Best Way to Boost Marquee’s Tumbling Ratings? Start Dumping Those Wheelbarrows of Cash into Player Payroll

According to a report by the Tribune’s Robert Channick, Marquee Sports Network has experienced a 56% drop in ratings since launching in 2020. The combination of circumstances over the last three years would have made it nearly impossible for almost any broadcast entity to succeed, but Marquee’s leadership got things started on the wrong foot with carriage negotiations. Then came the pandemic shutdown, which resulted in Marquee resorting to stock footage and failing to establish a foothold with Cubs fans who were still smarting over the team’s departure from free viewing on WGN.

That tepid 2020 season ended in a whimper with a loss to the Marlins in the postseason, then the Cubs traded away most of their stars as the ’21 season went in the tank. They weren’t competitive for most of this past season, finally turning things on late when everyone had already stopped tuning in.

“Our ratings have declined with the team’s performance,” Crane Kenney, the team’s president of business operations, said. “We know that they’ll go back up when the team starts to compete a little more.”

The organization pretty much needs that to be the case, as ratings have dropped from 3.57 in Marquee’s inaugural season to 2.1 last year. That 41% drop was followed by a 25% tumble to a 1.57 rating in 2022, a trend that tracks pretty closely with what we’ve seen with CI readership. Not exactly a good way to drum up money from carriage fees and advertising, though the Cubs are still making more money than they did under their previous deal.

Channick reports that the team nets over $90 million from Marquee’s TV rights, a bump of more than 50% from the $60 million they made with a patchwork combination of partners including NBC Sports Chicago, WGN, and others. It’s a little odd, then, that player payroll has dropped in each of the last few seasons, from an estimated $222 million in 2019 to $146 million this year. But, you know, biblical losses.

Thing is, even that increased rights figure is a pittance when compared to the money being pulled down by teams that were able to secure deals before the regional sports network bubble burst. The Dodgers, whose carriage issues with SportsNet LA served as a cautionary tale for Marquee’s leaders, are laughing all the way to the bank with over $330 million annually from an $8.35 billion pact that runs for 25 years.

The Dodgers are in an even better spot because they didn’t have to put up any funding or deal with headaches from the broadcast side, they can just out and play. The Cubs craved control over their product and entered a 50/50 partnership with Sinclair that saw them putting up half the startup costs, which means that net income isn’t nearly as robust as it might appear.

While the Cubs are somewhat insulated from Sinclair’s disastrous financial bet on all those Fox Sports RSNs as a result of their ownership structure, they also have a greater obligation to themselves to promote their product. That means putting something on the field that fans want to spend three hours a day watching, but they also need to make the product available to more than just the 3 million homes in Chicagoland with access to Marquee.

Sinclair launched a direct-to-consumer streaming service for its Bally Sports RSNs at a cost of $20 per month or $190 a year, though the markets are limited at this point. Other individual teams are trying the same strategy in order to appeal to fans who have either abandoned cable or whose providers have dumped RSNs due to increased prices and decreased demand.

The Cubs are planning to launch their own DTC service as early as next season, reports Channick, though how that would work for out-of-market fans is not yet known. MLB has maintained a very tight grip on broadcast rights, limiting who can watch via which methods. That’s why Marquee was initially available only in the Cubs’ “local” market, with growth in out-of-market territories limited to what is known as shoulder programming.

In other words, even those outside of the imaginary fence MLB has drawn up who can access Marquee can’t watch the actual games. With all due respect to Cole Wright, Lance Brozdowski, Elise Menaker, and others, there simply isn’t enough on Marquee to hook people if they can’t also watch Cubs games. And with the way the team has played the last two seasons, the games have actually provided more of a reason not to watch.

If you still subscribe to the fallacy that the Cubs make enough money from ticket sales to subsist on a mediocre ballclub and you don’t believe the repeated statements by everyone across team leadership that they’ll spend, consider that they need a better product to make money. Everything about this organization right now is screaming that Jed Hoyer will be given a bigger budget this winter to turn the Cubs around, so choosing to believe otherwise in the face of all the evidence is a little silly.

Then again, it seemed pretty silly to talk about avoiding all the Dodgers’ mistakes before going out and repeating them for less than a third of the revenue. Marquee isn’t in danger of being shuttered, but it’s a long way from producing wheelbarrows full of cash to dump in Hoyer’s office. So if they want the network to start laying golden eggs, they’re going to have to spend a little more on food to fatten her up.

That clunky mixed metaphor is really just a way to reiterate the Cubs’ need to get better in a hurry and give the fans a reason to show up at Wrigley or tune to Marquee. While they’re at it, maybe they can get their developers to overhaul what is easily one of the clunkiest streaming apps on the market. No one should have to try that hard just to watch a baseball game, and the reward should be better than an 88-loss team.

Go get it done, Cubs.

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