(MCT) — While the Chicago Cubs and rooftop owners debate proposed stadium billboards, a much more lucrative revenue source is in the team's sights.
Officials confirmed Monday that the team plans to begin renegotiating its broadcast rights agreement with WGN-TV, putting nearly half of its televised games in play after the 2014 season and opening the door to a potentially imminent payday that could help fund proposed Wrigley Field renovations.
The Cubs and WGN-TV have a broadcast partnership that dates to 1948 and a history that is inextricably linked. With baseball rights fees soaring in recent years, due in part to the creation of exclusive team cable channels, there is much at stake for both. Last month, the Los Angeles Dodgers launched their own cable sports network, striking a deal with Time Warner Cable that will pay the team a reported $7 billion to broadcast its games over 25 years.
The Cubs couldn't create their own cable channel until 2020.
For now, Cubs games are split between Comcast SportsNet Chicago and WGN-TV, earning the club about $60 million in annual broadcast rights fees combined, according to sources close to the situation. The CSN deal runs through 2019 and includes the White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks as partners. Comcast owns about 30 percent of the network.
The White Sox on Monday declined to discuss the future of their broadcast rights.
The Cubs get about $20 million to air 70 games each year on WGN. They have decided to exercise a renegotiation option with the Tribune Co.-owned station, seeking to boost those revenues for the 2015 season and beyond. WGN will have a chance to retain those rights, but other media players are likely to get a shot as well.
"WGN has the ability to retain those rights through 2019, provided that they're willing to pay fair market value," said Cubs spokesman Julian Green. "That's a discussion for WGN and the Cubs to have together."
Based on the $60 million revenue fee for combined broadcast rights, the Cubs get about $400,000 per game, far below the market value potentially set by the Dodgers. Under their reported new deal, the Dodgers will be getting about $280 million per year, or about $1.8 million per game.
"It doesn't surprise me that the Cubs are going to look at all available options out there, including Comcast and everybody else who might be interested in their rights," said Jim Corno, president of Comcast SportsNet Chicago. "Sports content is extremely valuable. It's DVR-proof. Not many people are going to DVR a Dodgers game or a Bulls game or a White Sox game if they can watch it live. The advertiser can buy spots knowing that the chances are very slim that people are not going to watch my commercials because they're going to fast-forward through them."
The Ricketts family inherited the broadcast agreements as part of their 2009 purchase of the Cubs from Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV. The $845 million deal — then the highest in Major League Baseball history — included Wrigley Field and a 25 percent stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago.
Since then, valuations have soared, due in no small part to skyrocketing broadcast rights. Last March, an ownership group led by Chicago financier Mark Walter, CEO of Guggenheim Partners, paid a record $2.15 billion to buy the Dodgers out of bankruptcy. In January, the team announced the launch of its own regional sports network with Time Warner Cable beginning in 2014.
For the Cubs, who are looking to offset a proposed $300 million renovation of 99-year-old Wrigley Field with some new outfield billboards, the broadcast rights issue is a significant opportunity. Experts say there are plenty of options to improve on the current deal, including the possibility of upfront payments that secure partial rights through 2019, and a full standalone network beginning in 2020.
In a statement, Tribune Co. signaled it was willing to consider competing to keep the Cubs on WGN.
"WGN-TV has enjoyed a tremendous relationship with the Cubs and their fans since 1948," Tribune Co. spokesman Gary Weitman said in a statement Monday. "It is a relationship that we are proud of, and one that brings Cubs baseball to fans throughout Chicago and across the country. We're looking forward not only to the upcoming 2013 season, but also to working with the Cubs on baseball broadcasts in the future."
Tribune Co. shows games on both WGN-Ch. 9 and the national cable channel WGN America. While Tribune Co., which is under new management, is looking at programming options for WGN America that include original shows, sources say the company is likely to want to keep the Cubs in its lineup.
Green said the Cubs plan to talk to different parties about where the slate of games currently broadcast by WGN will be seen.
"I think there are a number of options that will certainly present themselves as we talk about this with WGN and other partners throughout the year," the Cubs spokesman said. "But at the end of the day, any final result needs to be a result that benefits the organization and most importantly, the baseball team."
The rise in sports rights fees is being passed along to cable and satellite operators, who in turn are raising monthly fees for customers, whether they watch the games or not. There is some speculation that the Dodgers deal proves to be a tipping point in which cable operators rebel by threatening to drop those sports networks.
Not everyone agrees that the Dodgers deal represents the ceiling of what broadcast rights fees are worth. Corno said that if the Dodgers sale and the new deal for the team's baseball network seemed outrageously expensive now, they likely will seem in retrospect to have been fairly priced, or even a bargain.
"In 25 years, when this deal is up, people will not be talking about how expensive the Dodger deal is," he said. "Because somebody else will have cut a deal in a major market with a major team that will make this deal look like Time Warner got a heck of a deal."