Cubs must show greater empathy for fans’ new TV reality

Tom Ricketts promised to win the World Series and improve Wrigley Field; he has done both. Now he has to get Marquee on Comcast soon, not just in time for Opening Day.

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Cubs fans are still adjusting to their new TV world.

Cubs fans are still adjusting to their new TV world.

I’ve had something on my mind since the Cubs Convention in January, and now seems like an appropriate time to share it.

During the opening ceremonies, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts made a remark about the team’s new TV outlet, Marquee Sports Network, that has stuck with me. It has been written about and discussed before, but as we reach two weeks with roughly half of the Chicago area still unable to view the channel as carriage talks with Comcast continue, it’s fair to revisit it.

Said Ricketts: “Our promise for the next 10 years is to continue to have the best relationship with our fans of any professional sports team in the world. And that starts with the Marquee network.”

As the crowd booed and jeered, Ricketts asked, “What do you have against the Marquee network?”

The booing and jeering continued.

“Believe me, you won’t be booing about that in a year,” Ricketts said.

His question was off the cuff — clearly, he didn’t anticipate such a negative reaction — but it was revealing. What do Cubs fans have against the Marquee network? A lot, and more today than in January, mainly because many of them can’t see it.

To be sure, starting a TV station from scratch is hard, and it’s impressive that Marquee has some of the carriage deals it does, thanks to its partnership with Sinclair Broadcast Group. It will be on a top streaming service by Opening Day (Hulu + Live TV), and it’s on a top cable/satellite provider now (AT&T/DirecTV).

But the Comcast standoff hovers over it like a dark cloud, and until that’s resolved, Marquee will feel the angst and frustration from Cubs fans.

At the time of Ricketts’ remark, the anger was about a way of life, especially among older fans who were accustomed to watching the Cubs a certain way.

The days of every game airing for free on WGN ended in 1999, and they’re not coming back. But fans were gradually weaned off over-the-air TV toward cable. That season, WGN still carried 92 games. That number was at 45 last season, which was still more than any team had on free TV.

Now it’ll be the four games Fox is scheduled to carry. Talk about going cold turkey. Even home night games were gradually added to the Cubs’ schedule once lights were installed at Wrigley Field in 1988. The Cubs couldn’t have come up with a more abrupt change to viewing habits.

Granted, viewers will be helped by having almost every game in one place. They’ll also have more Cubs content than they ever could dream of, created by quality people in the industry.

But they still have to get the channel, and it likely won’t be in Comcast’s cheapest package. On DirecTV, Marquee is on the Choice package, its third of six tiers. It’s on RCN’s Signature package, the second of three. Where will it land among Comcast’s six tiers, and will some fans be priced out?

In time, the Cubs and Marquee are going to make a lot of money on this endeavor, and no one should begrudge them for it. But the Cubs need to empathize with their fans and appreciate the changes being cast upon them. Going to a game is already expensive. Now watching a game from home will cost more, even if it’s just a few bucks a month.

Ricketts has done a lot for fans since taking ownership in 2009. He promised to win the World Series and improve Wrigley Field; he has done both. Now, in a time of great change and consternation for Cubs fans, he has to get Marquee on Comcast soon, not just in time for Opening Day.

Imagine fans’ nerves as March 26 draws near without a deal. With one in place well before, Ricketts could say he heard the fans and delivered for them.

That way, they won’t boo next year, and he’d have fulfilled another promise.

Remote patrol

  • ESPN is planning to try to trade for NBC’s Al Michaels and pair him with Peyton Manning in the “Monday Night Football” booth, according to the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand. Front Office Sports’ Michael McCarthy reported that ESPN is prepared to offer Manning $18 million to $20 million per year, surpassing the $17 million-a-year deal CBS gave Tony Romo. Michaels has two years left on his contract with NBC. Despite improved ratings last season, ESPN is looking to move on from Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland with the hopes of impressing the NFL enough to secure a spot for ABC in the Super Bowl rotation as part of the next TV contract.
  • An all-female crew will work the Blackhawks’ game Sunday against the Blues at the United Center for NBC Sports Network to mark International Women’s Day. It will be the first NHL game in the U.S. called and produced solely by women. The broadcast begins at 6:30 p.m. Kate Scott will call the action with U.S. Olympic gold medalists Kendall Coyne-Schofield (“Inside the Glass”) and AJ Mleczko. Producer Rene Hatlelid and director Lisa Seltzer will lead the game production.
  • With the Blackhawks and Bulls playing Friday night on NBC Sports Chicago and NBCSCH Plus, respectively, the Loyola men’s basketball team’s Missouri Valley Conference quarterfinal game will air on delay at 11:30 p.m. on NBCSCH. If the Ramblers advance, they’ll air live at 5 p.m. Saturday on CBS Sports Network. The championship game is at 1 p.m. Sunday on Ch. 2.
  • The Fire will make their WGN-Ch. 9 debut at 12:30 p.m. Saturday against the Revolution. Tyler Terens will call the action with analyst Tony Meola. The game will be simulcast on ESPN+, which will have 15-minute pre- and postgame shows. WGN’s broadcast will be confined to a two-hour window.
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