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The Mess that is Marquee Sports Network

Marquee Sports Network goes live on February 22nd, but without a deal in place with Comcast Xfinity, the Cubs are leaving a large swath of cable subscribers in the dark. The effects of this gross incompetence can’t be overstated.

Photo: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune

With roughly a month before the launch of Marquee Sports Network, the fledgling channel faces more questions than answers. Angst, rather than excitement, surrounds the network’s launch for Cubs fans, an understandable emotion given the cloud of uncertainty that the impending launch carries.

The Cubs Convention hardly helped matters. Tom Ricketts was infamously booed at the mere mention of Marquee. Crane Kenney, who has been in charge of the network since its inception, seemed alarmed/surprised there was only one woman hired as on-screen talent. And, most importantly, questions continue to swirl about whether or not the Cubs can strike a deal with Comcast, Chicago’s largest cable provider.

While the Cubs have struck deals with a significant number of cable providers, they make up just about 40 percent of the Chicago region. And when you couple that laughably small percentage with Kenney’s plea that Cubs fans pester Comcast in order to get a deal done? The absurdity, it seems, continues to outdo itself.

(This does not include major streaming services for cord-cutters, which are expected to carry the flagship network. The lack of detail and confirmation on this, of course, isn’t exactly encouraging.)

How did we get here?

Marquee was first announced in November of 2015 by none other than Kenney himself. From the outset, Cubs fans were promised a station that would feed what is truly an insatiable fanbase endless coverage of their favorite team.

That promise elicited excitement, and appropriately so. The Cubs Convention, however, yielded little more than uncertainty and shaky assurances, making it hard to take the way the Cubs have rolled out Marquee seriously.

It’s not as if the Cubs were without precedent, either. The Los Angeles Dodgers have been mired in an ugly network fiasco for several years now and serve as an appropriate framework and historical lesson the Cubs failed to learn.

The comparison isn’t perfect. The Dodgers sold exclusive rights to Time Warner cable for north of eight billion dollars, while Marquee will be available via several cable providers and on a variety of streaming platforms. The effect, however, remains the same: without Comcast Xfinity, the Cubs are blacking out more than 50 percent of the market from achieving access to Marquee.

The last thing the Cubs need is to divide the franchise from the fanbase, especially so when it’s a problem of their own making. That lingering effect still impacts the Dodgers, the money they’ve made from their TV deal hardly a panacea of the ill effects the deal has created.

Crane Kenney can feign confidence the Cubs and Comcast will get a deal done, but we’re a month away and there’s no sign that will actually happen. Banking on this team to succeed right now in any aspect is, at best, foolhardy.

Marquee should be entertaining (if you are able to watch)

Kenney was smart to tag Mike McCarthy as the network’s general manager, as his work with MSG Network in New York garnered 75 Emmys. Along with what will presumably be a solid programming team, the on-screen talent promises to be solid (despite the previously mentioned gender disparity remaining a troubling, tone-deaf reality).

Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies will continue to call games on TV, one of the better duos in baseball. Kasper is known for letting the game breathe, allowing simplicity and timeliness to shape the action. His natural rapport with JD creates a smooth broadcast that is at once informative, entertaining, and appreciative of the beauty of baseball. While some concerns exist — including an occasional third commentator in the booth and Kasper dipping his toes into national broadcasts — that this duo will remain together for the long haul should allow for a collective sigh of relief for the fanbase. Joining them for on-field duties — and effectively replacing Kelly Crull — is Taylor McGregor, who Marquee was able to poach from the Colorado Rockies.

The in-studio talent also has promise and intrigue. Chris Myers is set for hosting duties as well as a fill-in role for Kasper, and his name and track record need little discussion. Joining Myers will be a rotating cast of former Cubs that promises to be an entertaining cast. Ryan Dempster, Dan Plesac, Carlos Pena, and Mark DeRosa, all former players and current MLB Network personalities, will help round out the roster, joining Doug Glanville, Lou Piniella, and Jason Hammel. Cole Wright will assume the bulk of studio host duties.

