Over the past few years, there have been a few primary business-of-baseball storylines that have dominated the Cubs’ world: the renovations and battles at Wrigley Field, the financial state of the Cubs and the debt involved in the purchase, and the broadcast rights contracts for the team.
The first two storylines have largely resolved themselves – or at least have faded into the periphery as the organization’s foundation grew stronger and stronger – but the third has remained a focus, largely because the landscape around broadcast rights continues to change at rapid pace. And it does so at the very time the Cubs have been trying to finalize their next long-term rights contract.
The fundamental challenge for the Cubs: secure the highest-paying *AND* most flexible rights deal when their current deals expire after the 2019 season, but do so against a backdrop of cable-model disruption and streaming rights controlled by the league as a whole. It’s an incredibly complicated time to be a large-market baseball team with extremely valuable rights for sale.
The best bet remains that the Cubs will partner with an existing network or a service provider to create a new regional sports network, and that would be a new channel on your cable lineup. The streaming rights, should they remain the province of MLB and not the Cubs, would be tied to that cable deal (i.e., you could stream games only if you have MLB.tv (out of market) or if you are an authenticated subscriber to a cable package that includes the Cubs channel).
Will things actually play out like that in two years? Doesn’t that still feel like an eternity in this landscape?
Continued good luck with this stuff, Crane Kenney.
In the meantime, we’ve always said that the one thing the Cubs can be doing that can’t hurt the process is to keep putting up great TV ratings. We’ve seen a steady return to relative TV dominance for the Cubs from 2014-16, but we haven’t heard much in the way of updates this season.
Speaking both as a fan and a purveyor of Cubs content, my guess was that the World Series victory combined with an uneven season for the Cubs yielded a general malaise that held down ratings (relative to last year’s growth), and now we’ve got some data points to review.
The good news is that the Cubs remain one of the most watched teams in all of baseball. Maury Brown reports at Forbes that the Cubs were viewed in more households on average this season (through Aug. 20) than all but three other big league teams (Yankees, Mets, Red Sox). The Cubs are still very popular, and a big draw locally in prime time.
The less good news is that the Cubs saw their local ratings slip, according to Brown’s research, by 19% from last year. To be sure, last year’s ratings had the buoy of a league-best team following up on an NLCS run, but the reigning world champions probably should have had a little extra cachet, too.
Will the ratings slide hurt the Cubs in their long-term broadcast rights negotiations? I’m not so sure it will.
Growth in a closed (and shrinking) cable TV market was probably always capped, and last year makes sense for that upper boundary to be explored. I’m not sure how unanticipated this year’s performance would be, and I’m also going to guess that the ratings have steadily improved as we’ve moved into the second half of the season.
Furthermore, the Cubs’ 2017 ratings are still up as compared to their average from 2014-16, as noted by Craig Edwards in his broader take on Brown’s piece.
There’s also the fact that the way ratings are calculated impacts the relative standing – the Cubs, for example, have achieved a better local rating than the Yankees, who’ve had a surprisingly positive season.
In any case, things could probably be rosier on the ratings side of things, but I’d be surprised if that presents more of a hurdle for the Cubs than the overall landscape changes we’ve seen in the cable sports market.
Those changes remain, well, changing. And, as we’ve discussed before, I can’t honestly pretend to have all of the answers for you.