The 2019 Cubs Convention is almost upon us and I expect the Cubs to announce their new Regional Sports Network (RSN), Marquee, at the annual fan even. Most of the attention of late has been on the prediction of a $6 per subscriber carriage fee and how new revenues might affect both short- and long-term payroll. My focus here, however, will be the alleged partnership with Sinclair Broadcasting, which disappoints me for two reasons.
First, Sinclair has an unsavory history with stealth propaganda of conservative political causes. Not only does it feel icky for the Cubs to partner with such an outfit, but I am concerned that the Cubs could become more directly embroiled with national partisan politics as a byproduct of this relationship. This is already the case due to the Ricketts family’s deep political ties, but those have remained largely separate from the team, at least publicly.
Second, I really was hoping for a partnership with Amazon. It was reported in November that Amazon was involved in the bidding for 22 Fox Sports RSN’s being spun off as part of Disney’s acquisition. This led to some loose speculation that Amazon could be a potential partner in the Cubs’ new network, a prospect that excited me on so many levels.
One cannot talk about the history of the Cubs without discussing the team’s partnership with WGN, which first broadcast the Cubs in 1948 as a local channel. Founded by Chicago Tribune, the World’s Greatest Newspaper, WGN innovated coverage as we know it by being the first to implement the now-ubiquitous center field camera angle used on each pitch. WGN expanded its reach in the 1980’s by becoming one of the early “superstations,” non-network channels with a coast-to-coast reach.
In the process, the Cubs became an international brand as fans grew up watching them all across the United States and Mexico. To that point, there is a lovely Cubs bar in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico I have visited several times. Scattered Cubs fans make the pilgrimage to Wrigley Field as a rite of passage and the far-flung nature of the fanbase is a contributing factor to some of MLB’s territorial broadcast regulations.
An Amazon partnership could have done the same for the Cubs in the new millennium. Imagine the Cubs being the default team of Amazon Prime customers. Baseball is a remarkably regional game, but Amazon could have essentially recreated that WGN footprint and reopened vast new/old territories of potential fans.
Of course, the Cubs do not control their streaming rights and MLB’s desire to protect less-popular teams from having their viewing audience cannibalized would prevent Amazon from streaming Cubs games beyond their “local” market. Expanding or eliminating those boundaries would be the heart of a true national brand, and it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility in the future.
Amazon’s lack of experience in sports television is another concern, but I still think it would have been a powerful alliance. Oh well.