Cubs, Sinclair, Marquee, and Comcast Combine Forces for a Potential Blackout for Cubs’ Fans by Craig Edwards January 7, 2020 In many cases, no news is good news. But for the Cubs, their broadcasting partner Sinclair, and the new Marquee Network, no news is bad news. While there’s still more than a month to go before the network is on the air, it has yet to reach agreements with Comcast/Xfinity, the largest cable provider in Chicago, as well as RCN and streaming only services like Hulu Live, Sling, and Youtube TV. In his piece for the Chicago Tribune, Phil Rosenthal provides a reminder of where things stand for viewers in Chicago when it comes to seeing Cubs’ games this season: While Marquee currently has deals in place to run on a handful of carriers, including DirecTV, U-verse, AT&T TV, Charter Communications and Mediacom Communications, it is lost on no one that it’s still negotiating with many others, including Comcast’s Xfinity, the Chicago-area’s largest carrier with an estimated 1.5 million households. As Rosenthal notes, Sinclair was able to leverage its massive reach across the country, which includes local stations and more than half the Regional Sports Networks that air baseball games, to secure deals with AT&T/DirecTV/Uverse/DirecTVNow, allowing the Cubs and Sinclair to say they reach nearly all Chicagoland homes. But reaching nearly every home and actually airing in those homes are two entirely different things. The deals with Charter and Mediacom aren’t insignificant, as fans in downstate Illinois, southern Wisconsin, Iowa, and Indiana will likely have access to Cubs games in the spring with a cable package. The Cubs didn’t start their own network to reap the benefits of subscriber fees in those areas, however, as getting on cable in homes in Chicago is the big prize and moneymaker. In Rosenthal’s piece, he notes that the Yankees’ YES network had difficulties getting onto Comcast a few years back. The Yankees’ situation provides an interesting analogue both for its similarities and its differences. While Comcast was in nearly a million homes at the time, none of them were in New York City, where YES Network was available to millions more subscribers. Comcast was a smaller fish for YES, unlike the situation in Chicago. In addition, the dispute ended when Comcast wanted to add Fox News Channel to its lineup and FOX, which owned YES at the time, was able to leverage those negotiations into carriage for YES on Comcast. It’s not clear that the Cubs and Sinclair have the same type of leverage in Chicago. Sinclair used its array of stations to get on AT&T’s (and their related brands’) channel list, but Chicago and Comcast could be a bit more difficult. Sinclair doesn’t own any stations in Chicago and doesn’t have any other bundling leverage in the area. Sinclair could try to go nationally with Comcast, like it did with AT&T, but Comcast’s strongest markets — like Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, and San Francisco — also represent limited Sinclair coverage and no Sinclair-owned RSNs. That leaves the negotiating battle down to how important it is to Comcast’s business in Chicago to air Cubs’ games, and that leaves an odd competitive situation. The Chicago market can certainly support more than one RSN, given that Comcast used to air Cubs, White Sox, Bulls, and Blackhawks games, but the clubs had to negotiate outside deals with WGN, ABC, and others to ensure that all their games were on television. One channel wasn’t enough to support all those teams. The Cubs opted to leave the other clubs behind and start their own network and among their available options, chose to partner with Sinclair. With the White Sox and Bulls sharing an owner, and the Bulls and Blackhawks sharing a stadium, there’s a significant overlap in interests among the three clubs. There’s also an overlap with Comcast, who has partnered with those teams to continue NBC Sports Chicago after the Cubs went their own way. Promoting the White Sox likely isn’t Comcast’s primary concern when it comes to negotiating with the Marquee network; putting an exciting, active White Sox team ahead of the Cubs, when the former is on a station already on Comcast’s channel lists and partially owned by Comcast, could be a minor thought in negotiations. Indeed, Comcast’s main priority isn’t the Cubs or White Sox — for the latter, NBC Sports Chicago isn’t currently on Dish or Sling due to a fight of their own. Rather, subscribers (and how much they pay) are most important. The cable company will need to decide whether a potential loss of subscribers due to not airing the Cubs compares to the cost of putting the Marquee network on the air, or the potential loss of subscribers overall due to raising prices associated with their own higher costs. We don’t know exactly how Comcast will make those decisions, but we do know that if they take the same path AT&T did in Los Angeles, baseball fans are going to be the ones to suffer. The market for RSNs in Los Angeles was more saturated than the one in Chicago, and the Cubs are arguably more popular in Chicago than the Dodgers are in Los Angeles, though getting a read based on that popularity based on television ratings presents a circular impossibility given that the Dodgers aren’t in half the homes in their market. Right now, there’s not much forcing Comcast into a deal. Cubs games haven’t yet been played and the network hasn’t even debuted. In addition, while AT&T/DirecTV does present a viable competitor for switching services, without deals with RCN or most of the streaming-only services, there aren’t a ton of alternatives for Cubs’ fans. It could be argued that pieces like the one in the Tribune or this one serve the interests of the Cubs and Sinclair. The Marquee network wants fans to know they don’t have a deal with Comcast in the hopes that fans will call the company and demand the channel. They aren’t going to actively tell people to switch to AT&T while there are still hopes of a deal with Comcast, but making fans aware of the potential impasse is the first step to inspiring action in potential customers. Two massive media companies are currently playing a game of chicken and Cubs fans are currently sitting in the backseat with no control over the drivers. Negotiations like this are common in the television industry, though Sinclair has a fairly ugly history of blackouts that were cause for concern more than a year ago when they were first rumored as a potential partner with the Cubs. Those concerns have yet to come to fruition with the launch of the network still a month away, but Sinclair’s past history still argues for caution. Since winning the World Series, the Cubs haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory on or off the field. The team is no longer starting a network on the heels of a dynasty, but on a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2017 and missed the postseason entirely last year. The club looks to be completely ignoring their window for contention, and most attention to the team has surrounded trading their best player and former MVP, Kris Bryant. The Cubs should still be good next season, but they aren’t acting like a team trying to win over fans, and their new Marquee network might be marching in lockstep with the club alienating a certain portion of the fanbase for the sake of higher profits.