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kid-watching-tvIt probably won’t surprise you to learn that the Chicago Cubs’ TV ratings are down this year. And it probably also won’t surprise you to learn that it marks a slide that pretty much comes in tandem with a slide at the gate, which started after the 2009 season.

Each of Jon Greenberg and Danny Ecker wrote about the Cubs’ ratings decline, and each is worth your time, given the importance of the Cubs’ overall financial picture in what is to come over the next several years.

The short version is that the Cubs’ ratings have dropped another 7% this year, and they now sit in 25th place in the ratings among MLB teams. For an historic, theoretically-popular franchise like the Cubs, that’s obviously very disappointing. (In terms of attendance, at least, the Cubs are basically flat so far this year as compared to last year. The Cubs were at 2.64 million last year, and if they were somehow able to stay above 2.5 million this year, I think you’d have to regard that as a big win, all things considered.)

About the TV ratings and the impending new TV deal

On the “plus” side, it’s not like the continued TV ratings slide could have been a surprise to anyone paying attention, including the gentlemen who are in charge of securing the Cubs’ next TV deal, which begins next season (and, incredibly, has still not been announced). They knew this is what was coming, and presumably have been negotiating with this is an understood issue all along.

On down side, I had to put the word “plus” in quotes. That’s because there is no plus side to having ridiculously bad ratings – especially ratings that are ridiculously bad relative to the rest of the league – when you’re trying to cash in on the value of your TV broadcasts. Just how bad are these ratings? Well, consider that, of the five teams with lower ratings than the Cubs, two are the Astros and Dodgers – teams with broadcast carriage issues that are artificially driving down their ratings (because lots of folks couldn’t tune in even if they wanted to).

Now then, mitigating some of the awfulness is the fact that (1) the “ratings” system is a notoriously antiquated and unreliable measure of user engagement; (2) the Cubs’ “rating” may have been 25th in baseball, but its reported household viewership total was 21st in baseball. That’s still crummy for a large market, big name team like the Cubs, but it’s a little easier to stomach; and (3) the value in having the Cubs’ TV rights isn’t so much the present ratings – it’s the ratings bonanza you’d see if/when the Cubs are good again.

To that end, it’s a little hard to say for sure how much these crummy ratings are impacting the return the Cubs will see on their next TV deal. Bad ratings can’t help, but with the right salesmanship, I’d think you could still convince the right buyer that what they’re getting in 2015-19 is actually likely to be pretty good. (“Look at these farm system rankings, Mr. Fox Guy!”)

Even if that sales pitch falls flat, the Cubs were never going to be able to secure their biggest payday for the games that are available in 2015. First of all, it’s just half the games (recall, only the WGN portion of the Cubs’ games are now available), which is far less valuable, even on a per-game basis, than if you were getting the whole set. Secondly, and more importantly, the Cubs are selling the games for just the next five years (so that they can synch the full set coming onto the market after 2019, when the CSN deal expires), which isn’t nearly as valuable to a network that wants to guarantee that they’ll have the rights for 20, 25, or 30 years.

So, that is to say, these ratings problems may not necessarily translate into a revenue problem over the next few years. The Cubs are already rumored to be getting creative with their broadcast rights, so we’ll see what happens. I remain hopeful that they can lock in the post-2019 full rights deal at some point before 2019, so that they can start increasing spending with the guaranteed knowledge that the massive revenue increase is coming (and, let’s be honest, before the small chance of a cable bubble burst).

As it stands, we still expect slight revenue increases to come from the new short-term TV deal, together with increases from the renovation and (presumably) better attendance as the team improves over the next few years. But the real, eff-you, luxury-tax-cap-tickling revenue is not likely to come for several more years.

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