The Cubs announced Wednesday the launch of their own TV network, Marquee Sports Network, in conjunction with Sinclair Broadcasting Group. The regional sports network will begin broadcasting in 2020. The Sun-Times first reported the arrangement in December.
‘‘We are excited to better serve our fans with expanded and exclusive programming showcasing our remarkable players, beloved ballpark and storied past,’’ Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney said in a statement. ‘‘Our dedicated Cubs-centric network will carry all available Cubs games and feature uncompromising, in-depth and behind-the-scenes coverage.’’
According to the announcement, play-by-play voice Len Kasper and analyst Jim Deshaies will continue to call the games. The network will need to hire more on-air talent for other programming to fill the 24/7, year-round operation. The announcement said the network would carry unique Cubs content, and Kenney said at the Cubs Convention that non-local teams might be involved.
While Marquee will be the exclusive TV home of the Cubs, some games will be available on national networks, such as ESPN and Fox. The Cubs aren’t expected to put games on WGN or ABC7 as they try to maximize the value of their network in deals with cable and satellite distributors. But if there’s enough negative reaction, perhaps the Cubs will put a package of games on over-the-air TV to assuage the masses.
The biggest issues facing Cubs fans are where the games will be available and how much it will cost to watch them. Obviously, the Cubs will push for every cable and satellite provider in their coverage area to carry Marquee. Despite the team’s following, it might not be so easy.
Industry insiders expect the Cubs to ask for $6 to $7 per subscriber per month. Comcast, the largest cable provider in the area, has about 2.5 million customers in the Chicago DMA (designated market area, which includes suburbs). On the low end, that would cost Comcast roughly $15 million, which inevitably will wind up
on customers’ bills.
There’s at least one provider that more than likely won’t carry Marquee: Dish Network. The satellite company always has fought adding new RSNs because of their cost. Dish still doesn’t carry the Yankees’ YES Network, which launched in 2002 and costs almost $7 per month per subscriber, according to media research firm SNL Kagan.
A similar battle has been waged in Los Angeles, where only one provider, Charter Communications, has carried the Dodgers’ SportsNet LA since its launch in 2014. The worst-case scenario occurred in Houston, where the Astros’ and Rockets’ Comcast SportsNet Houston failed because of its inability to attain carriage agreements
Keep in mind that local providers already are paying for one RSN, NBC Sports Chicago, which costs close to $5 per subscriber per month, according to SNL Kagan. And that cost will cover three pro teams — the Blackhawks, Bulls and White Sox — plus area college teams when the Cubs depart after this season.
The Cubs didn’t pick the most opportune time to start a network, with cord-cutting on the rise and TV viewing platforms plentiful. But live sports still generate big bucks — YES, which also carries the NBA’s Nets, has been valued at roughly $4 billion — and the Cubs have the fan base to attract ratings.
Sinclair’s involvement has many people concerned it will assert its conservative political leaning at the network. But industry sources say Sinclair’s primary role will be to distribute Marquee. Sinclair is the largest TV operator in the nation with 191 stations.