The Chicago Cubs are doing juuuuust fine financially these days thanks to savvy development in and around Wrigley Field, wise investments, beefed up business and marketing operations, and, of course, success on the field. But the crazy thing is that they still aren’t even pumping oil at full capacity.
While the Cubs’ current TV broadcast rights deals are not terrible by any stretch, they are also a fractured set of three agreements, splitting their games between NBC Sports Chicago, WGN, and ABC, signed a good many years ago. Those deals are up simultaneously after this coming 2019 season, which means the Cubs are deep – and have long been in deep, frankly – discussions with potential future partners on what their next TV deal will look like.
As we’ve discussed at length, the current landscape for baseball rights deals is this strange, nebulous void between the old-old world (traditional rights contracts – some provider pays you $X million per year for your rights, and they deal with it from there), the old world (form your own regional sports network and try to get cable and satellite providers to carry it), the current world (cord cutting is making cable and satellite providers uneasy about paying huge carriage fees for these regional sports networks), and the future world (everything is streaming, and MLB figures out how to better allow its teams to manage their own streaming rights). It’s all quite complicated, and the very popular Cubs are something of a test case for this crazy era.
For now, and by public reports, the Cubs still plan to form their own regional sports network – a new channel on your cable lineup – even at a time when doing so is very risky. The upside, you see, is extraordinarily lucrative if your channel is a hit (*AND* if there is some way to incorporate the streaming arm (currently, all streaming rights are controlled by MLB, not the individual teams)). I totally get the Cubs’ thinking here, even if it makes me nervous for fans who may find their provider not carrying the Cubs new channel for a while, and nervous for the Cubs, who’ll be exposed to the downside risk of a carriage flop.
A decision will need to be made very soon if the Cubs are going to ramp up into full production for Spring Training 2020, though (1) it seems like they’re already getting a lot of in-house expertise in the form of Cubs Productions, and (2) if they partner with a network or a distributor in creating their new channel, then some of that production ramp-up will be much faster.
Against all of that backdrop, the one bit of good news all along has been that the Cubs remain very popular. Whatever path they choose, having the ability to show what a valuable product you have is going to be a very good thing:
Top ratings on RSNs for 2018: Cardinals, Red Sox, Indian’s, Brewers, Cubs, Royals, Pirates, Astros, Mariners. Worst rated: W Sox, A’s, Marlins, Angels, Rangers, Dodgers (carriage issues), Padres, Mets, Orioles, Rays via @ForbesSports More at link: https://t.co/MHCsS34OnG
— Maury Brown (@BizballMaury) October 5, 2018
As Forbes details, when the Cubs were on in primetime in Chicago, they were the top show on TV. Moreover, the only teams that saw more households tuning in for their games this past season: the Yankees (by a ton) and the Red Sox (by a little).
Imagine a world where the Cubs have the third largest TV deal in baseball, behind only those two clubs. Suffice to say, you’d be talking about an annual bump in revenue of upwards of $100 million, much of which could be funneled right into baseball operations.
As I said at the top: the Cubs are already doing very well financially, and spending aggressively. But soon, they could be in an entirely different tier. I can almost hear Cubs business president Crane Kenney offering in a presentation to a potential partner: “It’s a good time to be us.”