Although I am currently writing a lengthy piece on some of Chairman and Owner Tom Ricketts’ comments yesterday about the financial future of the Chicago Cubs – the Wrigley renovation, the TV deal, the team payroll, etc. – I felt compelled to note, specifically, his comments about the Cubs’ future on WGN-TV.
If you’ve been paying attention at all – which is to say, if you’ve been following the TV deal story around these parts – you know the following things: (1) local televisions rights contracts in baseball are exploding in value; (2) the Cubs currently have deals with CSN Chicago and WGN-TV for their broadcast rights, the latter of which (at least) is way, way under-market; (3) the Cubs’ deal with WGN-TV expires after 2014; and (4) the Cubs plan to shop those rights to get a deal closer to market value.
And if you synthesize those bits of information, you’re left with a pretty obvious conclusion: the Cubs are probably parting ways with WGN-TV after 2014. The Cubs will, of course, give WGN every opportunity to retain games given their long-standing relationship. But, given the fact that the Dodgers just got an average of $1.7 million per game in their new day (approximately $280 million per season for the next 25 years), and the fact that WGN currently pays the Cubs just a tiny fraction of that amount, I’m not optimistic that WGN will offer top dollar. (And, given changes in their strategic television plans upon the Tribune Company – WGN’s parent company – exiting bankruptcy, I’m not so sure that WGN is going to be all that troubled at the prospect of losing the Cubs. More about that in a subsequent piece.) If the Cubs can cash in on the television rights bubble before it bursts, they’ve got to do it.
That is all to say that, when Tom Ricketts said yesterday that the Cubs are going to explore their television rights options, and wouldn’t commit to a long-term future with WGN, it was hard to be surprised. In fact, he went further than I would have expected by addressing WGN, directly, and saying that the national following the station has helped develop will be “a factor” in their broadcast rights future.
Obviously, if WGN goes away, there will be a drop-off in new, national Chicago Cubs fans. Nobody likes that. Then again, that drop-off would be more than offset by the theoretical increase in dollars and competitiveness (a consistently good Cubs organization is going to generate more fans than a few low-rated national television broadcasts). Will the Cubs try to keep a handful of games on WGN for nostalgia and that national product? Maybe. But whoever comes in to bid on the Cubs’ rights is going to want as many games as possible – and they already won’t be able to get the half of the games that are currently promised to CSN through 2019, unless that agreement is restructured.
In other words, I don’t believe we’re going to be seeing the Cubs on WGN after 2014. Things can always change, but that’s the reality you should be bracing yourself for, if you weren’t already.
I am a Chicago Cubs fan because of WGN, and it would be sad to see them leave. But the (financial) times, they are a-changin’. To compete at the highest level, consistently, the Cubs have to consider their broadcast rights options with a much wider lens than they might have 20 years ago.