimp doing the Sox postgame or something. And then watching the news and having to wait through all the Sox details. A Cubs station would be awesome.

  • jim

    Depends on who owns/ buys trib n or wgn after bankruptcy.

  • chris

    I’ve emailed WGNsports in the past with my unhappiness that they carry so few games these days.

    Living in Ohio, I don’t have many options, mlbtv is the answer. It also lets me watch a lot of other games I wouldn’t usually watch.

    The only thing that sucks is their blackouts, but I have a VPN for work and use that

  • bluekoolaidaholic

    I don’t see any comments about the annoying in-play advertisements on WGN. Geez, they don’t get enough with 20 or so breaks between innings and pitcher replacements?

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      People gotta make a living. By the way, have I mentioned the new Mop-o-Matic mop squeezing tool? This thing is revolutionary! Tell ’em Brett from Bleacher Nation sent you!

    • Spriggs

      Even recording a game on WGN is a pain… you have to record like about 13 other shows (all of them horrible) if you want to be assured of catching a whole 3 and 1/2 hour game.

  • ruby2626

    Didn’t I hear something that Ricketts owns a small percentage of Comcast or am I hallucinating. Wonder what effect if any this will have? Brett, does anyone have any idea what it would take to get out of that contract. I would assume like most long term contracts there is some sort of out clause. Really stinks that teams like Texas and Anaheim are getting huge broadcast revenue and then go out and sign a ton of free agents while we’re stuck with an extremely undervalued contract.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      Yes, the Ricketts family purchased a 25% stake in CSN Chicago when they bought the Cubs. But, no, neither I – nor anyone else in the public sphere – knows the contractual details with CSN. Companies keep those details rather private. And the agreement is probably hundreds of pages long, with hundreds of conditions/clauses/outs.

  • mustangs21

    How is someone from south dakota such as myself suppose to watch them if they leave?

  • http://www.obstructedview.net Berselius

    What WGN has done for the fanbase is great, but the Cubs need to base this decision on what the market will be like for the next 30 years, not what it was thirty years ago. Things change.

  • fromthemitten

    If it weren’t for WGN my family (and as a result, me) would not have been Cubs fans

    • kmr1453

      When I moved to Oklahoma back in 1986, I had a choice of either following the Braves or the Cubs due to their Super stations. I opted to become a lovable loser. It would be sad for WGN to no longer carry Cubs games, but if it meant bigger and better things for fans and the team, I’m all for it.

  • Rocket

    Not many kids today are becoming Cubs fans from watching WGN. 30 years ago when ESPN was showing Australian rules football and the internet was for nerds people didn’t have choices. Whoever gives the Cubs the most money gets the TV rights. I don’t care if its Aurora public access or Telemundo.

    • THEOlogical

      They had ESPN and the internet 30 yrs ago?

      • Kyle

        ESPN launched in 1979 and the Internet traces its roots to the 1960s.

        • EQ76

          and Al Gore invented it.

  • Dustin S

    My main concern if the Cubs left WGN would be radio broadcasts. Granted they could be streamed online but I would miss it in the car when travelling. I’d also miss the nostalgia of WGN.

    On the plus side, the extra revenue for the team could help with player or Wrigley improvements. Also, it can be a hassle trying to track down which channel each game is on.

  • nkniacc13

    I would be upset if the cubs went off basic cable. Id hope that they would make an agreement with dish/medicom among others to show games on basic cable if they leave wgn.

  • Johnny Mac

    It’s not just a national presence. When I was on a trip to Costa Rica last spring I ran into locals who noticed by Cubs apparel. Apparently they used to get WGN games down there and a sizable number of Costa Ricans are Cubs fan because of it. Not a big source of revenue I’m sure but still an impressive fact to find fans in other countries.

  • neumann

    That would be a killer for me. I don’t have cable and don’t plan to get it, so WGN is the only way for me to watch the games. I would’ve paid for MLB account, except that with effing blackout rules I can’t use it. Well, hell, there is always WGN radio and illegal stream in 640×360 window.

  • justin

    I surely wouldnt not be a Cubs fan if it wasnt for WGN. Live in VA, go to Chicago once or twice a year for games, given plenty of money to the cubs threw tickets/clothes/anything with a cubs logo. And i know plenty of people in VA who are in the same boat as i am, WGN has been great for us Cubs fans, and would be a shame to see it go.

  • Josh

    I really hope the Cubs don’t start their own channel like YES. Why? Check out what’s going on with Time Warner Sports Network in LA. (Also known as the Lakers Network.) Essentially, you can’t get it unless you’re a Time Warner customer. Or the Pac-12 Network for that matter, which isn’t quite as bad but still bad.

    The number of Regional Sports Networks has hit the saturation point. There isn’t room for any more. Starting their own channel could mean years of no Cubs on television unless you subscribe to the one television provider they gave an ownership share to. The Cubs would go from nationwide games to not even being able to get their games carried throughout Chicagoland.

    If they really need a network they own, start buying out the other partners on CSN Chicago.

  • J.T.

    My suggestion: Have CSN show the games locally and carry them out of market on WGN America. That way they take advantage of the pay TV boom and folks around the country still get their superstation fix?