Cubs Future on 720 WGN Remains in Question

WGN-AM 720 exercised an option with the Cubs on Oct. 17 to re-open their contract with the team due to “sharply declining ratings because of the Cubs struggles on the field.” The uncertainty of the future of the long-time partnership between WGN and the Cubs impacted the search for Pat Hughes’ partner after Keith Moreland decided to move on.

WGN has been broadcasting Cubs games since 1925 and would like to continue carrying the games. The contract between the team and WGN expires at the end of the 2014 season if the two-sides are unable to come to a new agreement.

The Cubs are reportedly shopping their broadcast rights to other stations. But the upcoming season could be the last one for the Cubs on 720 WGN as Robert Feder predicted on Jan. 1.

According to multiple reports, the Cubs will provide an update on where the team stands with their radio and television contracts during the Cubs Convention.

The future of AM radio could have an impact on where Cubs’ games will be able to be heard after next season. Crain’s Chicago Business posted a report on the where WGN-AM stands with the more advanced media that is now available. AM radio could be “dead and gone” as the report points out, but the stranglehold of Tribune Co. is limiting how WGN can move into the future.

According to the report, WGN-AM is “the only radio station owned by Chicago-based Tribune Co.” and despite all of the alternatives that exist, WGN-AM “is still among the city’s top outlets.” WGN is “facing increasingly bleak prospects in a market crowded with digital rivals such as Spotify and broadcast competitors like Cumulus Media Inc.”

Jimmy de Castro, WGN Radio president, told Crain’s Chicago Business “he would love to buy an FM station with its superior signal quality.” WGN showed interest in two of the stations Cumulus Media Inc. recently purchased.

According to Crain’s, federal laws are limiting de Castro’s options “as long as Tribune continues to own the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV.” The report explained de Castro is “in need of an FM outlet that is not available to him.” However, Tribune Co. is “aiming to spin off or sell Tribune’s newspaper division, where circulation and advertising income are sinking” and de Castro might be able to use the sell as a “legal leeway to add Chicago radio outlets.”

WGN-AM slipped to a fifth-place tie in the Chicago market from fourth a year ago. WGN-AM carries not only Cubs’ games but the Blackhawks and Northwestern football and basketball. WGN’s revenue last year was $31.6 million according to the report. And the station faces a “bigger challenge of keeping WGN-AM relevant after decades of listeners and advertisers migrated to the better reception offered by FM stations.”

Jimmy de Castro created the website WGN.FM, or The G, to try to “create the Pandora of talk radio by assembling talent from across the country and posting podcasts.”

According to the report in October, WGN is currently paying as much as $10 million per year to the Cubs, and maybe more, which would make the deal one of the most expensive in baseball.

The Cubs future with WGN, both radio and television, should receive some clarity this week.

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  • Ripsnorter1

    IF the Cubs are no longer available on AM radio, I would think over time they would lose attendance at the ballpark. The love for the Cubbies was developed years ago by P.K. Wrigley allowing WGN and others to broadcast all the Cubs’ games on TV for free. That developed a much larger, a much more loyal fan base than the ChiSox.

    But now, if the Cubs are lost to AM radio, how will all the downstate fans stay in touch with the Cubs? MLB games cannot be broadcast via the Internet, except if one subscribes to–and then only broadcasts out of market games. FM doesn’t have the range of AM broadcasts. Suddenly all of these Cubs’ fans, and potential future Cubs’ fans, are unable to connect with the Cubs on a regular basis.
    I would think the Cubs could lose fans over time if they do not handle this contract well.

    And all of this because of the way the Cubs (re: Team Theo) are handling the “rebuild.” Forever and a day is not a good way to go for a big market team.

    • Brp921

      I agree about the broadcasts. I’ve thought that for years. I’m a cub fan because I could watch and listen to the m on WGN.

    • Tony_Hall

      In today’s world, there is more ways than a TV with rabbit ears attached and a radio to watch and listen to games. You can listen to the radio feed anywhere in the world on, let alone if a local FM station started doing the radio feed, they could then add other regional radio stations as part of the Chicago Cubs radio network, in theory, expanding it even past the reaches of 720.

      • calicub

        i agree. I think keeping the cubs on WGN America is far more important to the future of the fan base than AM radio.

