Cubs may say goodbye to WGN-TV after 2014 season

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By Paul Sullivan, Tribune reporter
MESA, Ariz. — Cubs games have been broadcast on WGN-TV since 1948, a relationship that has been beneficial to both under three sets of ownership.

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.

Twitter @PWSullivan

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    • Tired of Morons

      The Cubs went to the world series last year. They bought their tickets as soon as they were on sale so they could get good seats.

  • bubba

    A 300 million dollar renovation for the old ballpark. How about putting the money into a new ballpark. The owner know that the North sider are stupid to always follow the losers so why invest in new players.

  • waldo

    Dam jerks – I hate these owners – they don't care anything about the Fans whatsoever, all they care about is money money money – They just put a dagger in the hearts of all Cub Fans Worldwide by taking the Cubbies away from WGN!!!!!! Shame on you Rickettses for ruining the fans happiness. God, why can't we have a decent owner for once. BOOOOOOO

    • Tired of Morons

      Pay attention. They are going nowhere thru 2014. And you want a decent owner? A team better than a minor league team would be a better choice.

    • bozo

      The Cub owners are brilliant businesspeople. They KNOW quite well that the fool hardy fan base will support a lousy team so they are focusing more on the money making aspects than the winning percentage.

      After all . . . . If you own a restaurant that serves lousy food, but the place is always crowded……why change the menu ???

  • Nicban

    This is very unfortunate to those who don't live in the Chicago area. I have family in Houston who look forward to the games on WGN, because that is the only way they can watch them. There are some things that shouldn't change. :(

  • 30 Rock

    What I could see happening in this instance is that the Cubs go full-on with Comcast, airing most of their games on SportsNet with select games on NBC 5 or its digital sub channel. Who knows, they could even start doing games in Spanish on Telemundo as part of the deal.

  • Karen Haberer

    Watching today’s game,3-17-13. We really like the behind the plate camera as the primary camera. It’s the viewing angle you watch a live game from. Seeing the defense shift as the ball is hit is WAY more interactive as a viewer! Please use this camera more. It could up ratings as you can see more of the game!

  • mike

    One of the reasons the franchise is so valuable is the nation wide fan following on WGN. Ricks may outsmart himself on this one. I can see a few hundred million knocked off the market value on day 1

  • Bill Wheeler

    WGN and Wrigley field have always been a big part of the enjoyment of the Cubs for me. Screw around with either one and . . . ?

  • Jim Mylander

    To The entire Ricket family from a diehard Cubs fan who was born on the north side! How can you even consider leaving WGN! That is why there is professional sports so the FANS can come and watch whether it be at wrigley or on WGN across the country. Do you even care about thevfans across the country. I live in Bloomington Mn and watch the Cubs every chance i get and I have family in the chicago area still. It would be a travesty to leave WGN!

  • Notta Fan

    As a former ticket holder(left when Dickettes took over because of outrageous price increase), to a tean w/o family restrooms(couldn't find a restroom to take my daughter), no parking, food is worst in the majors not to mention a team going absolutely no where, its sad but i will never go to another game nor watch them. I grew up 2 blks from wrigley and hope one of 2-things, new ownership or move them out.

  • C. Ryba

    I am fed up with boy wonders and Ricketts . This long time Cub fan (62 years) will turn to another sport. I absolutely hate what these money hungry owners are doing.