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History lessen: Teams doing WGN disservice by taking their games elsewhere

Pretty soon, the venerable TV station won’t be able to carry games it has aired since 1948. And while it’s strictly business, it’s also a shame.

Lloyd Pettit and Jack Brickhouse are two of the many famous announcers who broadcast sports on WGN TV.
Lloyd Pettit and Jack Brickhouse are two of the many famous announcers who broadcast sports on WGN TV.
Sun-Times

An awkward moment awaits Cubs fans after the team’s first home victory next season.

They’ll be singing “Go, Cubs, Go” and waving their “W” flags when they get to the line “Baseball time is here again, you can catch it all on WGN.”

Then they’ll stop and realize that they can’t.

Sports are giving WGN their two weeks’ notice Friday. After the Cubs make their last appearance Sept. 27 and the Sox make theirs Sept. 28, the games will take their balls and pucks and go elsewhere. It’s nothing personal, they say. It’s strictly business. And they’re right.

But it doesn’t make it any easier to accept.

The Cubs will launch their own network, Marquee Sports Network, in February. The Blackhawks, Bulls and White Sox will make NBC Sports Chicago their home starting Oct. 1. All four teams have aired a package of games on WGN-Ch. 9 for the last decade, and their individual histories with the station predate that.

The Cubs have been on WGN since its inception in 1948, and the Sox have been on and off since then, too. The Blackhawks were on in the 1960s and ’70s before returning in 2008, and the Bulls were on for most of their existence since they began play in 1966.

That history is doing WGN no favors now. Networks with higher subscription fees and larger DMAs (designated market areas) give the teams better deals at their new places. Again, it’s strictly business.

But I can’t shake the sense of disloyalty. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m being overcome by early-onset nostalgia. When I was a kid, I woke up with “The Bozo Show” and went to bed after “The Nine O’Clock News.” Somewhere in the middle was a game.

And those games helped form fan bases. The Cubs are the best example. From 1979 to ’98, when cable superstation WGN carried every game save the ones picked up by national broadcast networks, the Cubs played in front of a nationwide audience every day. Look at the following they’ve had on the road. Sure, many of them are transplants, but many also grew up watching them.

Granted, Chicago has been spoiled for so long. No other city in the country has enjoyed as much over-the-air access to its teams as Chicago. To take everything away in one fell swoop is a drastic change. But it’s strictly business. WGN wasn’t fired. No one is unhappy with anyone. The teams are grateful for all that WGN has done.

This is some way to say thanks.

I held out hope that the teams would keep a small package of games on WGN. I figured it was the least they could do. That ship sailed for the Bulls and Hawks when their 2019-20 broadcast schedules were announced. But the Cubs’ and Sox’ broadcast schedules won’t be released for months. So I’m holding out hope for that, as futile as it seems.

The Cubs reiterated to me that Marquee will carry all games not picked up by the national networks, and NBCSCH maintained its exclusivity of the Sox. But if there’s one sport that has volume to share, it’s baseball.

New York has the perfect model. This season, the Yankees took 21 games off their YES Network and put them on over-the-air WPIX. The Mets took 25 off their SportsNet New York and did the same. If they can do it there, why not here?

Don’t get me wrong: Teams have the right to monetize their games as they see fit. But spreading the wealth could benefit them, too. The Cubs could use WGN to promote Marquee and drum up interest for it. Both teams could use WGN to reach viewers who don’t have cable, a group that isn’t shrinking in an era of cord-cutting and streaming services.

It’s also good public relations. This season, the Cubs will put 70 games over the air on WGN and WLS-Ch. 7. The Sox will put 55 on WGN. To take those numbers to zero in this market is unconscionable.

I can hear some people telling me to get over it. The Cubs already left WGN Radio, an institution in itself, and now Sox games can be heard there. That’s still strange to me. And I realize we’re talking about sports television here. There are far greater injustices in the world.

I also know this is strictly business – and sometimes business isn’t fair.