11:39 PM CDT, October 16, 2013
If the Cubs want to continue their long relationship with WGN-AM 720, dating back to 1925, they likely will have to do it at a reduced price.
Strapped with an expensive rights deal and sharply declining ratings because of the Cubs' struggles on the field, WGN is exercising an option to re-open their contract with the team.
Broadcast sources say WGN is losing significant money on the Cubs broadcasts, with listeners and advertisers tuning out a team that has lost 197 games in the last two years.
Cubs games still will air on the station in 2014, but beyond that, the two sides will have to agree on a new deal.
WGN-AM President Jimmy de Castro declined to discuss any of the specifics of the situation. However, he stressed several times that he hopes the Cubs continue to be on WGN.
"Like any contract, there are periods where you do a business analysis," de Castro said. "Both the Cubs and WGN are looking at it. We love our partnership and we hope it continues forever. The contract calls for us to take a look at it and we're going to do that."
In other words: Forever will end abruptly if the money isn't right for WGN.
Broadcast insiders say the current contract calls for WGN to pay as much as $10 million per year to Cubs ("Maybe more," said one source), making it one of the most expensive in Major League Baseball.
The Yankees recently signed a deal with WFAN in New York, calling for an annual payout estimated in the $15-20 million range.
The Cubs reportedly did a new contract with WGN in 2009 in advance of Tribune Co. selling the team to the Ricketts family. Back then, the Cubs were one year removed from back-to-back playoff appearances in 2007-08. They still were considered a hot commodity, attracting strong ratings on both TV and radio.
Well, not so much in 2013.
Indeed, the Cubs don't appear to have much leverage if they want to shop their games in the market, which now is an option for them. WSCR-AM 670 is locked in with the White Sox.
WMVP-AM 1000 would seem to be an option. However, its deal with the Bulls means potential game conflicts with the Cubs in April and May, and perhaps June if the Bulls go deep in the playoffs. That situation would be difficult to resolve as neither side is likely to agree to be shuttled to a shadow station. Also, it appears unlikely that the ESPN-owned station is in the position or mood to drop big bucks on the Cubs.
WBBM-AM 780 and WLS-AM 890 are not considered to be options, given the volume of Cubs games and the price tag. Going to an FM station isn't a viable alternative for the Cubs.
WGN probably is the only radio choice for the Cubs. It is quite possible that a reworked deal could be tied into a new TV deal with Tribune Co. to keep some Cubs games on WGN-Ch. 9. Negotiations for a new contract beyond 2014 are taking place on that front too.
Given the terms of their broadcast contracts, the Cubs couldn't have picked a worse time to descend into one of the worst declines in franchise history. It's a different story if the Cubs were contenders, at the very least, and it goes up exponentially from there if they actually were a W-W-W-orld Series team.
Indeed, the promise of a sunnier future at Wrigley Field remains the Cubs' best card in its negotiations with WGN in both TV and radio. If the Cubs win again, the ratings will explode, likely shattering all records and making their broadcast partners very happy.
At this point, both the Cubs and Tribune Co. have to come to terms on a key question: What is the exact price of hope?
Special contributor Ed Sherman writes at shermanreport.com. Follow him @Sherman_Report
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