Sinclair Broadcast Group has formed a joint venture with the Chicago Cubs that will own and operate Marquee Sports Network, a regional sports channel that will be the exclusive home of Cubs baseball games beginning with the 2020 season.
Cubs games have been broadcast by WGN in Chicago for 72 years. WGN’s owner, Tribune Broadcasting, owned the Cubs until the team was sold to the Ricketts family in 2009.
The Cubs had been partners with Comcast in NBC Sports Chicago, which televises Cubs games on cable. NBC Sports Chicago recently announced a deal that extends its partnerships with the Chicago White Sox, Chicago Bulls and Chicago Blackhawks.
The new Marquee Sports Network will have to negotiate a carriage deal with Comcast, the dominant cable provider in the Chicago TV market.
“This partnership brings together one of the most iconic sports franchises in the country with one of the largest television broadcasting companies,” said Chris Ripley, president and CEO of Sinclair. “It is hard to imagine any content that is more unique and valuable than the live sports entertainment the Cubs have been delivering to their fans for more than a century. Sinclair’s strength in production, distribution and local sales will support bringing more content to more viewers, all while leveraging the latest technology.”
Sinclair has also reportedly been bidding on some of the Fox regional sports networks, which are being acquired, then divested by The Walt Disney Co. Disney is selling the networks in order for its acquisition of 21st Century Fox to gain regulatory approval.
“Providing an enhanced experience for our fans is at the heart of everything we do. We are excited to better serve our fans with expanded and exclusive programming showcasing our remarkable players, beloved ballpark and storied past,” said Crane Kenney, president of business operations for the Cubs. “Our dedicated ‘Cubs-centric’ network will carry all available Cubs games and feature uncompromising, in-depth and behind-the-scenes coverage.”
Owning their own TV networks appeared to be a gold mine for baseball teams, whose 162-regular season games represents a large volume of high-demand programming. Sports networks commanded high sub fees and were carried on basic tiers, which generates a lot of revenue.
Among the first teams to start their own network was the New York Yankees, which launched YES in 2002. It is now among the Fox-owned RSNs on the block because of the Disney Deal.
In 2014, Time Warner Cable agreed to pay 2013 $8.35 billion over 25 years to the Dodegers to start a regional sports network featuring the team. The network has been a big money loser because it has been unable to secure carriage to more than 50% of L.A. area pay-TV subscribers. The network is now owned by Charter.
With the number of pay-TV subscribers falling and sports starting to move to on-demand and streaming platforms, the value of RSNs appears to be falling, based on the low price the Fox RSNs are expected to fetch.
In Chicago, there were concerns about Sinclair last year when it tried to acquire Tribune Broadcasting last year. The conservative news commentaries that Sinclair compels its stations to air appeared to clash with the philosophy of local management at the Tribune stations.
The deal also comes at a time when racist emails surfaced from Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts and the father of of Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts. Team president of baseball operations Theo Epstein condemned those emails earlier this week.
“The emails were upsetting to read and especially upsetting that some of our fans were put into a position where they had to consider a connection of their favorite team and some of those views,” Epstein said according to the Chicago Sun-Times.