You Can't Catch it All on WGN, and That's Not a Bad Thing

You Can't Catch it All on WGN, and That's Not a Bad Thing

Baseball season's here again. You can catch it all on...ESPN? No, that's not it. WBBM? I don't think that's it either, but at least it's Chicago. WSCR? C'mon, now you're just trolling; besides, that one doesn't even rhyme. One way or the other though, fans have only got a couple more months before they'll have to change the lyrics to "Go, Cubs, Go."

The dying Cubs fan's last request was to find out whether they still played the blues in Chicago when baseball season rolls around. Well, when the snow melts away, the Cubbies do play in their ivy-covered burial ground, only now there'll be a couple new stations broadcasting the funeral.

I suppose it's fitting that the current partner's call letters are an acronym for World's Greatest Newspaper, since both WGN-TV and radio are fast becoming as anachronistic as print media, at least when it comes to the Cubs. To quote myself from Twitter, the notion that WGN is still a huge evangelizing force for the Cubs is laughable.

I know that some you in the choir will read that and respond with "Amen! Preach on, Evan!" Still others out there in the congregation are likely shaking your heads and mumbling under your breath at the temerity of my words. And I'll agree that making such statements back in the 80's or 90's would have branded me a heretic, but those times are long gone.

The change in the radio coverage, while perhaps a bit jarring to the mind at first, will be unnoticed as long as Pat Hughes makes the move. I've seen nothing to indicate that this is a done deal, but surely the station that acquires the rights would do everything possible to bring Pat over. Heck, they might even pay him enough to start wearing clothes tailored in the last quarter century.

But with all due respect to Hughes and the late, great Ron Santo (and those who manned the booth before them), it's WGN-TV that gets the credit for prosthelytizing and indoctrinating millions of fans into the Cubs congregation. The TV signal reached coast-to-coast and almost every game was played in the afternoon, where the only competition for young viewers was soap operas.

Actually going to Wrigley was a real treat, but even if you couldn't attend the service, you could simply tune in to Channel 9 to be transported to that venerable old baseball cathedral by the lake. A charismatic and beloved preacher held sway over the masses, his love for the game evident in his heartfelt, if at times garbled, sermons.

Cubs games on WGN used to be destination viewing. Whether you rushed home off the bus to catch the last few innings, or took a break from playing outside during the summer, the ballgame drew young fans like moths to a porch light. Those broadcasts made it seem as though Wrigley was the center of the baseball universe, and watching on TV made you a part of the event.

Of course, it wasn't all about the kids; the pervy cameramen made sure to provide fodder for the older male viewers, which often got in the way of said preacher's homily. But in the end, it's all about reaching the youth, catching them early and creating a love for the team that goes beyond reason, to the point where it's intrinsic.

That's how it was for me. When I was growing up, we were lucky to pull more than 4 or 5 stations from the big antennae out on the farm, so it's not as though we had much of a choice. Lucky for us, WGN was one of those stations and my dad and grandfather had been exposed to the Cubs in the same manner already, so there was really no resistance.

My brother and I would sit there with our communal meal of Saltine (or maybe Zesta) crackers and our sodas of choice (mine was Pepsi, his Chocola) to watch the games, falling in love with the concept of the Cubs and developing an unshakable faith.  Even when the team was woeful, there was a joy in the broadcast that gave us hope.

And it was kind of a circus, or maybe a zoo, back in those days as well. Ryno, Bull, Penguin, and Trout performed to the delight of the fans in their homes, the stands, and in folding chairs across the streets. Who wouldn't want to be a part of that?

But as much fun as it is to hearken back to those days of youthful optimism with wide-eyed nostalgia, things just aren't the same. Gone are the days of green-screen DOS computers and 5 television channels, of pop in glass bottles (unless you buy the "throwback" version with, gasp, real sugar), and a commentator with pop-bottle glasses.

Back in the day, you didn't have to seek the Cubs out because they were on every day for nearly everyone in America to watch. Even if you weren't a fan, you didn't have much of an alternative on any given summer afternoon. Wrigley has lights and WGN has lost rights, Al Gore inventing this internet thing, and there about 15,000 different television stations with every kind of program imaginable.

If you can't reach the youth and capture their attention, you can't grow a fanbase; I hope this doesn't shock any of you, but WGN isn't the go-to for kids these days. I really like Len Kasper, but he's no Harry Caray. Maybe if Len goes out drinking for 288 consecutive days, he can rekindle the magic of those days of yore.

Sure, the Cubs still get a national outlet despite fielding a terrible product these last few years. But the relevance of that big reach is greatly diminished from the behemoth it once was. Take last night, for instance: the Cubs captured their first walk-off win since June 13th, 2013, nearly one full year between such victories. Dogpiles and shaving cream pies for everyone! And people were watching the game on...you guessed it: CSN Chicago.

