It won’t take much of a preamble to bring you up to speed on the present state of the Chicago Cubs’ TV broadcast rights situation: a little more than half of their games are under contract with CSN through 2019, and the other half are available for 2015. The end.
Ok, so it’s a little more complicated than that, but the upshot is that we still don’t know where the Cubs’ games previously contracted to WGN will be broadcast in 2015, and we don’t know how the rights to those games will impact how the Cubs maximize the value of their full slate of games after 2019. We do know, however, that organizations can change fundamentally when they strike it big on their TV rights, and the Cubs should soon be able to be one of those organizations.
To that end, there is a MUST-READ report in the Tribune today about the Cubs’ near-term and long-term rights. There are too many salient points to note without taking away too much from the original author, so I’ll just say that you should read it.
Therein, Robert Channick reports via sources that the Cubs could announce their plans for the 70ish WGN games for which the rights have expired as soon as this week. Among the options on the table about which we’ve heard before: returning to WGN for those games from 2015 to 2019 (either on WGN-9 or a second WGN/Tribune channel), starting a Cubs network using multicast channels, going with another over-the-air (non-cable) network.
Channick adds another possibility, though, and it’s one that was thought to be all but impossible: CSN could pick up the WGN games from 2015 to 2019 as part of a longer-term deal to get the rights after 2019 for the full slate, and air those guys for now on an overflow channel. I’d heard for a long time that CSN was not interested in doing that right now, but maybe the allure of partnering with the Cubs on an RSN after 2019 is too enticing to risk losing the Cubs to a different partner (that gets their foot in the door starting next year).
I’d still say the CSN option is unlikely, and, indeed, Channick goes over many other possibilities, including the Cubs bringing in outside investors to get the Cubs network option going (with an eye toward the big bucks after 2019, but spreading around some of the risk), as well as the Cubs possibly trying to preserve their own streaming rights.
On that last one, let me go off on a tangent: if there is any chance that MLBAM – the entity that controls all MLB teams’ online streaming rights (think MLB.tv) and spreads the revenue derived therefrom equally among all teams – would let the Cubs control their own local streaming rights in the future, then the Cubs must do anything and everything possible to preserve that option for themselves in whatever deal they ink. Presently, local games are blacked out on MLB.tv, and, if you wanted to watch those games online or on a device, you’d have to do it via whatever local entity holds the team’s broadcast rights. If the Cubs wind up pairing with a network on a new RSN (a Cubs network, for example), then they’ll probably have a bite at that streaming revenue via the RSN anyway.
But, if not, or if there’s some other way to monetize your own streaming rights, especially five years down the road, you’ve got to preserve that value – and try not to spread it around to other teams. Let’s be honest: the cable all-you-can-eat, subscribers-pay-increasing-fees-for-channels-they-don’t-want formula is not long for this world. I’m sure cable companies will be around for decades, but the delivery mechanisms – and RSN’s getting $4 per month from cable subscribers to have SportsNet LA shoved onto the basic package – will not be.
A la carte streaming on TV and other devices is the future (if it isn’t already the present). And although the Cubs couldn’t get every single person in the Chicago broadcast area to pay $4 per month for an online/device/streaming Cubs network, how much could they get per month from folks who love the Cubs? Enough to balance it out? 500,000 subscribers (there are 10 million people in the Chicago metro area) at $30 per month is $180 million per year – or just about as much as the Phillies got for their rights. The Cubs would have all of the upside, and, if they paired with outside investors, they would also spread around some of the risk.
I’m just thinking out loud.
In any case, read the Tribune piece. Let’s hope something comes down this week, and, if so, I can’t wait to unpack it, and the implications for the longer-term deal.