Cubs, Sinclair, Marquee, and Comcast Combine Forces for a Potential Blackout for Cubs’ Fans

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.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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4 years ago

As a Cubs fan, this whole situation is actually kinda great for me.

The Ricketts family is full of awful people. They’re more concerned with making money than winning games. And they’ve partnered with an evil right-wing authoritarian-enabling company to air their games.

But instead of me having to feel guilty about supporting them by watching Cubs games, I can blissfully say “oh well, can’t get that station here anyways” and go on about my day. The universe is working itself out.

4 years ago
Reply to  CubbieBlue66

Agree 100%. Never been a better time to follow the White Sox.

shirley temple of doommember
4 years ago
Reply to  CubbieBlue66

Yeah, this is spot on. Partner with Sinclair?! GTFO.

4 years ago
Reply to  CubbieBlue66

And it just so happens the cross town team is young, looks exciting, and could be a serious contender as soon as this coming year.

4 years ago
Reply to  CubbieBlue66

Yeah they’re terrible. They spent $1 Billion to acquire a last place team that couldn’t even make it to the World Series with one of the largest media conglomerates in the world, sunk another $1 billion into the surrounding community and added increased police protection, LGBTQ events, and brought in the best GM (at that time) and manager on the market that resulted in a world series while also upgrading the Latin facilities and community/educational programs that have become world class.

They even brought a World Series to North Side for the first time in 108 years.


4 years ago

That’s so incorrect its scary. The Ricketts family took over a team that has never fell outside the top 5 in team revenues (according to Forbes). They bought it for $900M, a price that included Wrigley Field, 25% of Comcast Chicago, and various other holdings. They then pretended to be unable to pay for the team for four years in order to get concessions from the City of Chicago. They threatened to move from Wrigley to the suburbs so that the City would permit them to change zoning laws to turn Wrigleyville from a neighborhood into an entertainment complex. Really though, they were tanking. Tanking isn’t such a bad strategy, but for FOUR years with a top 5 revenue team? They’ve since radically increased their revenues and own half of the area surrounding Wrigley Field. I guess you’re calling that the billion dollars into the surrounding community, but really is the building of larger roads, parking garages, bars, and hotels that the City never permitted for previous owners because the City used to be committed to keeping a neighborhood surrounding Wrigley Field (PS. do you really think that the Ricketts’ pay for police protection???). The Ricketts family finally brought a championship to the north side and they are to be commended for doing so, but they’ve also lined their pockets heavily and continue to do so. They are going to try to stay below the luxury tax line this season and there’s nothing wrong with that. But… that’s a bad look for a team breaking out a new network and attempting to trade its best player.

Rational Fanmember
4 years ago

And they did this all out of their kindness of their heart, and their love and affinity for Chicago and the neighborhood, right? RiGhT!?!

Save me this nonsense. The Ricketts have scammed and conned their way out of tax obligations that would be very beneficial to the city and their “investments” into the neighborhood are driven solely by revenue increases for the organization. After they got the approval, and have built up the area bringing in record revenues, they now cry poor and are claiming/pushing for trading their best player instead of attempting to re-sign him because they can’t “afford” it. Meanwhile, they’re starting their own TV network to increase revenues by even more, but they can’t actually reinvest that into the team… and heaven forbid they spend over the luxury tax after having 4 years, mid-rebuild, in which they spent no money and made a boat load. This all without even bringing up the scummy nature of the tribune sale.

4 years ago
Reply to  CubbieBlue66

Hey, CubbieBlue66. DJT is president. Get used to it, already. Its going to be another 4 years, too. Who knew so many weirdo pseudo political junkies read fangraphs? Stop with the incessant political slanted articles and posts on this site. Its for baseball. Not weirdo politics, left or right.

4 years ago
Reply to  mkg2149

Yeah, ‘stick to baseball,’ right? GTFO.

4 years ago
Reply to  CubbieBlue66

Yet strangely they have contended for the post season 5 years in a row. There is no such thing for them as caring more about making money than winning because making big money is directly tied to winning. They are highly motivated to win, especially with the new TV network because TV ratings always go up and down if your are winning or losing.
They will again have one of the highest payrolls in MLB, but you act as though it is chump change. You call them awful people but they have made things better for Cubs fans than any previous owner did.
If you don’t get the Marquee games it will be because you chose not to, not because they were not available.