Marquee Sports Network’s Future Looks ‘Bumpy’ as Comcast Contract Ends in September

Marquee Sports Network’s launch in early 2020 was fraught with problems, not the least of which was MLB’s shutdown due to the pandemic. Even before its primary source of programming was removed, however, the fledgling RSN faced an uphill climb with carriage negotiations. Dish Network had dropped nearly all sports programming in July of 2019, YouTube TV’s negotiations with the Sinclair RSNs crumbled, and Hulu was late to pick up Marquee before dropping it at the end of the 2020 season.

All the while, the biggest target was Comcast.

As the largest cable provider in the Chicagoland market, failing to work out a carriage deal Xfinity’s service would have been a death knell for Marquee. The folks at Comcast knew that and were thus in no hurry to give Marquee a sweetheart deal. Nothing was in place when the network launched during spring training and it wasn’t until MLB restarted in late July that the two sides were able to reach an agreement.

Fast-forward almost four years and the Cubs could have that same problem on their hands all over again as the Comcast contract expires in September. Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney joined 670 The Score’s Bernstein & Holmes Show last Friday to discuss that matter and the difficulties Marquee faces as the sports broadcast landscape continues to evolve. Or devolve as the case may be.

“I wish the clock was turned back to 2011 in that regard,” Kenney explained. “Because the market is in turmoil. You’ve got half the RSNs in bankruptcy, being rejected in their rights agreements. You got wonderful markets like Atlanta – like if you’re a Comcast subscriber in Atlanta, you can’t watch the Braves today. If you’re a Comcast subscriber in Milwaukee, you can’t watch the (Brewers) today. If you’re a Comcast subscriber in Detroit, another great baseball market, you can’t watch the Tigers today. They’ve been dropped.

“Jerry (Reinsdorf) is parting with Comcast here. They’re dropping [the White Sox, Bulls, and Blackhawks]. So Comcast has made it pretty clear that they are exiting the sports market. And half of our homes are Comcast homes. And our contract with Comcast ends in September. So trust me, the reason I spend – other than worrying about our batting average with runners in scoring position – the other thing that keeps me up all night is worrying about what’s going to happen with distribution.”

You don’t need me to tell you that none of this looks good for Marquee’s continued carriage across cable TV in the Cubs’ viewing territory. While they do have a stand-alone streaming service available to anyone in that same region, how many fans are going to be both able and willing to fork over $20/month in addition to their hefty cable bill? I have the Marquee app, but only because I canceled Xfinity first.

This is precisely why I’ve been saying for a long time now that the organization needed to be more aggressive in putting together a competitive team. We’re no longer in the halcyon days of WGN when people would tune in to while away summer afternoons. If fans are going to have to pay to watch the Cubs, they have a very legitimate expectation of getting a solid product. That goes for the broadcast as well.

Though Kenney was quick to point out Marquee’s Emmy wins and the fact that it’s been named RSN of the Year two years in a row, users find the app interface clunky and unreliable. But, again, those are the folks who are willing to pay for it and thus want something that’s going to work. It doesn’t matter how many accolades are given to the folks making the network run, the Cubs simply aren’t playing well enough to generate a massive push to the app if Comcast tells Marquee to pound sand.

“They’re doing a great job on the programming side, but I think distribution is going to be a challenge,” Kenny said. “And I’m sure you’re going to be asking me…in September, you’re going to go, ‘Hey, what’s going on now?’ Because it’s going to be bumpy.”

There are a number of different ways this could all play out, among which is the potential for it to be resolved with little to no fuss visible to those of us outside of the negotiations. Just how Marquee fares in the end could very well hinge on ownership’s urgency and how that informs what the Cubs do between now and September. By that, I mean how willing the decision-makers are to ensure they’ve got leverage when it comes to pitching their continued carriage on Marquee.

The cable giant will have them by the balls if June and July play out like we saw in May, with the Cubs flailing and fans tuning out early if they opted to watch the game at all. It could be a different story if the front office is given the green light to attack the trade market here in the next few weeks. Whether it’s the potential massive loss of TV revenue or failure to remain in the postseason hunt, the Cubs can’t afford to sit on their hands until the trade deadline.

That’s one of the two main paths they could take, the other of which is far less rosy. I don’t think it’s out of the question — and I’m sure some believe this is very much the preferred choice — for them to stay the course and ride it out in the hopes that enough fans will flip to Marquee’s DTC option that losing Comcast won’t matter. They don’t need nearly as many subscribers given the monthly cost, though the beauty of a carriage deal is that they’re pulling in money from Xfinity customers whether they watch the Cubs or not.

Kenney is likely hoping to create a groundswell of feedback from Cubs fans who don’t want to lose Marquee from their cable package, but the timing is less than perfect right now. The problem is that apathy, while not at an all-time low, may limit any complaints to a slightly louder murmur than usual. As much as I hope I’m wrong, the organization’s track record over the last several years does nothing to stir any optimism that this ends well.

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