The hiring of Harry Caray and the move to become a superstation status spread the gospel of Cubs baseball nationally during the 1980s, helping turn the lovable losers into a lucrative franchise.
For years the Cubs were the only game on TV across the country in the daytime, making them a nationally beloved entity through thick and thin. That in turn helped increase the franchise’s value from $20.5 million in 1981 when Tribune Co. bought it to $845 million when the Ricketts family purchased the team, the ballpark and 25 percent of Comcast SportsNet in 2009.
But Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts is always looking to increase the team’s revenue sources, and now it appears likely the team will wave goodbye to their longtime TV home when its contract ends after the 2014 season.
Ricketts declined to address their plans on Sunday, except to say a discussion on rights fees will begin in 2013.
“Obviously local media rights have been increasing in value,” he said. “Hopefully at some point we will be able to get more value for our media rights. It’s just something that’s playing out over time.”
Ricketts addressed many issues on Sunday, saying the Cubs aren’t planning to add extra night games or signage this season. They are trying to convince the city to relax ordinances that would allow them to make those changes, promising to pay the freight for their $300 million Wrigley Field renovation plan when a deal is completed.
But the question about whether the Cubs will leave WGN moved to the front burner after former TV analyst Bob Brenly said Saturday he was ready to return to the broadcast booth before being informed only two years of his contract would be guaranteed because the WGN deal expires after ’14.
The Cubs eventually signed Houston’s Jim Deshaies to a four-year deal. Cubs business president Crane Kenney declined to comment about Brenly’s remarks.
The Rickettses have shed players, managers, announcers, executives, scouts, even the employee responsible for getting the seventh-inning stretch singers over the last two years. But leaving WGN would mark the end of an era soaked in nostalgia.
The Cubs are a bottom-line team, and have decreased payroll by 25 percent in the first three seasons of the Ricketts family ownership. But Ricketts said: “You’re kind of comparing it to Tribune (Co.) payrolls of the last couple years, which, from our standpoint and the team standpoint, were just unsustainable.”
Tribune Co. steadily decreased the number of Cubs games on WGN over the years because more money could be made on cable. And now that Tribune Co. no longer owns the team, the Rickettses have no obligation to keep the games on their station.
“We’ll find out a lot more over the next 12 months,” Ricketts said.
The Cubs have explored having their own network, and a source said they’ve even filmed interviews with legendary players for future use in network programming. But asked about those plans, Ricketts said, “we’re still in the early stages and don’t have all the options laid out.”
The rights fees are expected to increase significantly after the WGN contract ends, but their deal with Comcast SportsNet runs through 2019. Ricketts said the Cubs have a “great partnership with WGN” and the fact that fans across the country can see them on the superstation will be a “factor” in the decision.
But tradition and fans obviously won’t play into the decision as much as money.