They’ve been broadcast partners for 90 years, but the Chicago Cubs and WGN Radio are parting ways after declining ratings pushed the Tribune Co. to walk away.
As you’ll recall, the Cubs were once under Tribune Co. ownership along with WGN Radio and WGN-TV. The parent of the Chicago Tribune and WGN radio and TV is a Chicago institution, and the rise of the Cubs as a national draw came under Tribune Co. ownership, mostly due to the swingin’ Cubs broadcasts on WGN-TV. When the Tribune Co. and Sam Zell sold the Cubs to Tom Ricketts, they agreed on a radio rights deal that was instantly a loss leader for WGN, with the station regularly losing $6 million or so a year on deal worth $10 million annually. After a few years of declining ratings, WGN opted out of the remainder of the deal, which triggered a new round of negotiations, with Tribune Broadcasting holding the right to match any offer. But when CBS — owner of WBBM Newsradio and WSCR (670 The Score) — approached the Cubs about a new seven-year deal, Tribune Broadcasting officials declined to match it, saying the numbers didn’t work.
The loss of the Cubs leaves WGN Radio with the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks as the main sports draw.
It’s not clear where the Cubs will end up at CBS. Currrently The Score broadcasts White Sox games, and that deal goes through 2015. It’s possible the team’s games will be on WBBM-AM for one year and then shifted to The Score. (It would be a homecoming of sorts: the first Cubs broadcasts were on WMAQ-AM, the predecessor to The Score.) For the Cubs — despite the tradition — it’s probably a better broadcast deal. WGN-AM has moved comfortably into the geriatric broadcast model, bringing back John Williams and emphasizing mellow talk over sports. On the flip side, Cubs games can be promoted 24/7 by The Score.
Still, it’s sad to see the tradition end. We already saw TV rights pass to cable, and those television broadcasts — with Harry Caray and Steve Stone behind the mics, with plenty of shots of bikini-topped women downing a Budweiser or three supplied by producer Arnie Harris — established Wrigley Field as the ultimate urban playground. The names of WGN-AM/WGN-TV Cubs announcers reads like a who’s who of broadcasters: Bob Elson, Jack Brickhouse (shown above in a memorial outside the landmark Tribune Tower in downtown Chicago), Milo Hamilton, Bert Wilson, Ron Santo…there’s a lot of tradition ending with the final Chicago Cubs broadcast on a WGN property.
A press conference announcing the new deal is scheduled for tomorrow.
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