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Cubs Fri Feb 22 2013
TV contracts in Major League Baseball have exploded in dollars, and therefore importance when it comes to a franchise's finances. To make a bid at even a segment of games for a particular franchise, you better have a quarter billion George Washingtons to prevent being laughed out of the room.
With teams like the Rangers, Angels, and Dodgers setting record after record for money they'll earn for the right to broadcast their baseball games, the status quo has quickly become horribly outdated for a team like the Cubs.
In 2014, the team's contract with WGN-TV will expire. It's hard to imagine the Cubs not playing on channel nine (or whatever goofy number your cable carrier has assigned the station to), but those days will more than likely come to an end once the deal has run its course. It's all about the Benjamins now.
Some will argue that the team should remain on the station for nostalgic purposes, or at the very least, to keep gaining new fans by being one of two teams on national basic cable (the White Sox play roughly 30 games on WGN, compared to roughly 70 for the Cubs), but that line of thinking is outdated. With the MLB Network and MLB Extra Innings along with frequent broadcasts on ESPN, FOX, and TBS thriving, being a national brand doesn't require an exclusive contract with a national broadcaster anymore.
Instead, the Cubs will probably (and should) look to copy what other teams have done. A 150-plus game package with Comcast SportsNet Chicago (whose contract runs until 2019 with the team) is a legitimate possibility, mostly because the Ricketts family has a 20 percent stake in the network as a part of buying the Cubs from the Tribune company. The problem with that idea is that 40 percent of the network is owned by Jerry Reinsdorf because of his dual ownership of the White Sox and Bulls (Rocky Wirtz and NBC split the last 40). As the majority stakeholder, will he want to pay a substantial amount of money to televise games of his competition? One might think that's unlikely, but Reinsdorf is a businessman at his core, and won't immediately disregard an opportunity to make a boatload of money.
The best bet is that the Cubs will begin creating their own network to roll out all 162 games for the 2020 season. It's still far off, but not too early to being planning when you're talking about billions of dollars being at stake. Is it a money grab? Sure, but the Cubs need it.
Though the details are sketchy (MLB does a pretty good job keeping franchise purchase details close to the vest), the Ricketts family didn't pay all cash to buy the Cubs from the Tribune Company, and need additional funds to pay off the debt they owe on the sale. On top of that, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer hope to have a contending team for a few years by that point, and will need money to lure free agents and sign home grown talent to long term contracts in the face of other franchises that are flush with cash.
The Cubs will surely lose their frequent national exposure on WGN, but hope to make up for it with a perpetually successful team. There's no better way to attract new customers. Just ask the Yankees. But you can talk baseball and what's best for the franchise all you want; the decision will come down to one thing: "It's about money. Just goddamn money."