Marquee will be able to lean on Cubs’ archives. They’ve announced an initial slew of documentaries (Harry Caray, Ernie Banks, the Ryne Sandberg game). Every Spring Training game will be aired. There will be a “Cubs All-Access” show in addition to retrospective historical programming. And there will also be extensive minor league coverage.

All of this, coupled with ancillary programming (college sports, soccer, et al) rounds out a solid array of programming for a brand new network.

The disappointment with which Marquee is being rolled out comes at an inopportune time for the Cubs. Fans have endured an offseason of doubt and inaction, searching for optimism and hope for a team whose competitive window shouldn’t be slamming shut at such an accelerated pace.

The Cubs doubling down on that disappointment with the possibility of losing television access is a slap in the face to the fanbase. The Ricketts, Kenney, and the Cubs organization as a whole have had over four years to ensure Marquee’s debut was met with anticipation and fervor.

Instead, fans are left bitter and resigned — appropriate symbolism for the 2020 Cubs.

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Darrell Birkey
Darrell Birkey
1 year ago

The Dodgers do not own their own channel. That is why they have no control over distribution.
The Cubs will have multiple streaming options so that even current Comcast customers will have options. If Comcast doesn’t sign on, then they will pay a heavy cost in lost subscribers. Expect them ti sign by Feb 22 or shortly after.

Austin Bloomberg
Reply to  Darrell Birkey
1 year ago

Fair point, re: Dodgers not owning Spectrum. That inaccuracy should be fixed.

As for Comcast and Cubs, it’s not as simple as saying fans have options, or that Comcast will automatically sign on. The manner in which Marquee has rolled out has been awful, and not agreeing to terms with Comcast this close to the launch date is but one of many examples.

Darrell Birkey
Darrell Birkey
Reply to  Austin Bloomberg
1 year ago

It has not been awful. Blaming them for the current lack of an agreement with Comcast is wrong and unfair because Comcast was offered the same deal as they have signed with 25 providers.
It is as simple as saying the fans will have options, because they already have a streaming option and will have more soon. As soon as there are multiple streaming options, anyone with broadband can choose on. Even Comcast customers will be able to keep their internet but drop their TV for a streaming option at the lower cost than they now pay for Comcast TV.
In 2018, Comcast lost 1.6% of its TV customers. In 2019, Comcast lost 3.2% of its TV customers. At this rate, we could be looking at Comcast losing 5% or more of its subscribers in 2020.
Streaming is becoming the model and many more people are switching to streaming services like Youtube TV, Hulu Live or others and it is easy to do by spending $30 for a Roku player that can get you any of these services.
That’s why Comcast will either add this channel or increase the rate of customer loss. AT&T streaming already has a Marquee deal so no one with broadband is truly without another option to Comcast TV. As soon as Youtube and Hulu are on board there will be affordable easy options for every broadband customer in the Cubs MLB market and the Cubs fully expect to get those deals done by launch day.
Also, the rollout of the network has not been worse than the launch of any new network. It is normal to be negotiating with providers right down to launch time and even beyond. Directv signed on in November and Comcast could have too but it is Comcast that is slowing things down, not Marquee.
I know that people are nervous about not being able to get the channel, but the media has been really poor at communicating the options for the fans and have given some misinformation. That’s because they are not tech savvy and haven’t done their research.

1 year ago

Um, its Feb 24. No deal yet. Everyone I know in my circle are committed to becoming White Sox fans if the cubs fail to get the deal done in time for the season start. And I’m not defending Comcast here, but I really doubt consumers will change providers for access to the Cubs.

peter Costello
peter Costello
Reply to  Darrell Birkey
1 year ago

its now March, Marquee sports and comcast are looking like a bunch of Clowns. lets get our shit together befor the season starts. Money hungry fools.

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