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Sports media: Cubs might be served cold Dish in carriage talks

Dish Network’s threat to keep the 21 Fox regional sports networks out of its lineup doesn’t bode well for Marquee.

The Cubs are preparing to launch Marquee Sports Network in February. They might run into trouble in carriage talks with Dish Network, which is in a dispute with the 21 Fox regional sports networks.
The Cubs are preparing to launch Marquee Sports Network in February. They might run into trouble in carriage talks with Dish Network, which is in a dispute with the 21 Fox regional sports networks.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

A Fox Sports regional network hasn’t carried Chicago teams’ games since 2004, and since 2006, there hasn’t even been a Fox regional sports network in this market. But its specter might hover over the Cubs’ efforts to distribute their new TV network as widely as possible.

The 21 Fox regional sports networks — which are under Disney’s purview until the company sells them to Sinclair — were taken off the air on Dish Network late last month. The RSNs and the satellite provider couldn’t agree on a new carriage deal, so Dish customers who are Brewers or Cardinals fans, for example, can’t watch a vast majority of their team’s games.

Cubs fans might take delight in the matter, but what goes around might come around, particularly for Dish customers, as the Cubs prepare to launch Marquee Sports Network in February. Dish chairman Charlie Ergen painted a bleak picture for the future of RSNs with his company.

“It doesn’t look good that the regional sports will ever be on Dish again,” Ergen said in a second-quarter earnings call, according to Ad Age. “The frustrating thing is, they are not very good economic deals for us. We have real data that tells us that the channels are overpriced, and Fox had a lot of leverage to get people to overpay when they owned them.”

Dish senior vice president of programming Andy LeCuyer continued the rhetoric in a release:

“The regional sports TV business model is broken. It relies on the majority of customers subsidizing the slim minority who actually watch these channels. RSNs should be like a ticket to the ballpark — fans who want to watch the game should be the ones who pay for it.”

Sinclair, the Cubs’ partner in their TV venture, is in the process of purchasing the Fox RSNs from Disney, which acquired them as part of its purchase of 21st Century Fox but must sell them to avoid issues with antitrust laws. Those channels — plus YES, the Yankees’ home, which was under the Fox umbrella but is being sold back to the team — reportedly were valued at around $20 billion. But Sinclair will pay about $10 billion, perhaps an indication of RSNs’ diminishing power during a time of cord-cutting.

What does it all mean for Marquee? The nascent network declined to comment, but it’s apparent that casting Marquee’s signal far and wide won’t be easy. Dish appears to be the team’s first obstacle. Granted, its service isn’t as prevalent in the market as Comcast cable, but its sentiment might be. Sinclair likely will use its almost 200 local TV stations as leverage, but the Cubs might have to rely on the depth of their fans’ devotion to thwart any carriage issues that arise.

With roughly six months to go before Marquee’s launch, Dish and Comcast spokespeople had nothing to report regarding carriage talks. History shows negotiations tend to go down to the wire, so time isn’t of the essence. But the Dodgers are in their sixth season appearing on only one provider in Southern California. And Dish has never carried YES.

Talk about a specter.

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