As reported a couple weeks back on Cubs Insider, the Cubs had wanted to announce a decision for their TV rights through 2019, when the team plans to launch its own network. After opting out of their contract with WGN-TV to place the Cubs’ 70 non-CSN games on the open market, longtime WGN-TV fans probably didn’t like the chances of that marriage continuing, especially after WGN Radio had also found itself a divorcee this year.
So when the news that local ABC affiliate WLS-Ch. 7 was picking up 25 games per season through 2019 broke late yesterday and was confirmed earlier today, it left fans—and the local media—perplexed and with more questions than answers. Now the Cubs are left with 45 games (I was told there would be no math, so I hope I got that right) to shop locally, and with the team gaining serious momentum with the signings of Joe Maddon and Jon Lester, demand for those games will have increased for the two most likely suitors: WGN and CSN.
Based on the signing with ABC, the per-game cash WGN was hemorrhaging last year (t0 the tune of $200k per) and the per-game price increase the network turned down to continue its relationship with the Cubs, sadly, it looks like the end of the road for Chicago Cubs baseball on WGN. A betting man would lay his odds on CSN picking up the remainder of those games, especially since, according to reports, they already pay double the rate per game WGN did.
Baseball is a business. We all—well, most—get that, but to think that the ghosts of Jack, Harry, Arne and Ron will now be joined by those of WGN Radio and TV will be a hard pill to swallow for fans, especially those who are generations deep with this team.
I will be one of them.
Many of you who live outside of the Chicago TV market became Cubs fans because you could watch the games on WGN through your cable system. Even if you lived hundreds of miles away, you might still have pulled in the radio signal. Living in the “ya hey der” Northwoods of Wisconsin many moons ago, like anyone in the Chicago area, I could watch the games on TV. Then when it was time for bed, I could sneak my radio into my bed and pick up the WGN call for those West Coast swings.
To me, and probably a lot of you, WGN was more than just a marriage between two Chicago institutions, it was a necessity. Sadly, due to the changing landscape of how we consume media programming—and WGN’s incredibly unfounded necessity to air as many freaking teenage vampire shows as possible—most of us no longer need the TV station for games.
I’ve been taken to task by readers for breaking with nostalgia in the name of sound business decisions to improve the ball club both financially and competitively. Although non-WGN Cubs broadcast partnerships may be beneficial in both of those aspects, I have to admit that not being able to find a Cubs game on WGN-TV will be a tad unsettling and will leave a weird taste in my mouth.
The games will still have three outs per half frame, the broadcast voices will be the same and the team will still play 81 of them at Wrigley Field, but for those of us who grew up watching on WGN, we’ll sense something missing—a phantom itch.
That itch would be the passion and love for the game that comes into our living rooms and bars. The fun of broadcasting it. We easily take for granted how it appears on our TV screens because we were spoiled growing up with those games. Spoiled by the talent, the innovative spirit and life that was Arne Harris. Thanks to Harry, he became more than just a name that scrolled on the screen at the end of broadcasts.
Here’s why we took Arne for granted: When he left us, WGN’s Cubs producer Marc Brady took the reins without skipping a beat and with that same exuberance and love for the game and his craft that Arne had.
Don’t worry, I most likely would not have been able to guess what that itch would be had I not been given the chance to spend a game watching Marc and his team in action during a game. Being able to see in real time the hands that touch a game broadcast we find so simple or easy to consume was pretty amazing. The Cubs won that game against the Brewers in somewhat dramatic fashion, but it was more fun watching Marc and his team put that game together for you all.
He probably wouldn’t want me saying this—and this is also why I could never be a good sports agent—but in watching him, I could pretty much guarantee he would do that job for free. I know I would, but unless I’m allowed 25 star-wipes per game, I’m not biting.
I sincerely hope the Cubs and WGN find a way to continue their relationship for another five years. If not, then I hope whoever picks up the lion’s share of those games realizes it has the chance to bring with them the spirit of the WGN-TV broadcasts we have grown to love.