Wert, Murdoch players in Cubs TV rights bonanza quest

(Second of a two-part series)

Fresh after assuming command of Tribune Co.’s broadcasting arm, the affable Larry Wert surely does not want to be known as the executive who lost the Chicago Cubs for WGN-TV.

And yet to keep the cash-hungry Cubs from bolting in a new world divorced from the team’s WGN-friendly Wrigley and Tribune Co. ownerships, Wert will have to come up with the kind of money the station has never had to pay for baseball rights.

Making matters potentially even more difficult is the inroads media-owner colossus Rupert Murdoch has in the market via two channels: Fox/32 and WPWR/50.

Murdoch is always lurking about when big sports rights fees are available for purchase. His Fox Sports supplanted longtime home CBS for the NFC games and all its traditional, big-market teams on Sunday NFL telecasts.

It’s hard to match Murdoch dollar-for-dollar when he wants something badly. And Tribune Co. has just emerged from bankruptcy, its financially-oriented new masters likely to search for ways to sell off parts of the company to re-capitalize.

In the end, it’s a matter of leverage.

Ricketts’ Cubs Network is unlikely

Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts did not play a good leverage game when he desired money from the city of Chicago to help renovate Wrigley Field. There is no urgency when there’s no threat of moving from Clark and Addison.

Cubs’ money-challenged CEO Tom RickettsSimilarly, Ricketts must have several suitors in the works if he wants to bolt WGN, or exact every last dollar out of Wert and Co.

He won’t have his own long-rumored Cubs Network to succeed WGN. The team’s contract with WGN expires after 2014, but the concurrent deal with Comcast SportsNet Chicago runs until 2019. CSN Chicago carries 80 games compared to WGN’s 70.

Ricketts cannot have a practical team-run channel when half the games are already committed elsewhere. And he cannot take over additional CSN Chicago airtime for Cubs-oriented programming, not with the White Sox also carried on the sports outlet.

Besides, since Rickets has pledged to fund a projected $300 million Wrigley Field renovation himself while paying off debt service on the $845 million Cubs purchase in 2009, he scarcely has more mega-millions for a video operation’s start-up costs.

Precedent of keeping games on over-the-air outlet

Ricketts could conceivably sell WGN’s games to CSN Chicago. But that move runs counter to big-time sports TV’s recent trends. Teams prefer to keep at least some games on over-the-air TV, given that not all households are cable- or dish-equipped.

Rupert MurdochEnter Murdoch and his two outlets, Fox/32 as the predominant Bears carrier and My50 as a shadow Bears station for some cable-originated games.  There are ratings challenges on both stations that could be boosted by the No. 2 sports franchise in Chicago.

If Murdoch does not want to pre-empt Fox prime-time network entertainment programming on Fox-32, he can shift the games to My50, in much the same manner as WGN farms out the Cubs to WCIUTV (Channel 26) www.wciu.com at night.

No matter who is out there, Ricketts must look before he leaps from WGN. The adage of those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it applies here.

When the White Sox departed from WGN for Fox/32 for a $1 million deal in 1968, UHF penetration in the market still was not enough to maintain a high profile for the team. The Sox lost countless fans who literally could not watch their games.

There are other pitfalls to leaving WGN. Tradition, familiarity and branding are involved.

Short of creating his own network, Ricketts likely prefers a continued WGN relationship. But he needs the money. WGN has never paid that kind of dough. How to bridge the gap will be the neatest trick in the annals of Chicago sports rights-fees negotiations.

George Castle is a longtime Chicago-based sportswriter, author and radio talk-show host. 

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