        Plus with apps like TuneIn Radio and the like viewers from around the country can listen to FM feeds of their favorite stations around the world right on their smart devices

      • DWalker

        just becasue there are “extra” ways to get games, doesn’t mean they are accesssable to everyone every where. I listen to the games on the radio well outside of Chicago when I am on the road, and if they aren’t on a local station if they are moved to FM, I won’t listen. contrary to a lot of peoples beleifs, not everyone has a smart device they carry everywhere with unlimited data to listen to games. Many older people don’t and even alot of younger people are still on dumb phones or limited data plans. A lot of us don’t have satalite radio in our vehicles either. mega multimedia IS the future, and it IS a huge market, but its not every where for every body, and especially for older fans to replace am radio.

        • Tony_Hall

          That is why I said the local Chicago FM station (if they went that way) could then expand into other markets and even expand past 720’s reach.

          I know when I was a kid, I didn’t get WGN 9 where I lived, but on Sunday’s, a local channel would show the games. It was a great weekend, when the Cub’s were the Saturday Game of the Week, and then on again on Sunday. This same concept can be used in radio, if they choose a station that only covers Chicagoland.

        • 07GreyDigger

          But they can’t look that way. In media, if you don’t plan for the future you get left behind.

          • John_CC

            Relying on AM radio to expand your fan base is an archaic notion.

      • Ripsnorter1

        Don’t you have to pay for MLB.TV?

        • Tony_Hall

          Yes. But don’t you have to pay for cable or dish?

          The radio version on MLB.TV is around $10 for the year. The TV part is just over $100 for the season. I think it is well worth it, and in 2 or 3 more years, the blackout restrictions are going to be reworked and we should be able to not have games blacked out anymore.

    • coachdon

      I am probably a Cub fan today because when I was a kid on the farm in Iowa I could listen to day games on my little red hand held transistor radio that only got reception when you held it facing a certain direction. But it was what I had and I listened every day, static and all. Sweet Swingin’ Billy Williams was my favorite player. On Sundays, sometimes the local TV station would have the Cub game on so I could actually watch them. And I’d be excited all week when I knew NBC Game of the Week would be featuring my Cubs. But Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau taught me a lot about the game over a little red radio. I’d hate to see that go away.

      • Tony_Hall

        I hope that what you would hate to see go away is kids listening and watching baseball games, not AM radio. Kids don’t sit around listening to the radio anymore and have very little interest in sitting around listening to a baseball game on the radio, unless they are doing something else at the same time. Radio is not where they go to listen to music, they download songs to their IPhones and IPads. Transistor radio? Kids would laugh at that as so primitive. If we want to attract the youth of today to this great game, it is going to be through access to watching and listening to the game through mobile devices. Apps that help them interact with each other while watching the game or following along online while listening.

        Unfortunately, if baseball doesn’t move into the 21st century on this technology, and thinks that AM radio is the future, we will not see the kids getting into baseball like they have done for generations.

        • cc002600

          Sad, but true.
          I have 2 kids in college, and if you show them something on TV that is a black and white, they run away like you’re torturing them. They don’t even want to look at it for 2 seconds, like its going to hurt their eyes or something. :-)

          But if really think about it, its really no different than any other generation. Its only natural you will always have a fondness for something you had when you were a kid. But if it doesn’t apply to you, because you are older or younger, you really aren’t going to care that much about it.

          Time marches on. Baseball needs to keep up with the times or it will be irrelevant. It is what it is.

    • John_CC

      ummm…the innernets?

      I have a lot of nostalgia for listening to Cubs games on GN. Milo Hamilton, Lou Boudreau, Harry and Steve…I can remember specific times and places, like when I was 11 years old listening in the hot metal barn at the blueberry farm to Sutcliffe’s W against the Padres when he hit a HR. And 14 years later as an adult, sitting out on my back deck listening to the ’98 playoff race by myself.

      But the AM radio just isn’t all that relevant or important anymore. I can listen to any game I chose now across the world wide web.

      Look at us! Sitting 1500 miles apart and bitching together about the Cubs like we are on adjacent bar stools…

      • cubtex

        what’s an innernet?

        • John_CC

          It’s one of the various tubes and tunnels that magically transport information between computer machine.

        • triple

          I think that’s the lining inside swimmng trunks!

      • Ripsnorter1

        How do you listen to any game you want, MLB.TV? And doesn’t that cost money?

        Just another improvement in modern living.

        • Tony_Hall

          I believe John doesn’t pay for cable and uses MLB.TV and service online services to watch TV for far less than cable or dish.

        • John_CC

          Tony is correct. I have eschewed the modern improvements of cable TV and dish along with the 75 bucks a month for my whole life. I have never paid a cable bill!!

