There was a bit of a commotion last month when the Chicago Sun-Times reported that the Cubs had reached an agreement with Sinclair on the formation of a new regional sports network, to be named Marquee. That report was quickly denied, but the right-leaning media giant is still expected to be the choice in the end. Perhaps best known in broader circles for essentially propagandizing its hundreds of local television affiliates, Sinclair has also been involved in the bidding for 22 Fox-owned RSNs spun off by Disney and has some experience in sports programming.
According to a prediction from John Ourand of Sports Business Journal, the resultant product will be very successful. Via a combination of cachet and blunt force, Sinclair and the Cubs will bend providers to their will to the tune of a $6 monthly fee per subscriber. Bear in mind that this all appears to be conjecture, though it’s hard to imagine Ourand is simply pulling numbers out of thin air.
Comcast is going to play hardball with the Cubs’ RSN, which is going to come to market with a price of at least $6 per subscriber per month. To gain leverage, the Cubs will not put any games on WGN or any other over-the-air station. And Sinclair will use the leverage it has from its national network of around 150 local broadcast stations to work out a deal. Comcast will hate it but the popularity of the Cubs, combined with the leverage from Sinclair, will force it to carry the channel when it launches in 2020.
For a really in-depth look at the various layers below the surface here, I will direct you to Brett Taylor’s post over at Bleacher Nation. He’s got all the different puzzle pieces laid out quite nicely and it really doesn’t make much sense for me to restate or regurgitate any of it here. To summarize, there’s a lot more to it than the simple picture Ourand paints here.
Chief among the important topics is that carriage fee, which is incredibly steep even for a product as desirable as the Cubs. And while that would be a big enough obstacle in and of itself, we’re talking about a channel that will be launching at the same time as the new venture between the White Sox, Bulls, Blackhawks, and CSN Chicago. Though such a partnership currently exists with the Cubs included, one has to assume the updated RSN will seek to increase revenues for its partners.
It’s entirely possible the fees for Marquee will actually be lower than those Ourand suggests, but it’s important to understand that even rates of $5 and under have led to serious snafus with providers, leaving millions of fans without access to their team. We saw that with SportsNet LA, which was unavailable to huge numbers of Dodgers faithful when it first launched. In a case like that, greater wealth comes at a very steep cost.
As for those hoping for some sort of over-the-top subscription service or a la carte purchase, you’re probably going to have to bide your time. Despite changes in how people consume their sports media, MLB’s blackout restrictions still apply. Those who reside outside the Cubs’ “local” broadcast area, or who are accessing via a masked/mirrored IP address, should still be able to access games via MLB.tv.
Rather than swim into deeper waters on the logistics of the new RSN, however, I want to get into the meat of what it means to the Cubs and their fans in both the immediate and distant future. Even though the Cubs are a very well-established brand, this new network will not be. In fact, it’s entirely possible the adoption of Marquee by fans will be neither seamless nor painless. If you disagree, consider how upset people were with the move away from WGN TV and radio.
Now factor in the additional cost and potential issues with availability, no to mention a new look and feel. And that’s assuming Marquee is available on the basic cable package. Put it on a higher tier and you’ve got a whole ‘nother can of worms. Long story short, this isn’t a turnkey solution by any means.
As such, it’s incumbent upon the Cubs to put a product on the field that justifies what could be the highest-priced RSN on the market. And that doesn’t mean starting in 2020 with the network’s launch, it means this coming season. Because it’s not going to look good for the team to talk about limiting payroll while eyeing a tsunami of TV revenue on the horizon, especially when reduced return on the RSN had been theorized as the primary reason for not spending more.
And who knows, maybe the new network enters the market at a low price and seeks to augment carriage fees with high advertising costs for its target market. But if the cost to end users is close to what Ourand is predicting, good luck squaring that against even the slightest whiff of frugality.
Am I saying the Cubs have to go out and get Bryce Harper if they’re indeed going to charge $6 per month for their new channel? Well, not exactly, though that’d be a good start. Even if it’s not a monster expenditure like Harper, the Cubs would need to make something happen to generate interest while also justifying the cost to consumers. It’s pretty simple.
Or, you know, they can move forward with the belief that fans will choke down the added cost regardless because their fandom compels them. There’s merit to that, no doubt, and ownership may not care as long as they’re getting those subscription fee from every cable subscriber in the greater Chicago area and millions more throughout the Midwest. Stay tuned, literally, because we should have firm details on this whole thing before long.