WGN was showing the White Sox game, probably sandwiched between Salem and re-runs of America's Funniest Home Videos. While the Cubs made the move to opt out of their contract, WGN America has decided to drop sports altogether, a decision based purely on money. You see, the appeal of Chicago sports just isn't as great once you get outside of the immediate market. Huh, who'da thunk?

When you've got a partnership that's not working out for either party, the best option may simply be to move on. WGN feels it's better served by creating original programming to augment its slate of canned comedies and the Cubs want more money; both laudable pursuits.

I love WGN, but I love the Cubs more. Some will say that kids won't be willing or able to seek out the Cubs if they move to create their own network or if they're only available out-of-market on MLB,tv. But the thing is, kids aren't seeking out the Cubs on WGN as it is; if you still believe that's the case, I'm afraid you're way out of touch.

So if the team can garner a new deal for more money, that can only be a good thing. And if even a little of that money goes into building a better team to display on that new channel, even better.

The memories of our youth aren't going to be tarnished by a break with WGN, just like our memories of a loved one aren't lessened by their passing. So rather than bemoan the loss of a television broadcast partner, let's focus on the future of the Cubs. Because if this plan really works out, there'll be plenty of new memories to make.

Do you have any favorite stories about growing up and watching or listening to the Cubs on WGN? Share them in the comments.

Follow me on Twitter: @DEvanAltman

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  • fb_avatar

    Growing up a latch key in Iowa, the Cubs on WGN were my after school and summer obsession. I was 7 years old in 1984 when Ryno, The Deer, The Zonk, The Red Baron, The Penquin and Jody! Jody Davis introduced me to the sport and the team that will forever occupy my mind and heart. I look forward to passing it on to my sons but it will definitely be more difficult.

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    In reply to Joe Hayes:

    Thanks for sharing, Joe. I actually changed my TV provider a few years back just to get CSN Chicago and I've subscribed to the MLB audio package for years just for those times when the game is on WCIU or blacked out on ESPN (Indy is in blackout range for Chicago, STL, and Cincy).

  • Your WGN Superstation reference reminds me that when I lived elsewhere, there was the constant tug of war whether the local cable co. would carry it (and WOR, WPIX, and WSBK). I reconnected cable when WGN came back, and instantly got a double header of the Cubs and jorel's favorite team. At that time, I thought that the latter were only on Sportsvision.

    The only alternative that now seems open to the Cubs is whether they can get a national distribution deal like YES has. Then there'll be the debate, like over the Big Ten Network Tax, over whether cable and satellite viewers want to pay to see that team, as opposed to the Yankees, which also have that incentive to put a decent team on the field.

    The unanswered business question is that while Robert Feder quoted Jimmy DeCastro as saying that WGN720 would not match CBS's bid, and was losing $6 million a year, it has not been indicated whether CBS offered the Cubs what they were seeking, or just more than WGN. Also, the statement about the Cubs resulting in that loss is counter the popular wisdom that under Tribune ownership, WGN TV and Radio were milking the Cubs, financially speaking.

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    In reply to jack:

    Well said, Jack. When I first wrote about this topic there were a lot of people bemoaning the Cubs and their money-hungry ways. But it's just simple business; WGN was indeed milking the Cubs cow for quite some time.

    The Cubs certainly aren't a good product right now, but their fanbase is still far-flung and will watch despite the losing. When they do win again, it's only going to increase demand. But WGN isn't interested in that, at least not at the prices the Cubs would like to fetch, particularly given the insane money other teams have gotten in TV deals lately.

    I may be in the minority, but I'd love to get back to having a single source for all the Cubs games, or at least a vast majority of them. MLB.tv isn't an option for me right now due to blackout rules, but if the FCC is serious about doing away with those, that's another great tool.

    It takes at least 21 consecutive days to establish a habit, or so they say, and WGN was as much about habitual repetition as anything else. The Cubs were there every day; that's not true today and won't be unless they consolidate under one broadcast partner.

  • In reply to Evan Altman:

    I read the link, and note that Dennis Farina is dead. I saw a Pace bus (6396) with an advertising wrap for Old Style, but it didn't say where to get it.*

    I did see last night a roll sign for "I need my Dodgers," which, when bringing up the site, was the usual "call your cable company and demand that they pick up Time Warner Net." So, maybe Time Warner Cable got a bit over its skis, but Comcast is buying it out.

    My understanding is that mlb.tv is only a streaming service, and hence the FCC does not have jurisdiction over it. The only reason the football blackout was lifted was that Congress passed a law to that effect. It has also been said that the mlb.tv blackout is because mlb,tv came only after other media outlets got exclusive local rights.

    The "one source" issue is that the Cubs are locked into Comcast Sports Net Chicago until 2019, and Comcast reportedly only owns 20%, with the 4 teams holding the other equal shares. Essentially, Ricketts would have to pay off Reinsdorf interests, which hold 2 of those 4 shares.

