Crane Kenney, the Cubs’ president of business operations, addressed the media in Mesa Monday on a number of topics that were headlined by the news that Marquee Sports Network has secured a carriage arrangement with Hulu. Though his responses were quite a bit less alliterative than my lede, Kenney offered a bit more clarity to what has been a pretty murky subject to this point.
Ed. note: tl;dr version available after break at bottom.
At the risk of further inserting myself into the story here, my Twitter timeline exploded with questions about whether and how Cubs fans will be able to watch Marquee. You can check their site for specifics, but the fact that this is still a topic of conversation five days from the launch of the exclusive home of the team’s game broadcasts is a very clear sign that things have not been communicated effectively from either the Cubs or Marquee.
We’ve done our best here at Cubs Insider to educate the masses, but, and I know this will come as a shock to our loyal readers, we haven’t exactly cornered the market on Cubs coverage. The real culprit here is MLB’s archaic territorial blackout rules, which have been exacerbated over the last five years by the fractured broadcast arrangement that resulted from the dissolution of the long-running partnership with WGN.
Just so we’re on the same page, let’s break this all down in a nutshell. MLB defines geographical regions as “local” for each of its 30 teams, so you can imagine how certain locations are going to have a little overlap. That becomes really difficult for the Cubs, whose national fanbase was cultivated by the former Superstation. Kenney reiterated Monday that the Cubs are continuing in their long-running appeal to MLB to change the map, though little has changed on that front.
A lot of folks mistakenly believe that blackout territories are meant to drive attendance by keeping fans from being able to see the games, but it’s actually about protecting local broadcast rights. In theory, everyone within a team’s territory should have access to a live game feed through a television provider in their area. That all got flushed down the toilet for Cubs fans five years ago, when WGN was replaced by a patchwork collection of multiple broadcast partners.
Hundreds of thousands of fans lacked access to NBC Sports Chicago, which carried a large number of games, and all fans outside Chicagoland were unable to get ABC 7 or WGN 9 (which is different from the Superstation). One quick note on that before moving on: WGN Superstation made the decision to stop carrying sports, hence the change from the platform many of us grew up on.
While dozens of local television affiliates across the Midwest worked out agreements to syndicate Cubs broadcasts from ABC and WGN, many of the games remained uncovered. Much to the chagrin of those without access to the local channels in any form, some national ESPN broadcasts would be blacked out when a local broadcast was also taking place. And if you were in the Cubs’ territory, you couldn’t even access the games through MLB.tv.
Enter Marquee Sports Network, which replaces all of those previous outlets and will broadcast nearly all of the games moving forward. Of course, the upcoming launch is still spurring scores of questions as fans try to figure out whether they’ll have it. The Cubs have secured somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 carriage deals to this point, with DirecTV as the lone “blanket” provider until Monday.
“That means in addition to DirecTV, which is available in every home in our territory, if you are a cord-cutter, in terms of people potentially being shut out from our games, there is a way…to have our service,” Kenney told reporters of the Hulu agreement. “We still expect Comcast to carry it, but today, if someone was worried about it, there’s another way of getting our games for the 2020 season.”
Ah yes, Comcast. The dominant carrier in the Chicago market still hasn’t agreed to carry Marquee and almost certainly won’t by the start of Cactus League games. The start of the regular season is likewise in doubt, with sources telling Cubs Insider talks could stretch into May.
The whole territory thing is really important here as well, since initial speculation had been that even those fans living outside of what is considered local to the Cubs could still get Marquee. Not to watch games, mind you, but to get the other Cubs-related programming just like Yankees fans across the country can get YES Network to see everything other than games. From the sounds of it, that is not in the cards here at the outset.
“You can take non-game programming outside the market,” Kenney said. “We are looking at that.”
That means anyone who’s not in the territory as defined by the map above — subject to change based on MLB’s whims — will not have access to Marquee for probably the 2020 season at a minimum. Without knowing the specifics of those additional negotiations, you have to figure they involve a significantly reduced carriage cost due to the lack of games and the diluted percentage of Cubs fans in the market.
As for how this will all impact team payroll, well, no one’s going to offer specifics. Kenney said last year that “much larger” Marquee revenue would be available immediately to fuel one of the highest payrolls in the league, but exactly what that means isn’t clear. He admitted Monday that there will indeed be a lag in the flow of that revenue stream because they have to wait for all the deals to be in place and the games to get started.
What about the coverage itself? In addition to having a boatload of ex-Cubs and other industry luminaries, Marquee is looking to do some different things with its spring training coverage.
“We’re going to do some stuff on the field, including wearing some microphones, maybe even wearing some lipstick cameras to get some unique angles during spring training,” Kenney said. “Which we are allowed to do because it’s our network.”
Then you’ve got Ryan Dempster’s talk show, along with other original programming that will surely morph and mature over time. The network will also feature games of the Cubs’ minor league affiliates, either in their entirety or in a more compressed form, plus classic Cubs games and even other local sports teams that don’t otherwise get much coverage.
I hope this helps a little bit, even though I ended up regurgitating a lot more info than initially planned.
Tl;dr: Marquee will be available on Hulu and DirecTV beginning Saturday, February 22 for those fans inside the Cubs’ broadcast region. Those fans outside the region will not have access to Marquee, even for non-game coverage, and will still need to subscribe to MLB.tv or Extra Innings, etc. The Cubs may eventually extend Marquee outside the territory, similar to how YES Network operates, but those fans would still be blacked out from games.
There is no agreement with Comcast despite ongoing negotiations and there isn’t an ETA on hammering something out. Opening Day is obviously a target for that deal, but it’s not a hard date and it doesn’t seem like anyone is really confident in getting it done by then. Marquee revenues probably won’t impact Cubs payroll this season, so draw your own conclusions there.
Oh, Dish Network subscribers may want to consider jumping ship if they’re really keen on Marquee. Dish has said in the recent past that RSNs are not valuable to their business model and carriage with them isn’t looking good right now.