It’s a whole new ballgame in Chicago.
Marquee Sports Network, launched on Feb. 22, is the new home of Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs, promising viewers one stop shopping for all local Cubs telecasts and a smorgasbord of broad-shouldered programming from the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.
But the regional sports network, a joint venture of the Cubs and Sinclair Broadcast Group, has not been hailed as a field of dreams by all in the Windy City.
There have been concerns that it might not be carried by Comcast, Chicago’s dominant cable operator, leaving some Cubs fans out in the cold. And even if a deal with Comcast is worked out, die-hard fans used to seeing the team for more than 70 years on over-the-air broadcast TV will be shut out.
On top of that, in an era of cord-cutting, skinny bundles and streaming, the regional sports network business, once seen as a cash cow, is under financial pressure as the number of subscribers fall and the cost of media rights climb.
Marquee general manager Mike McCarthy, hired a year ago to help build the network, is full of the optimism most baseball fans feel this time of year.
“It is not a risky bet to figure out whether people in Chicago want to watch Cub games,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy, who ran MSG Networks when it had the rights to the New York Yankees and Mets, feels Chicago has a unique, passionate relationship with the Cubs.
“This is really a Cubs fan’s dream,” he said. “I think they deserved what the Yankees and Red Sox and Dodgers and Mets fans have had for years now, which is not just game coverage but a 24-hour channel fully dedicated to serving their passion. We’re going to be eating, sleeping, breathing Cubs.”
Marquee has retained the team’s main TV announcers, Len Kasper and Jim DeShaies, and signed a roster of former Cubs players to appear on the network, including Ryan Dempster, Rick Sutcliffe, Doug Glanville, Mark Grace and one-time manager Lou Piniella.
“There’s a lot that has gone on, but we feel very good about a lot of it and we’re very excited to launch in a way that everyone can be proud of,” McCarthy said. “We know we’re going to deliver the fanbase something that they have deserved for a while, which we’re excited about.”
The new network’s offices and studios are across Waveland Avenue from Wrigley Field and McCarthy plans to sneak away from the control room so he doesn’t miss opening day.
“My dad was a groundskeeper for the Mets for 30 years and I grew up in a baseball stadium and I don’t think I’ve ever missed an opening day,” he said.
But missing opening day is a concern to Chicago fans used to watching games on TV.
Sinclair has helped Marquee gain carriage deals with nearly 40 distributors, including DirecTV, Charter Communications, Mediacom, Frontier Communications and RCN. The network also has announced its first streaming deal, with Hulu+Live TV. Between DirecTV and Hulu, Cubs fans will be able to get Marquee wherever they live in the market.
In Chicago, Comcast has about 1.5 million subscribers, or 40% of the market. Comcast is also a part owner of NBC Sports Chicago, which carried Cubs games on cable last year and will be the exclusive home of the White Sox this season (see sidebar). Cubs TV rights were split in 2019 between longtime TV home WGN, ABC-owned WLS and NBCSC.
In an interview on sports-talk radio station WSCR, Crane Kenney, president of business operations for the Cubs, said the Hulu agreement “validates our pricing model.”
Analysts estimate Marquee is seeking a monthly per-subscriber fee of $6 per month from distributors.
“We’ve offered the same terms to Comcast that have been accepted by AT&T and Charter and Mediacom and Hulu,” Kenney said. “Almost 40 of them have said ‘yes’ to the terms, which tells us they’re reasonable.”
McCarthy seems certain a deal with Comcast will be worked out, even though 11 years ago the Chicago-based Big Ten Network launched in the Midwest without Comcast for a year. And half of the Dodgers fans in Los Angeles can’t watch games, because they still can’t get Spectrum SportsNet LA after six years, with DirecTV as the major holdout.
“We don’t think we remind anybody of the Los Angeles situation, with all due respect,” McCarthy said. “We think this is a religious experience, the Cubs and their fan base. We continue to remain optimistic and hopeful because it just doesn’t strike me as anybody’s idea of a good result if the Comcast people don’t end up with the Cubs games and Marquee Sports Network.”