    __________
    *Someone asked me if Hamm's Beer was still in business. I said, I don't know, but I remember when they sponsored the Cubs. YouTube has the commercial.

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    In reply to jack:

    Unless it's changed, MLB.tv was still subject to, or perhaps just abided by, local blackout rules. They didn't want to cannibalize the product I guess, but the way the blackout maps are drawn goes well beyond the normal "attendance radius" of the respective teams.

  • In reply to Evan Altman:

    I guess it also depends on the territories that the original media outlets had, such as "the [team] radio network" or cable systems authorized to carry the real WGN-TV as opposed to WGN America.

    You might remember that there was a stink maybe 15 years ago about the NBA saying that WGN was not authorized to put all the Bulls games on Channel 9 onto the Superstation. You should note that the Bulls games are copyright the NBA, as opposed to baseball games (other than Fox national ones) with a copyright notice in the name of the team.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to jack:

    Also, I did reference Mr. Farina's passing in a piece that appeared on this site, though I don't really feel like linking it. All those interested should simply peruse my collective works, or just google Old Style for Dinner.

  • The rational side of me knows this is the right decision. The heart is furious because, from the day the Cubs leave WGN-TV until the day the cable cartel is laid low and I can purchase CSN as a standalone or MLB.TV in network, I will not be able to watch the club. I would rather eat hot nails than support the cable cartel.

  • In reply to Darth Stout:

    My view has been that I'm not willing to pay over $100/month for 800 channels of nothing. However, between what you mention and the Aereo case, the threat seems there that broadcast TV could be limited to reruns of Canadian hoarders and hairdressers programs.

    On the cable side, though, I predict that streaming will soon make the "cable network" model obsolete, and hence I am in agreement with you there.

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    In reply to Darth Stout:

    They could remain on WGN locally, since it's just WGN America that will not be carrying Chicago sports to the rest of the country. That's bad for me, unless I reclaim the antennae from the old farm and slap it in my front yard. Okay, I know I can get something smaller, but I think you get what I'm saying.

    What I don't get about the MLB.tv garbage is that I can't imagine too many people who would opt for the computer when they have the ability to view the game on their actual TV. I just wanted it for games that were on The U. Then again, these blackout rules are all based on the misconception that an inability to watch an event on TV will result in better attendance.

    Not only is that not based in fact, but I'd argue that the effect is quite the opposite. Look at the Indy 500, which is blacked out locally; the last 2 years have featured perhaps the most exciting races in the history of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, but no one can experience that live on TV. Were we able to do so, particularly with our kids, there would be a greater impetus to actually attend in the future.

    Lifting blackout restrictions would actually serve to drive demand for in-person viewing, or at least that's how I see it.

  • In reply to Evan Altman:

    Sounds like you have to move away from Indianapolis.

    I remember when ABC ran the 500 only on delay, but that ended eons ago.

  • In reply to Evan Altman:

    Once this current contract expires, I expect WGN to broadcast at most 20 games per year. CSN pays far more per game than WGN.

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    In reply to Darth Stout:

    But with all the big bucks rolling in from originals like Salem and Manhattan, WGN should be rolling in enough dough to throw cash at the Cubs all day. Okay, yeah, maybe not.

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    I have to wonder if maybe this WBBM slot on the radio side is not a precursor to a TV deal?

    We have all talked about the idea of the Cubs hooking up with the local Fox affiliate in Chicago and it being the stepping stone to a Cubs network with Fox Sports 1 in 2019. But what about the idea of a it being with CBSportsline in 2019 instead? They are trying to develop a national market and with just agreed upon MiLB game of the week showing that CBS is open to try anything to develop a market. A national brand like the Cubs may be just the ticket to get that particular network some much needed eye balls on its channel.

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    In reply to Richard Hood:

    I think that's a possibility and would hope Fox thinks the same thing. The ideal situation would have a couple different entities fighting over the Cubs.

    I know there's been a lot of talk about the Cubs being bad and not having leverage, but I have traveled to several road games well outside the Midwest and the Cubs are very well represented. Miami, Anaheim, Colorado; all had nearly half Cubs fans. That tells me there's a strong demand outside the local market for a unified network.

  • In reply to Evan Altman:

    On the "bad point," Jimmy deCastro is now on Bob and Marianne's show, and said that while WGN was willing to continue losses to support the rebuilding effort, that ceased to make economic sense when rating meters indicated that nobody was listening to the Cubs broadcasts on some weekends. He also noted the problem that advertisers now have other means than just paying the broadcast outlet.

  • In reply to jack:

    I had written last Oct that WGN was losing money and would be willing to do so in a differently structured deal.

