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Sports media: Cubs TV network could cut off many fans if it isn’t done right

It’s the biggest sports-media story in the city, and it has me a bit nervous.

The Cubs have expressed their desire to start their own TV network after their agreements with WGN-Ch. 9, WLS-Ch. 7 and NBC Sports Chicago expire after the 2019 season.

But how many fans will get to watch them?

It’s a legitimate question. The Cubs just finished their season series with the Dodgers, whose games on the SportsNet  LA network are available through just one distributor in Southern California, Charter Communications. Charter, which shares ownership of SportsNet  LA with the Dodgers, has been the exclusive home of the network for four years, and no other distributors have shown a willingness to carry it.

The Cubs have expressed their desire to start their own TV network after their agreements with WGN-Ch. 9, WLS-Ch. 7 and NBC Sports Chicago expire after the 2019 season. | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Cubs have expressed their desire to start their own TV network after their agreements with WGN-Ch. 9, WLS-Ch. 7 and NBC Sports Chicago expire after the 2019 season. |
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The reason: carriage agreements. That includes how much a network charges a distributor per subscriber to carry the channel. Charter’s asking price to carry SportsNet LA is too high for other distributors’ tastes.

Which brings me to my fear. Sports Business Journal reported this week that the Cubs are in renewal talks with NBCSCH, which carries most of their games. But the report also said the Cubs could bring AT&T into the picture — now that the company has officially merged with Time Warner — to give them leverage. 

AT&T already is in the sports-broadcasting business with three regional networks — AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh, Rocky Mountain and Southwest. The Cubs have the success and fan following to make a fourth channel worth discussing. And if the Cubs can share ownership, they’ve achieved their goal.

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But what would it cost? And would it turn off distributors? Would the Cubs price themselves into a similar situation as the Dodgers?

Give them credit. The Cubs have kept their fans in mind with previous TV deals. This season, they put 70 games on over-the-air TV via WGN and WLS. You won’t find another MLB team with such an arrangement.

They’ll try to balance serving their fans with serving themselves. But this isn’t Los Angeles, where the anguish of not having the Dodgers on TV doesn’t come close to the outrage that would ensue if Cubs games weren’t widely available.

This isn’t to paint a gloomy picture for whatever the Cubs decide. The Yankees have done exceptionally well with their own network, YES, which has had Fox as a partner. And collaborating with an established network could ease concerns about distribution.

There are so many ways this could go, and we might learn more soon. Industry insiders expect the Cubs to start making decisions before the end of the year.

I’m just a bit concerned about them.

Cubs’ 4 o’clock shadow

When the Cubs’ 2018 schedule was released, one home game time struck me as odd: the 4:05  p.m. start Friday against the Twins.

The Cubs confirmed the reasoning behind it: With a trip home from Los Angeles on Thursday, 4:05 was as late as they could start a game because they’re not allowed to play Friday nights.

I couldn’t recall seeing an originally scheduled 4:05 start at home, so I consulted a person who would know: Cubs historian Ed Hartig. He agreed the start time was a first, and it got us talking about the history of Cubs game times.

For example, the now-traditional 1:20 start became a regular occurrence in 1983. Previously, most games began at 1:30, after a 15-minute newscast on WGN-TV and a 15-minute pregame show, “The Leadoff Man.” In ’83, WGN dropped the newscast and started the pregame show at 1. (If you were wondering what the media connection was, there it is. I geek out about start times.)

So for all of you attending today, congratulations. You’re a part of history.

Remote patrol

NBCSCH will air NBC Sports Regional Networks’ one-hour documentary “Fair Play: Youth Sports in America” at 7:30  p.m.Friday. In addition to discussing how parents and kids can navigate the $15 billion youth-sports industry (which many of us are a part of), the show includes a segment on the White Sox’ “ACE” program, which gives inner-city kids a chance to play organized baseball and earn a college scholarship.

◆ This NFL season, every network will have a former referee on board as a rules analyst. The website Football Zebras reported that Jeff Triplette, who retired after last season, will join ESPN. He replaces Gerald Austin. Terry McAulay and Gene Steratore recently retired and will join NBC and CBS, respectively. McAulay is NBC’s first in-game rules analyst. Steratore is CBS’s first since Mike Carey in 2015. 

Fox already has had Dean Blandino and Mike Pereira in place. 

◆ For the first time, ESPN (using multiple platforms) will broadcast every match of Wimbledon, beginning Monday. ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3 and ESPN+ will show more than 500 matches.