          For baseball the options are MLB.TV for about $100 one can watch any game they want to, except of course the blackouts and don’t get me started on that. So that’s less than 2 cable or Dish bills for an entire season. The other and truly cheap way, which is what I’ve done for years, is the $20 option at for game day audio. I can listen to every broadcast, home team, visiting, or Espanol. It is basically my way of listening to the AM radio broadcasts of the 21 century. So like I said, I really understand the trepidation with the cubs losing GN radio. Ive listened to hundreds of baseball games.

          • Ripsnorter1

            Thanks for that post.

            I have enjoyed WGN’s coverage of the Cubs for free.

            But with MLB.TV, you cannot access that on your auto, can you? You would have to pay for it for your home, and them pay for it again on XM radio, too, wouldn’t you?

          • John_CC

            Well, technically you could listen just about anywhere, but of course it is not as cheap (FREE) or easy as AM radio. With a smartphone and unlimited data, you could listen to (or watch) anything on the internet, anywhere there is internet available.

            It’s not the same, we all know that and it isn’t my point. For all you in Chicagoland the games will always be on the radio, whether it’s 720 AM or somewhere else on the FM dial.

            For all the rest of us not within reach of the radio signal via the radio, or a local TV channel to tune into there is the internet. I grew up on W shore of Lake Michigan and got to watch the Cubs on channel 9. Even with all of MLB’s archaic rules over blackouts, etc. Those will be straightened out hopefully the next time FOX’s Saturday TV contract is up.

    • Denver Mike

      Before I even read the comments I thought to myself, I can’t wait to hear why this is Theo’s fault. You win!

      There’s no way this could be The Tribune’s fault. If the Trib had a history of putting their profitable assets at a disadvantage to keep the relic that is the newspaper business afloat, then maybe, but they would never do that! Nope, never.

      • 07GreyDigger

        Theo’s “poor” roster management is to blame. If he were a confident GM, he would have notified Ryan Dempster of his broadcast rights before he traded him.

  • Rock

    Great update, I still think this is the biggest offseason story for the Cubs.

  • cubtex

    XM radio and mlb have a 6 year agreement. That is where I listen to Cubs games out here when driving. I don’t blame WGN for opting out since they are paying way too much for an inferior product with dropping advertising dollars. If WGN cancels their agreement, the price to pick up the games will not be through the roof. Right Tony….buy low on the Cubs broadcasts. lol

  • CubbyDenCritic

    If the Cubs move from WGN, I am going to have to put my Cubs/WGN 1980’s game promotion radio ear piece on EBAY

  • 07GreyDigger

    I know we’ve talked about it before, but I don’t see how 97.9 The Loop doesn’t step in here. I mean they’ve had the same playlist for 30 years and they aired Blackhawks Playoff games, Cubs games could be a nice boost in ratings for them.

  • triple

    I really don’t think that WGN and the Cubs being in any sort of agreement will have any sort of impact on the amount of Cubs fans moving forward. As someone who hasn’t lived near Chicago since the early 90’s, that partnership has delivered less and less games to the fans as the years have gone by. At first, I remember I still used to be able to watch every game on TV. In the late 90’s it was great to be able to go onto WGN’s website and stream the games for free that weren’t on TV. Then the MLB took that away from the fans, not the Cubs, all because MLB found away to put more money in their own pockets. Meanwhile, less and less games have been shown on WGN. I think last year there was probably only 40-60 games broadcast on WGN. So in the last 20 years while Cubs games have been broadcast to less and less people around the country, has our fanbase dwindled? No, in fact, with the winning teams of 2003, ’07, and ’08, we’ve only seen the fanbase grow. Just look at the away games we watch on TV. There are always tons of Cubs fans there!

    No matter what, there will always be enough Cubs fans to fill up Wrigley and the visiting parks they attend. If 100+ years of losing baseball haven’t scared away millions from being fans, then I don’t think the last 2 years of Team Theo will change anything either. Sure attendance will be down because of a losing product, but that applies to all sports and teams. The number of fans will only grow bigger as fans continue to bring their young children to Wrigley field to see one of their first baseball games. Just like my first experience coming to Wrigley field in 1984 when I became a diehard Cubs fan while watching the Cubs lose to the Cardinals. My first baseball game was at Comiskey in ’83, but it didn’t do to me what the Cubs did in ’84.

  • Sanibelchuck

    Living here in Fort Myers, I listen to the games on XM radio. Am curious, how do other teams broadcast their games. Is it AM or FM radio?