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Sports media: For Marquee to be YES, Cubs must overcome new, bigger challenges

What channel is Marquee?

That was the first question I was asked on Twitter about the Cubs’ TV network that will debut in 2020.

Obviously, I didn’t have an answer, and we can only hope there will be one by Opening Day 2020.

Distribution will be the Cubs’ biggest challenge as they launch their own regional sports network with the help of Sinclair Broadcast Group. Will their asking price keep them off cable and satellite providers at the start? Dodgers games have been available on just one carrier in Southern California for five years.

There’s 365 days in a year and 162 games in a regular season, but the Cubs won’t carry all of those games on Marquee. Getty Images

But the Dodgers’ disaster has been an outlier among RSN disputes. The Cubs likely fashion themselves as the Yankees of the National League and figure they can recreate the Bronx Bombers’ hugely successful YES Network in the Midwest.

However, if distributing Marquee is the Cubs’ biggest challenge, creating content will be close behind.

Do the math: There’s 365 days in a year and 162 games in a regular season, but the Cubs won’t carry all of those games. If, say, 12 are picked up by ESPN and Fox, Marquee is down to 150 games. Will the Cubs keep them all or sell some off to an over-the-air station? The Yankees were on WPIX in New York 21 times last season. If the Cubs aired 20 games on, say, WGN, Marquee is down to 130 games.

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The Yankees share air time with the NBA’s Nets, MLS’ New York City Football Club and various college sports. With the Blackhawks, Bulls and White Sox reupping with NBC Sports Chicago next October, the Cubs don’t appear to have another major local partner. They likely will have lots of original programming and rerun old games — which YES does, too — but can that carry the network for most of the year?

More important, will the content justify the price the Cubs will ask distributors to pay?

Their ratings for games likely will. According to Maury Brown of Forbes, baseball ranked first in prime time on cable in every U.S. MLB market except Miami last season. The game is struggling with TV ratings on a national stage, but it remains strong locally.

Still, will the Cubs continue to move the needle as they have since 2015? Much could change in the early years of Marquee. Anthony Rizzo’s contract has the first of two club options after next season. Javy Baez, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber are eligible for free agency after the 2021 season. And with Joe Maddon’s deal expiring after next season, the Cubs might be introducing a new manager along with their new network?

What about the cord-cutters? This isn’t exactly the best time to launch a start-up, with 30 million U.S. cord-cutters this year and 65 million expected next year. So expect streaming to play a role in the Cubs’ plans, and there are all kinds of questions that come with that. Would fans have to subscribe to Marquee to stream games? Would there be an over-the-top option? What would that cost?

Those are some of the balls the Cubs will juggle. But they’re likely banking on fans doing what they’ve done for decades: show up. Demand providers carry Marquee, watch it year-round and provide the team with the ratings and advertising revenue it’s seeking.

This isn’t to say Marquee can’t be the YES of the Midwest. But it’s facing more challenges, and different ones, than its predecessor.

Spinning the dial

  • Choose: Zach Zaidman doing play-by-play for Cubs games or DePaul games? To me, it’s not even close. Zaidman is outstanding calling the Blue Demons on The Score. He sets the scene, pays attention to detail and is as enthusiastic as they come. Granted, it’s difficult to judge Zaidman on one inning of a baseball game each day, but from what we’ve heard, basketball seems to come naturally. You can hear him on 670-AM at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, when the Blue Demons host Boston College.
  • The Blackhawks’ pregame show before home games on WGN Radio can be a tough listen, and it has nothing to do with host Chris Boden and analyst Troy Murray. Both are great at their jobs. But the nonstop music blaring out of the United Center speakers in the background can be very distracting. Moving the show elsewhere in the building might be tough logistically, but it’d be for the best.

Remote patrol

  • The Week 17 “Sunday Night Football” game is still up in the air. Word is, Eagles-Redskins and Colts-Titans are the front-runners, assuming the results in Week 16 keep those teams in playoff contention. An announcement is likely to come Sunday night.
  • ESPN released half of the schedule for its 30th season of “Sunday Night Baseball,” and the Cubs are set for at least two games. They’ll visit the Dodgers on June 16 and play the Pirates in the MLB Little League Classic on Aug. 18 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.