Just days away from Opening Day, a high percentage of Cubs fans in the greater Chicagoland area still don't know how or if they'll be able to watch their favorite team play this summer.
Upon the conclusion of their previous TV deal, one that brought Cubs' games to NBC Sports Chicago, WGN, and ABC's Chicago affiliate WLS-TV, the Cubs partnered with Sinclair Broadcast Group to create and launch their own TV network.
Since February 22, Marquee Sports Network has been available for viewing on a variety of cable providers across the Midwest, most notably DirecTV, AT&T U-Verse, and Hulu + Live TV. Yet even five months after the network's launch, the Cubs have yet to come to an agreement with Comcast, Dish and a number of other prominent carriers in the Chicagoland area. Comcast is the largest cable provider in America.
While it remains unclear at this time if Comcast will carry Marquee at any point this season (Marquee general manager Mike McCarthy remains confident that a deal will get done soon), the Cubs are rapidly approaching the eleventh hour, with their season beginning on Friday.
Apparently unable to strike a deal with YouTube, a provider that is rapidly growing in popularity in Illinois, Marquee began running ads earlier this week informing fans that YouTube TV would not be carrying the network, and urging them to switch to Hulu.
With the Cubs struggling to bring Marquee to major cable providers, the wide majority of Cubs fans are still unable to access the network. The Cubs' initial decision to end their longtime relationship with WGN and embark on a new chapter independently was immediately met with criticism from fans back in the fall of 2018. Since, there's seemingly been a series of self-inflicted missteps and clumsy misfortune that has significantly stunted the growth of the new network.
First, the branding and marketing of Marquee has shown room for improvement. The network's name is in reference to the iconic marquee sign that hangs outside of Wrigley, a spot where hundreds of fans line up for pictures each day. But when you hear the word "marquee", are the Cubs the first thing you think of? Maybe for some, but probably not. While the name is clever, the Cubs have become one of the biggest brand-names in sports, and not using the word 'Cubs' in the title feels like a missed opportunity. A name as generic as "Cubs TV" or "Cubs Corner" would get the job done and likely be more effective and recognizable to the customers. I'll often make reference to Marquee in conversations with Cubs fans, and even now, half of the time fans don't know what Marquee is. By naming the channel "Marquee", the Cubs now have to build an entirely new brand name and develop brand recognition, rather than benefiting from an already well-established moniker.
Upon the conclusion of the 2019 season, fans longingly waited for details of the upcoming network, many of whom searching for answers to crucial questions. How can we purchase the new network? What will it cost? Will we need to change our cable provider in order to access it?
The holidays rolled around, and still no answers to these questions. Not presenting information to the fans by the holidays was another missed opportunity. Imagine all of the fans that would purchase Marquee for their loved ones as Christmas presents, when people are in the spirit of gift-giving and buying things. Instead, nothing was announced until Cubs Convention in January, just one month out from the launch of the network. When Tom Ricketts took the stage to discuss the network, he was met with boos, a cruel greeting to the organization's first World Series-winning owner since Albert Spalding owned the club at the dawn of the 20th century.
In general, it takes a while for people to accept change. More so, people don't like paying for things they didn't have to pay for previously. In order to alter a negative reaction from the collective fan base, the Cubs should have highlighted the many positives that Marquee would bring.
ESPN made a similar move in spring 2018, pulling many of its features from the free ESPN3 service, and requiring a $5.99/month threshold to access many of the same features on the new ESPN+. While ESPN was now requiring payment for items that were previously free, it was able to create a great deal of buzz by showcasing the many new features that would come with ESPN+, including new, exclusive shows and films, and a robust on-demand library.