Marquee hasn’t generated a lot of enthusiasm among Cubs fans, according to Chicago media maven Rob Feder. Feder noted that when Cubs owner Tom Ricketts mentioned the Marquee Network at the team’s convention last month, he got booed.
“Here was the head of the company in front of a roomful of hundreds of the most die-hard Cubs fans that exist, who have paid something $350 a ticket to be at this event, and the first time word come out of his mouth mentioning Marquee Sports Network, the entire room boos,” Feder said. “That told you everything.”
Feder said many fans feel the loss of the free games they’ve been able to watch for 72 years on WGN. The network’s rollout has left many unanswered questions about what the network is going to cost, how people are going to get it, what channel it will be on and what do you do if you opt out, he added.
There is also some lingering resentment towards Sinclair, which was criticized last year when it tried to take over WGN’s owner, Tribune Media, because of its political positions and how it operates. “They did not endear themselves in any way to Chicago,” Feder said.
On top of that, the top managers of Marquee are from out of town. “They’re making these decisions on a product that is supposed to appeal to Chicagoans, but they’re flying blind,” Feder said.
Feder credited Marquee for hiring Bob Vorwald, who had been executive producer of WGN Sports, as one move that would make Cubs fans comfortable when they tune in to the new network.
McCarthy said that hiring Vorwald was part of Marquee’s effort to be sensitive to the folklore and long history of the Cubs on TV.
“I think we will more than replace what folks are used to watching on other television outlets here in Chicago,” he added. Even at the Cubs convention, after the owner was booed, when the roster of former Cubs that would be appearing on the network were announced, there was nothing but cheers from the fans, he said. “They were asking ‘How do I get this channel,’ which is what we were hoping to hear.”
McCarthy said he watched the Cubs in New York on the WGN Superstation. And when he arrived in Chicago, he lived in an apartment just beyond Wrigley’s bleachers to soak up the atmosphere. “One of the most dramatic things I’ve been able to do is take someone in the stadium when it’s empty in the winter. People got emotional, because it feels like you’re going back in time,” he said.
Murray Hits Leadoff
On Feb. 22 at 1 p.m. CT, Cubs fan Bill Murray was set to lead off for the network as it signs on with Marquee Debut, a one-hour show introducing the channel. The Cubs’ first exhibition game was to start at 2 p.m. but was pushed back at the last minute. That first day Marquee was to air a documentary on Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks.
During the season, each game will be preceded by Cubs Live and followed by Cubs Postgame Live.
The network’s programming will include a local Chicago sports talk show produced by Stadium, a service partly owned by Sinclair, and Follow the Money, a gambling show from Las Vegas produced by VISN.
The schedule will be filled out with documentaries, player profiles and game replays, plus other programming from Stadium and the Fox Sports Regional Networks, now owned by Sinclair.
Marquee will also air a package of Cubs minor league games that will feature farm teams in Des Moines, Iowa, and South Bend, Indiana, markets where the network is looking for distribution.
McCarthy said Marquee has won over sponsors. Those with high profiles in Wrigley Field and on TV remain on board, including the local Toyota dealers group, AB InBev, Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Wintrust Bank. “Those folks didn’t lose interest,” he said. “In many cases they doubled down. They appreciated that there’s one place to buy Cubs telecasts. That wasn’t the case the last few years.”
Marquee has also formed a “unique” relationship with the local plumbers union, McCarthy said. “They were very interested in having a presence within Cubs telecasts and they stepped up,” he said.
After it’s up and running the network also plans a robust outreach to the community. “We look forward to learning more about how we can best deploy our services to help folks in Chicagoland,”
McCarthy said. McCarthy was in Mesa, Arizona, where the Cubs have spring training, early last week, returning for some last-minute tweaks to the graphics they would use for Cactus League games from Sloan Park.
Members of the staff — more than 60 people have been hired — are still getting to know each other and finding a working rhythm for things, like how often the network should be posting on social media.
“We’re learning as we go, but the basics, like the truck and the signal and the announcers, we’ve been prepping for a while and we’re ready, so it will be fun,” McCarthy said.