At some point, the Cubs will lose the excuse they gave in spring training for a winter of inactivity that played a large role in their demise this season.
“We don’t have any more [money],” chairman Tom Ricketts said plainly in February after the team passed on potentially helpful free agents and let others remain unsigned.
Well, more money is coming, but according to president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, it’s not exactly around the corner.
If you’ve missed the billboards above area expressways or the radio and TV commercials during games, Marquee Sports Network is coming in February. After the Cubs sign off on WGN-Channel 9 on Friday and WLS-Channel 7 on Sunday, the over-the-air era of sports TV in Chicago will end.
The team will broadcast its games on cable and satellite providers, if all goes as planned, which presumably will raise customers’ rates whether they watch the games or not. Add in the advertising revenue that will follow, and the Cubs, along with partner Sinclair Broadcast Group, seemingly will have themselves a golden goose.
That’s the sports world we live in, and the Cubs are well within their rights to monetize anything they can. But that goose needs time to grow. So don’t expect the Cubs to have an immediate surge in spending once Marquee hits the airwaves
“The new TV deal, at least for the first few years, means the exact same thing for us as the old deal,” Epstein told reporters Wednesday in Pittsburgh, referring to the team’s contracts with WGN, WLS and NBC Sports Chicago. “The first few years will basically replicate the old deal with potential for real growth [in future seasons].”
The definition of “few” is debatable, but with Epstein under contact for only two more seasons, it stands to reason that he might not benefit from the financial infusion. He’s a proponent of Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh’s theory that 10 years is long enough for coaches and executives to be in the same place, and 2021 is the last year of Epstein’s second five-year deal with the Cubs.
So whatever carriage agreements Marquee makes with distributors, the biggest beneficiary figures to be whoever follows Epstein. And that person’s timing will be in line with the free-agent eligibility of Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber (all after 2021) and Willson Contreras (after 2022). If they’re still around then.
Marquee is in the midst of those distribution deals, though with roughly four months until launch, there probably won’t be much to report for a while. The Cubs aren’t exactly building momentum for the network. They figure to be in the market for a new manager, and core players could be on the move after an unfathomable September collapse.
But industry insiders don’t believe the team’s performance will affect Marquee’s ability to sell itself. If the network does have problems, it’ll be because of changes in the TV ecosystem, such as cord-cutting and skinny bundles.
If price becomes the sticking point — as it usually does — Marquee could follow the lead of Fox Sports 1, which launched in 2013. The network had significant distribution problems just before it went live, but rather than fight for fees on many fronts, FS1 decided to just get on the air and make a name for itself.
Though the difference in price sought by FS1 then and Marquee now aren’t in the same ballpark — FS1 reportedly was asking 80 cents per subscriber per month; the Tribune reported in May that Marquee was projecting $6-$7 — Marquee might be best served taking less now and getting its signal spread as widely as possible. It could renegotiate later once the channel is established among viewers.
However this goes down, the Cubs eventually will be adding an enormous revenue stream that should fill several wheelbarrows for president of business operations Crane Kenney to deliver to whoever is running the baseball operations. But the influx does come with a drawback.
If the Cubs ever cry poor again, they’ll be crying wolf.