Q. I read your story saying that you think Comcast will add the new Cubs channel by opening day. So what is the holdup? Why doesn’t Comcast do it already? — Mitch, Evanston, Illinois.
Mitch, as you know, the new Marquee Sports Network, which will be the exclusive TV home for the Chicago Cubs, launches on February 22, 2020 with the Cubs playing the Oakland Athletics in a spring training contest.
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. Thus far, DIRECTV, U-verse, AT&T TV Now, Mediacom and Charter have agreed to carry it.
But not Comcast, the largest pay TV provider in the Chicago market.
A few weeks ago, I did predict that Comcast will add Marquee prior to opening day. But I think there are three reasons why the cable operator and Marquee’s owners (Sinclair Broadcasting and the Cubs) have not signed a deal yet.
1. The pressure is on Marquee, not Comcast.
At the annual team fanfest held last month, Cubs owner Tom Ricketts was booed by fans when he brought up Marquee during a speech. There’s a clear sentiment in Chicago that Sinclair and the Cubs are being greedy for starting the new channel rather than continue having the games on channels that are more accessible such as WGN and NBC Sports Chicago. Consequently, there’s more pressure on Marquee than Comcast in this negotiation. This allows Comcast to sit back and wait for an offer that works for them.
2. Comcast is not worried about losing video subscribers.
That may sound crazy, but Comcast, like other major cable TV operators, are generating huge profits by expanding their Internet services, which are in increasingly high demand because of the growing popularity of streaming. While Comcast wants to attract, and keep, as many video subscribers as possible, it’s no longer the priority it once was and therefore the cable operator is not worried if some subs leave because it doesn’t carry Marquee. This also gives Comcast more leverage in the negotiation with Marquee.
3. The Cubs are not helping their own cause.
Throughout the off-season, there have been reports that the Cubs might trade Kris Bryant, or a few other star players, in an effort to trim payroll and/or change team chemistry. Although there has yet to be a major trade, the Cubs continue to act like a team that doesn’t have high hopes for 2020. This vibe has undoubtedly tempered fan enthusiasm for the team, which also undoubtedly has helped Comcast remain firm in its stance. If the city was amped up for another World Series, there would be greater pressure on the cable operator to add Marquee. But that’s not the case, and it’s the Cubs’ fault. The team’s executives picked a bad time to project uncertainty for the upcoming season.
Add it up and Comcast is in the catbird’s seat, as former Brooklyn Dodgers announcer Red Barber used to say.
So while I think Comcast and Marquee will make a deal, I also think the latter will have to bend a bit before it happens.
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— Phillip Swann