The Chicago Cubs open their season in just three days, which means if Marquee Sports Network wants all Cubs games available to fans in the Chicago area, it needs to lock down a carriage deal with Comcast’s Xfinity service almost immediately. The clock has been ticking for almost a year now, and while Comcast has been content to play chicken (they weren’t really losing anything by doing so), they are now at the precipice of actually seeing whether they would lose subscribers over the lack of Cubs games.
… but the Cubs and Marquee, interestingly, are not blasting that particular message out into the world just yet.
We’ve all seen it plenty in these carriage negotiation/dispute situations. Things aren’t getting done, so the content creator decides to start letting everyone in the area know that they are about to miss out because the greedy, villainous cable provider is not agreeing to a deal to pick up a channel. The hope is that subscribers will deluge their provider with angry phone calls about cancelling service, and that will pressure a deal.
We haven’t seen that from the Cubs and Marquee yet. Maybe if a deal doesn’t get done with Comcast this week we will start seeing it, but it could leave you feeling slightly optimistic that negotiations haven’t totally gone south just yet.
To that end, some supporting evidence reported by the Tribune, as they note the Cubs and Marquee *HAVE* just now started going the attack ad route, not with Comcast, but with YouTube TV:
Marquee Sports Network ads target YouTube TV as Chicago Cubs opening day gets closer and the team and Sinclair Broadcasting attempt to move Google to deal and carry games https://t.co/J7JgatpZjz
— Chicago Tribune (@chicagotribune) July 21, 2020
The ads, which are running on Facebook and Instagram according to the Tribune report, basically push users to explore their options outside of YouTube TV (i.e., Hulu+ Live TV) if they want Cubs games.
Of course, you can’t say this is entirely outside the scope of the Comcast negotiations, since having another digital carrier like YouTube TV in the portfolio might apply even more pressure to Comcast. The window to get that kind of back-and-forth leverage playing done, however, is tiny. The Cubs have long said they are confident a deal will get done, but there’s only so much time left for ads to work and pressure campaigns to be exerted.
A reminder: Marquee and Sinclair, the Cubs’ partner in the network who has been handling most of the negotiations, locked down deals with all other providers in their territory long ago, outside of Comcast, YouTube TV, and DISH (which is not carrying RSNs right now). The terms offered by Marquee are not particularly onerous (I’ve done my research), and although the Cubs can and will be blasted by many for creating their own network at all in this environment, blasting them specifically for not getting a deal done with Comcast is probably pointing your phasers too much at the wrong party. Other providers have been content to carry this channel at the price sought by Marquee. Comcast has not.
Another reminder: Sinclair owns the FOX RSNs that reportedly also have carriage deals with Comcast expiring next month. It’s entirely possible that those much larger negotiations have Marquee wrapped up within them, which could cut a couple ways.
On the one hand, Sinclair wields the leverage to say, “Yo, Comcast, either take all these channels at our prices or lose them all, all over the country, in the middle of the return of sports.” That’s pretty much why Sinclair has sought to have an interest in all these RSNs in the first place.
On the other hand, if that’s really their plan with respect to Marquee, then Cubs fans get screwed, because there isn’t already a carriage deal in place – the deal sought for that channel is a brand new deal, not a renewal. So while Cardinals fans would still have their games on Fox Sports Midwest on Opening Day, with the Sinclair-Comcast fight going on under the hood, Cubs fans could be locked out until there’s a resolution in mid-August. To be sure, we don’t know that Marquee will be rolled up like this in the negotiations – indeed, Sinclair has a stake in the Yankees’ YES Network, and those negotiations have generally proceeded totally outside the broader Sinclair negotiations.