They have the must-see programming. The most boisterous, fawning Cubs Convention in years proved that much over the weekend.
But do the Cubs have any idea on what channel anybody will be able to find that programming even two or three years from now?
“All I know is that maybe aside from changing leadership in baseball, it’s the biggest decision we have,” chairman Tom Ricketts said during Cubs Convention over the weekend. “So we’ve got to get it right.”
Rough translation: Now that Theo Epstein has done his part to produce a baseball drama nobody can take their eyes off, it’s up to business president Crane Kenney to make it pay off with the kind of regional TV deal that can support a long-running show.
If the remote is in Kenney’s hand, he’s still channel surfing.
“Everything’s an option,” Kenney said of efforts to maximize the local TV-revenue potential in a fast-changing media-rights landscape. “Can I predict exactly what 2019’s going to look like? No, I can’t.”
The option that has produced the most noise, especially in recent months, is the creation of a team-owned network for Cubs/baseball-only content. Kenney had spoken publicly of it in terms of concrete plans recently, but both he and Ricketts said over the weekend it remains just one of multiple options for their next move.
“I can’t predict what’s going to happen in the next three or four years,” Kenney said. “We know one thing we can control is launching our own network, so we’re focused 100 percent on that. As we have conversations which are ongoing with all sorts of partners, if somebody offers us something dramatically better, we’ll of course look at that.”
He said a Cubs network would be a joint venture with a distribution or content partner and would be projected to launch by 2018 “because you need a two-year runway.”
Of course, one benefit of so publicly focusing “100 percent” on a team network is the potential for strengthening negotiating position on a more traditional deal with an existing outlet.
The Cubs have talked extensively with the outlet perhaps best equipped to start the bigger revenues flowing much sooner than 2020: current rights-holder (for more than half the schedule) Comcast SportsNet. The Cubs own a 25-percent stake in CSN.
A source familiar with the Cubs’ efforts say CSN has proposed deals “close” to what the Cubs seek but not close enough that a deal looks possible anytime soon.
The Cubs may have missed the height of the regional-rights megadeal era that produced 17- to 25-year deals ranging in average total value from $900,000 to more than $2 million per game for teams such as the Phillies, Yankees, Angels, Rangers and – in particular — the Dodgers.
Kenney said deals like the Dodgers’ no-risk $8.35 billion deal with Time Warner Cable “will never happen again” after the losses Time Warner absorbed through carriage issues that prevent two-thirds of the Los Angeles market from getting the games.
Any direction the Cubs take will carry some risk, Kenney said, as the way people buy and consume mobile and home TV programming evolves.
But that doesn’t mean there’s not a substantial enough rights deal out there that could still be considered the “game-changer” Epstein has been counting on for his baseball plans.
“We love the trajectory of sports rights,” Kenney said. “If you look at any of the recent deals that were done, they’re still going up, so we love that trajectory. We watch with a very wary eye what’s going on in the cable universe, though, and you’d have to be a fool not to pay attention.”