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    In reply to Evan Altman:

    I totally agree that the Cubs are probably only one of 4 teams that can split a fan base anywhere they play. All you have to do is look north to Milwaukee to see that they have a tendency to turn every ball park into a home field advantage when they are good.

    I just hope that they are good enough by the time the whole TV deal is up in 2019 to make a few different Cable outlets drool over them being on the market.

  • In reply to Richard Hood:

    Milwaukee is only 80 miles away (less if the fans live in the north suburbs). There may be places, like Arizona, with Chicago retirees or transplants, but one will have to see in the future if blue shirts show up in places like Pittsburgh or Atlanta if the Cubs lose their current national cable TV exposure.

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    In reply to jack:

    Actually before their recent resurgence some of the Pirates best attendance numbers were when the Cubs came to town.

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    In reply to jack:

    But my whole point is that the current national exposure isn't what's growing the fanbase. Those people all became Cubs fans in the 80's or before and that has carried through. They're not getting CSN Chicago out in Cali or South FL, so those people have subsisted on the decreasing number of games available to them. They, however, do have access to the online streams. A lot of people became Cubs fans because they were the only thing on TV during the day, but that has long since stopped being the case.

    And despite the awful last few years, the Cubs are still 2nd in MLB in road attendance %, at 79.9, which is actually .9% better than they do at home.

  • In reply to Evan Altman:

    The only conclusion from your comment would be that mlb.com is doing a better job than WGN America.

    It still leaves the questions whether Cubs fans travel well and if the comparatively older ones who were weaned on WGN Superstation are going to keep their interest when the team only sporadically wins and Chicago sports leave WGN America.

    BTW, JD pointed out that someone was wearing a NY Rangers jersey in the stands last night and wondered from where he came. However, the stands were pretty empty, but as it got dark it wasn't clear whether they stayed that way or that a lot of ticket holders were stuck on I-90 coming in from Barrington.

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    In reply to jack:

    I know you're using a figure of speech in terms of fans "traveling," as they don't actually fly from Chicago to follow the Cubs on road trips, but I think WGN instilled the fandom long enough ago that it's stuck in place.

    But like a church congregation that ceases to bring in young members, the fanbase has continued to age. It's not as noticeable yet since the influence on kids continued into the early 90s, but the advent of lights at Wrigley, home video game consoles, the internet, and fewer games on WGN all changed the game at that point.

    WGN's influence can't be denied, but I would guess that it stopped gaining new, young fans about 20 years ago. I don't see how I drew the conclusion that MLB.com or .tv is doing a better job than WGN; my point is that out-of-market fans who were created by WGN are able to use MLB.tv in lieu of the CSNChicago broadcasts that those of us in this region can get.

    MLB.tv is not growing the fanbase because kids aren't going to randomly happen upon an online broadcast, which is the whole reason the Cubs have so many out-of-market fans.

  • In reply to Evan Altman:

    On the traveling, not as a figure of speech, as I mentioned that Miller Park is only 80 miles from Wrigley, and probably 65 from where many of the Cubs fans live.

    Wrigley at least used to be a destination for tourists (as implied by JD's Rangers observation), and yesterday Ricketts justified his proposal to the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce on the basis of the tourism it would bring back.

    If your conclusion is that mlb.tv (my error in my prior post) is not making new Cubs fans, it seems like, that at a minimum, the hotel component is not going to work in the long term (maybe some 50 or 60 somethings might check in now, but not the 25 year old equivalent of the interviewed guy behind the Shawon -O-Meter* 25 years ago).

    _____
    *In fact that actually was a Cubs moment, and also shows that instead of the spontaneous fan activities in the 1980s, yesterday's K signs were Kraft logos.

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    In reply to Evan Altman:

    I can't reply to the most recent one; did you find a way to disable that, jack? My talk of traveling was more related to the overall statistics and to the fact that there are large contingents of Cubs fans at games across the country. WGN brainwashed a lot of us as kids, but is not doing so now, so now the indoctrination is left up to the parents.

  • In reply to Evan Altman:

    I didn't disable anything; at some point a thread of replies runs out of buttons. At least this one is better than most (such as Yahoo!) that only allow one level of replies.

    Brainwashed or not, the question gets down to that the Cubs and teams the Cubs visited relied on those fans. Somehow the Dodgers average 46,000, but you aren't giving any indication how the Cubs will even be able to get back to their former capacity crowd of ~40,700 (or whatever). The projection on which Bruce Levine relies averages 29,000. Yesterday's box score says 28,185, so I guess yesterday was average.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Evan Altman:

    Win ballgames. Or reduce capacity numbers to illustrate only the crowd in the bleachers. The tourists will still show up no matter what, but the frequency of attendance for the low-to-moderate level fans and local folks is directly tied to winning. That's the same for anyone. The team's not exciting and they're admittedly not going to be this year, so the casual fan has no impetus to attend.

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