Sports media: Will Chicago teams leave WGN-TV without any sports?

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Harry Caray and Steve Stone helped the Cubs create a national following on WGN-TV. Now, the station might not only lose the Cubs, but the Blackhawks, Bulls and White Sox, as well. WGN-TV

With the Cubs starting their own TV network, and the Blackhawks, Bulls and White Sox agreeing to an exclusive local-rights deal with NBC Sports Chicago, I’ve been wondering: What happens to WGN?

Will Chicago’s Very Own carry none of its very own teams?

As of this writing, the answer is yes.

The White Sox game Sept. 28 could be historic in that, for the time being, it’s the last scheduled game broadcast on WGN. The station has been carrying Chicago’s pro sports teams since its inception in 1948, beginning with the Cubs. The Hawks, Bulls and Sox have been on and off WGN’s air over the years, but all four teams are seemingly going out together.

When asked what the future holds for WGN Sports, Gary Weitman, senior vice president of corporate relations for Tribune Media, provided this statement:

“The WGN team is focused on providing great telecasts for its viewers for the remainder of the season for the Blackhawks and Bulls and can’t wait to get started on its 72nd consecutive year of Cubs baseball, followed by White Sox baseball. We’re proud of the great relationships we have with Chicago’s sports franchises, and we look forward to working through this year to seeing what the future may hold.”

Chicagoans have long been accustomed to sports on free TV. There isn’t another city in the country that enjoys over-the-air access to this many local pro teams and games. But the almighty dollar has pushed teams onto regional sports networks (RSNs), such as NBCSCH and the Cubs’ fledgling Marquee Sports Network.

But all isn’t lost yet. The RSNs could sell a number of games to WGN, allowing those with access to only over-the-air TV to watch, but not as much as they’re used to. In New York, for example, the Yankees and Mets, who are the majority owners of their own network, sell a package of games to WPIX. The Yankees will air 21 games over the air and the Mets 25.

Those games cost WPIX anywhere from $300,000 to $600,000 each, and that’s before production costs. The Yankees’ YES Network and the Mets’ SNY produce the games for WPIX, which likely sees the boost in viewership as worth the expense.

Baseball is the ideal sport for such an arrangement because of the number of games available. The Yankees and Mets can afford to sell off a game per week with roughly 150 games available after the national networks select their share.

But there’s another reason behind the arrangement: politics. To help avoid the blowback from local politicians for taking their games off over-the-air TV and preventing lower-income fans from watching, the Yankees and Mets give back to the community, so to speak, by selling games to WPIX.

Which begs the question: If there’s enough of an uproar here about games being removed from over-the-air TV from aldermen and their constituents – or perhaps a new mayor looking to appease the masses – might NBCSCH and Marquee consider giving back?

This would work best with the Cubs and Sox given their inventory of games. WGN will air 45 Cubs games this season and 55 White Sox games. But the Hawks made a point of returning to WGN when they finally put all of their games on TV in 2008. They’ve been airing 20 games a year. The Bulls have been on WGN since the 1989-90 season. They’ve aired 35 games on the station the last two years. Would both teams turn their back just like that?

The team to watch here is the Cubs. They have the longest history with WGN, the largest fan base of the four teams and a new network to promote. It might be in their best interest to keep a package of games on WGN to try to convince viewers Marquee is worth the price, whatever that is. Perhaps some struggles with distribution will force their hand. The Dodgers, who are available on just one distributor in Southern California, are putting 10 games on KTLA this season.

Or maybe the Cubs will feel the public pressure from ending a 70-plus year relationship that gave them the enormous following that’s allowing them to start a network.

WGN wants to air games. The station knows it will never carry the amount it used to, but just being able to air some games of the Bulls, Cubs, Hawks and Sox has made it a unique station nationwide. It would be a shame for such an institution to lose that distinction.

Do-over for WGN score bug

Speaking of WGN, give the production crew props for addressing the issues with its baseball score bug, which returned with the Cubs’ spring-training game Saturday. It’s bigger, better organized and more colorful, and team logos stay on the screen as opposed to flashing only when a team scores.

<em>New score bug, which debuted Saturday.</em>

New score bug, which debuted Saturday.

<em>Score bug from last year.</em>

Score bug from last year.

Other elements of the graphics package remain too small and information too compact. But the score bug is the most important piece because it provides the most important information and gets the most airtime. A win for viewers.

ESPN 1000 debuts gambling show

Mike North is back on the air in Chicago. The Score original who had retired from the sports-media scene moves down the dial to join Carmen DeFalco on ESPN 1000’s sports-betting show “The ODDS Couple.” The one-hour show will debut at 6 p.m. Friday and air weekly.

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