[The second of four Convention Info Dump pieces today. Earlier, I discussed the fundamental spending question.]
Apropos of the earlier financial discussion – and, in some ways, superseding it – the Cubs’ future broadcasting rights were among the most important topics addressed this weekend. As I wrote last week, the television landscape is changing in a way that makes the Cubs’ efforts to secure a big-money, long-term television rights contract a matter of both preeminent importance and serious urgency. The Cubs’ TV rights deal with WGN – for about 70 of their 162 games – expires after 2014, and the Cubs’ TV rights deal with CSN – for the remaining games – expires after 2019. Rumors flew last week about the Cubs inking a new deal with a suitor like FOX, who could have an interest in locking in the Cubs’ long-term rights as soon as possible (even if the full slate won’t kick in for them until 2020). That kind of mega deal would fundamentally change the way we view the Cubs’ financial situation, partially neutering any spending concerns fans might have going forward.*
*(Well, that is to say, if the Cubs land a deal that pays them, long-term, $150 to $200 million per season for their TV rights (those numbers are entirely hypothetical), there should never again be a question about the organization’s ability to spend at least up to the luxury tax cap if the players are there that they want.)
Where do things stand on that front?
- At the owners panel, Tom Ricketts mentioned that the Cubs have “old” TV contracts, which put them at a disadvantage compared to teams that have recently inked new deals. It’s no secret that the big money TV deals are driving much of the spending in baseball – the teams that have the big new deals are spending huge. The teams that don’t, aren’t.
- Ricketts praised WGN TV as a long-time partner of the team, but said there are shifting dynamics in the TV market. Todd Ricketts interjected that WGN is changing, too (presumably an allusion to their increased focus on national programming), and it felt like the groundwork was being laid for the Cubs to depart WGN TV, and for the fans to come to terms with and accept it. To be clear: this is merely how I perceived their responses. Strictly speaking, all that was said was that the WGN TV deal was up after this year, the Cubs have loved their time with WGN, things are being negotiated, and we’ll see what happens.
- At the business panel, business president Crane Kenney also discussed the TV contracts as being outdated in today’s market. While he did not go into specifics on possible future partners, Kenney did leave open the possibility that WGN TV could stay in the fold after 2014 with a smaller package of games. I presume that those kinds of discussions are ongoing. Keep in mind: even if the Cubs landed a mega deal with FOX for the WGN games from 2015 through 2019 (and then the full slate thereafter), FOX might not be able to broadcast all of the Cubs’ games because of programming conflicts. Maybe there’s a way, then, to keep WGN in the fold as a kind of offloading channel? I can immediately see scheduling problems with that, though (not the least of which is to mention that WGN, itself, is trying to enter the original content market more aggressively at the national level). So, who knows. The point is: Kenney left open the possibility of some games staying on WGN.
- The radio piece of the broadcasting rights pie is, in terms of dollars, much smaller, but still deserves a note here: Kenney said that the Cubs have always appreciated their partnership with WGN Radio, and negotiations on that front are ongoing. He said that there would probably be something to announce by Opening Day. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Cubs are sticking with WGN Radio, but I did get a much more positive sense that the relationship with WGN Radio would continue, as opposed to WGN TV.
- On the balance, the TV question was actually relatively little discussed at the Convention, especially when you consider how important it is. My guess is that, because negotiations are ongoing – and perhaps advanced – no one was going to say anything to gum anything up. So it was mostly avoided as a subject.