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Cubs Tue Jan 13 2015

Cubs Fans Outside of Chicago in TV Limbo

Chicago CubsIt took much longer than most people thought it would, but after the Cubs and WGN came to an agreement last week on the remaining 45 games where the Cubs lacked a television partner, the near-term future of watching the team was put to rest. That is, if you live in Chicago.

When I was growing up in rural Shannon, Illinois -- a couple hours west of our fair city -- I became a Cubs fan because of their hats: blue with a red C, matching up perfectly with my favorite colors and the first letter of my name (lay off me -- I was 5). But the only reason I got the opportunity to see them was because of their unique television contract with WGN the superstation. It's how countless people in every corner of the country came to love a team that really wasn't very good.

Fast forward to now, in a day and age where almost every major league team carries a high majority of their games on regional cable networks to guarantee their team's games can be seen by a wide audience, the Cubs are going in the opposite direction because they lack negotiating power.

WGN the superstation announced last year that they were getting out of the regional sports network business. That meant no more Bulls or Cubs games on a channel that reached nearly every American with a basic cable package. The station that helped build one of the largest fanbases in professional sports wants to become a real television network on par with ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX -- and their first step was to cut ties they had with a major programming item they thought was holding them back.

WGN Channel 9, the local CW station that will be carrying those WGN-affiliated Cubs and Bulls games for the foreseeable future, already has agreements in place for the Bulls. They've contracted out to local television stations in Rockford, Peoria, Springfield, South Bend and the Quad Cities to carry the remainder of the WGN-based Bulls games this season, and those relationships (or similar ones with different stations in those markets) will likely hold up for future seasons.

With the Cubs so far behind in the game when it comes to getting television contracts lined up to expire at the same time their Comcast deal is up after the 2019 season, they, along with ABC 7 and WGN, probably haven't had time to line up distribution to a wider audience yet. WGN might just approach the same stations that re-broadcast the Bulls to carry the Cubs as well, but the footprint probably isn't big enough to satisfy the larger Cubs fanbase. Most of Iowa is dominated by Cubs fandom according to data compiled by Facebook in March of 2014, and a single station in the Quad Cities isn't going to do the trick for all of them.

And even if WGN leans on their current Bulls partnerships, along with some additional stations in central and western Iowa, that still doesn't take care of the 25 games that local ABC 7 has agreed to broadcast over the next five seasons. They would need to negotiate deals on their own, hopefully pairing up with local ABC affiliates in the same markets WGN utilizes. The only issue there is ABC is a far more popular programming option when it comes to network dramas and comedies than the CW (WGN's network affiliation), and those local stations might not see the benefit of preempting popular primetime shows for a Cubs night game (remember, there are more of those now). Luckily, the more popular shows typically go on hiatus during the summer because most of America can be outside in the sun well into the evening hours, but it's a much more complicated situation than what WGN has.

When the Cubs kickoff their local television broadcasts on Tuesday, April 7 against the Cardinals, everything could be just fine for a large majority of Cubs fans in northern Indiana, northern and central Illinois, southern Wisconsin, and all of Iowa -- but it's nowhere near a guarantee. It's made harder since the broadcast rights have only been agreed to in the last month, and these stations have to do the work of selling advertising during the games first to ensure they're making money or at least breaking even. It's also not easy when someone outside the Chicago market logs onto the Cubs website, sees the game is on WGN or ABC 7, and then has to go channel surfing to find the local station the game might be on.

These aren't the kind of problems the Cubs want to be dealing with during a season in which they hope to take a large leap forward into possible contention. Unfortunately, it's the nature of the beast for a team that plans to start its own network in 2020. They didn't have much of a negotiating position because they couldn't offer a large number of games or a long-term deal in the standard 10-20 year range when it comes to local television rights. The folks in Chicago are all just fine, but the fans outside could be staring at a blank television from afar.

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JEFF / January 16, 2015 8:26 PM

I used to be a 'season ticket holder', back in the day when it was Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ronnie Santo & Joe Pepitone. Now that I'm retired & living in Southern Nevada, WGN AMERICA is pulling away from showing ANY local sport teams! What gives? Not worth it!

Tom / January 21, 2015 2:44 PM

Its a shame for those of us who are from Chicago and have watched the Cubs since Black and White TV. Not to have an opportunity to watch the Chicago Cubs on TV is just not right. Even us in Las Vegas enjoy our Cubs

Robb / April 13, 2015 5:46 PM

Just stumbled upon this post as I was frantically searching for a way for my dad to catch the Cubs. We live in Springfield, MO in the heart of Cardinal country and we just found that our local cable provider dropped WGN last week. For 76 years my dad has suffered with this team. Who knows, maybe not being disappointed every year will add a few years to his life. So sad how the Cubs have turned their backs on loyal fans.

Paul / October 10, 2015 1:55 AM

White Sox and Blackhawks, too.

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