Last week, 670 The Score’s Bruce Levine broke the news that the Cubs would break away from NBC Sports Chicago to build their own Network. While it is still unclear what that network will look like, one thing is clear. The Cubs are betting on themselves and their brand to create a year-round Cubs Network and they are confident it will be successful.
Over the last few days, I have been trying to wrap my head around the idea of what a Cubs network would look like, and if it would work for the Cubs and their fans when it launches next October.
Cubs going it alone on new TV deal. Sox – Bulls and Hawks will have a new regional network . Get the skinny in my story @670TheScore
— Bruce Levine (@MLBBruceLevine) August 28, 2018
After 3 straight NLCS appearances, a World Series Title and an explosion both inside and outside Wrigley Field with first-class amenities, restaurants, hotels and nightlife, the Cubs’ brand has never been bigger. They dominate our Twitter feeds, TVs, Radio and conversation.
But are the Cubs taking a big risk by building their own network in the current media landscape come 2019? While as an organization, they would be able to control every aspect of the broadcast, bring in all television and media sales revenue and create multimedia job opportunities in the #3 market in the country, are they too late in the TV network game?
In an ever-changing media world, fans are finding a tremendous amount of ways to interact and watch the game of baseball outside traditional TV. Because of all of these different methods, will current Chicago cable powerhouses such as Comcast, AT&T/Direct TV, RCN or DISH be willing to spend the carriage fee to carry this new Cubs network that will most certainly be at a premium cost to both them and their customers?
Or with a slowly declining cable subscription pattern across the country, will carriers simply not choose to pay to include the Cubs network in their services because it wouldn’t be cost effective? And will fans pay an extra premium on top of their cable bill or streaming fees just to watch the network? If the answer to all of these questions is no, the Cubs are in trouble.
If the Cubs go through all the trials and tribulations to build a television network only for nobody in Chicago to able to watch it, will it have been worth it?
All of these concerns can be better understood through two already existing examples in the MLB.
The first case study is the more recent example that features the LA Dodgers and their deal with Spectrum Cable. In short, in January of 2013, the Dodgers and Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum) signed a 25-year deal for $8.35 billion dollars to create the Dodgers’ own network SportsNetLA. The Dodgers, like the Cubs, bet on themselves to create their own network and thought that because they were such an iconic team and brand in L.A, there was no way fans wouldn’t follow their favorite team over to Spectrum Cable.
However, they bet wrong. The Dodgers were only available through one cable provider and the fans never followed. As of 2017, the Dodger games reached fewer than HALF of the local households in LA. And remember, the Dodgers went to the World Series in 2017. But sadly, a majority of their fans couldn’t watch their pennant race and didn’t seem to care since the need to switch cable providers or pay the network fee wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Me: DID YOU GUYS SEE THAT DODGERS WIN?!
Most of LA: we don’t have Spectrum….
— Ashley Brewer (@abc7ashley) September 2, 2018
The subscription boost Spectrum had thought they would secure as the exclusive home to Dodgers’ baseball never happened, and most of Dodger Nation is now left without their team on TV. As big as the Dodgers are, their fans didn’t follow when they jumped ship from Fox Sports. Will Cubs fans follow their team to their new network if they are only picked up by one cable provider or if the cost is much more expensive? We’ll have to wait and see. But if the Dodgers prove anything, the odds aren’t in the Cubs favor.
Is the 16 Sunday’s a year when most games are at 10 am really worth it. Think of how many Dodgers, UCLA, USC football and basketball games they miss for their patrons. And noticed smart bars that have Spectrum usually packed because fans figure it out.
— Fred J. Robledo (@SGVNSports) September 3, 2018
The Cubs, as the Dodgers did, could be alienating their most important fans if they made a similar move and the fans, potentially feeling slighted and cost-conscious, would simply not pay for the service or network.
But looking at the current Cubs’ brand, I understand why they want to strike while the iron is hot, but at what risk? Is their own network worth potentially losing your most loyal fans? And in a time where the media landscape is continuously shifting and fracturing, I am not so sure a casual fan would be quick to purchase a new cable subscription or network at a significant cost just to watch the Cubs.
In contrast to the Dodgers however, the second example that the Cubs would love to emulate, would be the YES Network, home to the New York Yankees. The joint venture between the Yankees and 21st Century Fox launched in 2002 when cable was booming and the idea of building a network of this caliber was unprecedented and welcomed into the media landscape.
The Yankees were and still are the crown jewel of New York sports and as cable continued to grow, there was no doubt that every carrier would be fully on board to broadcast the Yankees. Especially after they won the World Series just two years earlier.
But the media landscape was a completely different animal back then. While cable is still king when it comes to sports, there are many different heirs to the throne, trying to chip away at its power with streaming, social media and other avenues to engage with the game.
With that in mind, while the Yankees are the success story, their journey with their network began 16 years ago. The Cubs would love to have the empire the Yankees built with YES, but I worry that their story may be more like the Dodgers, who 5 years ago, took a big swing and made an ill-advised wager in a changing media market, and struck out.
#GREED #Spectrum @MLB @Dodgers @MagicJohnson Absolutely disgusting that today is Labor Day, the #Dodgers are in the middle of the pennant race and I’m relegated to listen to the game on the radio like it was 1958 instead of 2018. #MLB, please do something!!
— Mel R. Valenzuela (@MelMatchmaker) September 4, 2018
There is no telling what the new Cubs Network may become, and they could be absolutely correct in understanding the cable trends and fans’ TV loyalty to the Cubs in the market. But they better be careful because if the Dodgers have proved anything, it is that betting on yourself does not always lead to guaranteed success.