While Marquee does air new and exclusive programming in addition to live games, the network hasn't marketed itself well enough to generate buzz from the public. Most fans don't even know what the network offers aside from live games. What if, the Cubs built a show around Anthony Rizzo, where his experiences on road trips were highlighted, similar to ESPN+'s Peyton's Places? Rizzo could travel from city to city, take the viewers to local restaurants and sites, meet up with friends from other ball clubs, and detail each road team's unique ballpark. What if Marquee had a Hard Knocks-type show that gave Marquee subscribers behind-the-scenes access to the team that couldn't be found elsewhere? What about 30 for 30-type exclusive documentaries about historic Cubs players, games and moments? Wouldn't some of these programs wet the fans' appetite in ways the network hasn't been able to successfully do yet?
Pair the fan base's lack of enthusiasm behind the network with the network's lack of accessibility, and it's no wonder why Marquee is having some early problems. In addition to selling the channel to various cable services, Marquee should have developed its own independent app with Sinclair.
As Americans are cutting the cord at an unprecedentedly high rate, urging Chicagoans to switch to a new cable service in the midst of a historic recession, might not be an extremely effective sales pitch. With cord-cutters in full effect, building a network without an app runs contrary to 2020 trends in the digital world. By having an app, fans could purchase Marquee without the hassle of changing cable providers, and cord-cutters would also likely join in. They also could sell Marquee to Cubs fans outside of the Midwest. It's easier to sell a customer on buying one channel than it is to convince them to purchase an entire cable service. This is why networks such CBS and NBC are creating their own streaming services to cater to customers that would prefer to purchase their entertainment in an à la carte fashion.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has presented even more problems to Marquee. The international spread of the disease delayed the start of the regular season and resulted in millions of Americans losing their jobs. Without baseball being played, not too many people have been lining up to get Marquee over the last few months. In addition to that, Americans losing their jobs are less likely to splurge on non-essentials, such as Marquee.
In addition to having an app, Marquee should offer a free 7-day trial to its customers at the start of the season. NBA League Pass, a cable add-on and web service that allows fans to watch out-of-market NBA games, offers a free week-long trial each season. It allows prospective customers a trial run, and often leads to them getting hooked. It's easy for Cubs fans that haven't seen their team play baseball in nearly 10 months to feel put-off by Marquee, and uninterested in the service. But after watching Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo hit back-to-back homers in the Cubs' opener at Wrigley, wouldn't at least some of those fans want to stick around longer?
The final challenge that Marquee is presented with is the discouraging trajectory of the Cubs. After three straight trips to the National League Championship Series between 2015 and 2017, the Cubs fell into the first National League wild card spot in 2018, then got bounced out of the playoffs in the wild card game. In 2019 they missed the playoffs entirely. The club has lost several of its key contributors from their World Series run and have failed to replace many of them. Meanwhile, their pitching staff has continued to age with their entire rotation already in their 30s. Even as Vegas' NL Central favorites this season, fans don't seem to be as confident as they were the last five years.
While the Cubs try to hang onto scraps of their past success, there's a ball club on the south side that is gearing up for what looks to be a very exciting future. Cubs execs are hoping that Sunday and Monday's exhibition games are not emblematic of Chicago baseball in 2020 or 2021, in which a young Sox team scored a flurry of runs against an aging Cubs team, winning both games. If the White Sox succeed at a time where a large portion of Chicago fans are unable to view Cubs' games, the Sox may just steal away the next generation of fans.
Imagine being a 12 year-old kid living in the northern suburbs of Chicago that eats, sleeps and breathes baseball. Despite living in prime Cubs territory, there's only one baseball team that you can watch, and that team is a young White Sox team filled to the brim with potential. You'd watch it. Even though Wrigley Field is geographically closer to you than Guaranteed Rate Field is, with no fans in the stands this season (and in-game ballpark experience being a non-factor in 2020), naturally you would gravitate to the Sox — the only baseball team in Chicago you can watch).
Once upon a time the Cubs built a national fan base, airing their games on WGN-TV and WGN AM radio, both of which expanded their fan base to regions outside of Chicago. Now, if they are unable to solve Marquee's early problems, they may be running the risk of losing fans in their own region.