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Cubs secure Hulu streaming deal for Marquee network, but Comcast remains major holdout

Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts expressed optimism that a deal with Comcast — in half the cable subscribers’ homes in the Cubs’ region — will be worked out by Opening Day despite no indication of an imminent agreement. “I think that in the end everyone will do what’s right for the actual customers,” he said.

Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts meets with media Monday.
Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts meets with media Monday.
John Antonoff/For the Sun-Times

MESA, Arizona — The Cubs added another significant distributor for their soon-to-launch Marquee Sports Network, agreeing to a deal with Hulu to live-stream games via the company’s Hulu + Live TV service.

The deal, which was announced Monday, provides a means for “cord cutters” anywhere in the Cubs’ assigned regional territory to access games live.

But the unsigned elephant in the room remains Comcast/Xfinity, the cable provider for half the cable subscribers in the region and the largest holdout among regional distributors.

The network, which launches Saturday for the Cubs’ spring-training opener, is scheduled to broadcast all of the spring games, and plans call for increased pre- and postgame coverage during the regular season.

“We still expect Comcast to carry it, but today if someone was worried about it, there’s still a way of getting our games for the [2020] season,” said Crane Kenney, the Cubs’ president of business operations.

Chairman Tom Ricketts called such negotiations “fairly complicated” but sounded optimistic about a resolution by the March 26 season opener.

“I think that in the end everyone will do what’s right for the actual customers,” Ricketts said. “And that’s where I’m confident we’ll get this all behind us by Opening Day or pretty soon, anyway.”

One of the biggest questions involving the network is when it will start providing the revenue kick that boosts baseball operations budgets.

Team president Theo Epstein said last fall he doesn’t expect an impact for a couple of years.

Kenney said that’s because of start-up costs over the last year before revenues begin to flow with the launch.

Until all the distribution issues are resolved, he said, it’s difficult to predict when the impact on baseball budgets might be felt and by how much.

“In a year, we’ll know more about how the network’s doing,” Kenney said. “But I think it’s a leap to say today this is what it’ll mean for payroll a year from now.”

Convention intention?

Ricketts said the family might bring back the ownership session to the Cubs Convention after scrapping it during the last two.

“I don’t mind that session,” he said, adding it got the “lowest ratings” among the main sessions. “We also don’t try to make the story about us, too. So maybe we’ll bring it back. If people really want it back, I don’t mind doing it. It’s not a big deal. I certainly don’t mind talking to fans. I do that as much as anyone in the game. . . . It’s just something we’ll have to think through.”

This and that

Ricketts blamed some of the Cubs’ lack of budget flexibility this winter on the midseason signing of closer Craig Kimbrel last year to a three-year, $43 million deal.

• Epstein’s contract expires after next season, but Ricketts said they haven’t discussed an extension or what either party might do next.

• Ricketts on Astros owner Jim Crane’s controversial handling of the Astros’ cheating scandal over the last week: “I really don’t want to get into like second-guessing or commenting on the way other owners operate. I think Jim’s doing his best.”