Q. I’m very angry that the Cubs are on this new special channel and my cable service Comcast isn’t carrying it. Do you think this will change before the season begins? Or before spring training games begin? — Yardley, Evanston, Illinois.
Yardley, the new Marquee Sports Network, which will be the exclusive home to Chicago Cubs game broadcasts, launches on February 22, 2020 with the Cubs playing the Oakland Athletics in a spring training contest.
The channel replaces the previous providers of the Cubs games, which includes NBC Sports Chicago and WGN. Marquee, which is owned by the Cubs and the Sinclair Broadcast Group, will feature 150 live Cubs games as well as pre-game and post-game shows, and other Cubs-related programming.
Marquee will be a regional sports network, meaning the Cubs broadcasts will only be available in the team’s broadcast market which includes Illinois, Iowa and Indiana.
So will Comcast carry it, you ask?
I think it will prior to the beginning of the 2020 regular season.
This opinion runs counter to the current prevailing wisdom, and I don’t think it’s a guarantee the largest pay TV provider in the Chicago area will join up. But the Marquee-Comcast situation is quite different than the SportsNet LA mess in LA, which the new Cubs channel is often compared to.
For starters, the company (Time Warner Cable first, and now Charter) that operates SportsNet LA is forced to charge excessive carriage fees because it’s paying $8.35 billion over 25 years to the Dodgers for the management rights; Charter can’t afford to charge less or the venture will be an annual loser. (See this article on why Charter doesn’t lower its fees.)
Consequently, no major pay TV provider (besides Charter) now carries SportsNet LA in the Los Angeles market because it’s too expensive to do so.
In contrast, while Sinclair Broadcasting paid a fee to the Cubs for the rights to Marquee, the sum is regarded as significantly less than the unprecedented fee that Charter is now paying the Dodgers. So Sinclair doesn’t have to charge an unreasonable rate, although it’s not a small one, either. (Note: Marquee has not disclosed the actual price.)
Second, there is less pressure now on pay TV operators in the Los Angeles market to carry SportsNet LA because Charter is the only major service that does. While DIRECTV has likely lost some subscribers to Charter due to not carrying SportsNet LA, the satcaster knows Dish, U-verse, Cox and other pay TV services in the area don’t carry it, either. So, DIRECTV’s subscribers have only one place to turn — Charter — which makes it less likely they will unsubscribe.
In contrast, three pay TV services that compete directly with Comcast in Chicago have agreed to carry Marquee — DIRECTV, U-verse and AT&T TV Now. If Comcast doesn’t carry it, the cable op’s customers have three alternatives to watch their Cubs, making it more likely they will unsubscribe. (Note: Mediacom and Charter are also carrying Marquee in the non-Chicago areas.)
Third, Sinclair also owns more than 100 local stations nationwide as well as 21 Fox-branded regional sports networks. Consequently, the company has enormous leverage in carriage negotiations for Marquee because no pay TV provider wants to be without Sinclair’s other properties if it can avoid it. It makes sense to do business with the broadcaster.
Again, a major contrast: Charter does not own additional channels, which limits its negotiating power.
Add it up and it looks to me that Comcast and Marquee will come to an agreement before the season begins.
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— Phillip Swann