Saturday night’s Chicago Cubs loss to the Mets averaged 7.9 million total viewers on TBS, the largest audience the network has ever had for an NLCS Game 1. In fact, the game was the most-viewed program on all of TV — broadcast or cable — for the night, according to Nielsen.
Cubs executives say the club’s ratings success shows their competitive young playoff team is ready not only for prime time but also the planned launch of its own regional sports network five seasons from now.
“It really sets the stage for a launch of the Cubs-only network (for the 2020 season), when all of these core players will be in their prime, and our expectations for on the field performance will be just as good as it is today,” Cubs President of Business Operations Crane Kenney said Friday.
The Cubs opted out of a longer-term agreement with Tribune Media’s WGN-Ch. 9 two years ago, restructuring TV deals to sync up expiring broadcast and cable rights after the 2019 season, when the team will look to launch its own regional sports network.
Kenney said the team’s strong performance gives it a “tail wind” as its discussions with four potential partners are ongoing, with an announcement expected no later than 2018.
The current contracts reduced WGN’s portion of the schedule to 40 games, while ABC-owned WLS-Ch. 7 picked up 25 games. Comcast SportsNet Chicago — a regional sports network launched in 2004 by Comcast partnering with the Cubs, White Sox, Blackhawks and Bulls — carries the bulk of the Cubs schedule.
National cable channel WGN America dropped local sports this season, ending nearly four decades of beaming Cubs baseball to far-flung places across the country.
There are indications that the prices that cable subscribers are willing to pay for local sports may have peaked with the Los Angeles Dodgers deal. For two full seasons, a majority of Los Angeles-area viewers couldn’t watch Dodgers broadcasts because other cable and satellite operators refused to pay a premium for the regional sports network.
The broader trend of cord cutting continues to gain traction, with pay television services losing 625,000 subscribers in the second quarter, and more declines projected ahead, according to SNL Kagan. Sports are the most expensive component of the cable bundle.
ESPN charges $8.80 per subscriber, the most of any national cable network, according to SNL Kagan. But ESPN lost 3.2 million subscribers in just over a year, according to Nielsen, as viewers dropped cable or downgraded to less expensive packages.
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