The Shrinking of Cubs Nation


It was a hotter day than usual on a spring afternoon on a Wednesday afternoon in Little Rock.  For a reason now forgotten, I was not in school that particular day.  The opportunity to relax and watch a baseball game presented itself.  Five teams were hosting day games, but only two were broadcast in Arkansas.  Although it was down to two, there was little doubt about the choice.  Despite living in Cardinals country, my Chicago-born father raised me right.  As a dutiful son who fully embraced the lovable losers, I changed the channel to WGN.  I was not disappointed that May 6, 1998 tuning into the Cubs game.

Kerry Wood fanned 20 Astros in what might just be the most dominant pitching performance in major league history.  I called my dad at work and told him what was happening. Although it was over the phone, we enjoyed some nice father-son moments with our shared excitement at the rookie’s success.  Take a moment and relive the glory; you will not be disappointed (except at the scorekeeper for ruling Ricky Gutierrez’s at bat a hit instead of charging Kevin Orie with an error).

Cubs Fans Nationwide

Only two teams enjoyed nearly universal broadcasting of the majority of their games:  the Cubs and Braves. This availability gave both teams broader fan bases than they likely otherwise would have been able to procure. Furthermore, it kept them both in the national baseball conversation.

No single factor is solely responsible for the prevalence of Cubs fans nationwide.  However, WGN certainly played an instrumental role.  Anecdotal to be sure, but in my time in Cardinals Country, I have met Cubs fan after Cubs fan.  When I ask them how they came to be this way, the answer inevitably comes back:  WGN.

WGN is a Chicago station with national reach.  Approximately 225 million Americans have access to WGN in their homes.  For baseball-hungry fans in areas far away from a major league franchise, WGN offered the Cubs.  Viewers who tuned in were treated to the legendary (though imitable) Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse.  With kids especially, WGN cultivated a generation of fans by broadcasting day games.

The Cubs franchise today reaps the benefits of this inculcation.  Unfortunately, these good times are likely to change.

Goodbye WGN, Hello Badly-Named Regional Sports Network

The 2020 season will see dramatic changes for the Cubs.  For the first time in 72 years, Cubs games will not be broadcast on WGN.  Furthermore, the stalwart station (and its frequent Southwest Airlines commercials) will be replaced by Marquee Sports Network.

Marquee is a new regional sports channel developed specifically for this function.  Much of the on and off-air talent from WGN and NBC Sports Chicago will transfer to Marquee.  By design, the channel is available only to subscribers of cable companies willing to carry the network.  Most cable companies that do pick up Marquee will carry it only for subscribers in Chicago and nearby environs.

Those outside of the network’s reach will have to pay for streaming access via MLB or catch occasional games on FOX or ESPN.  However, this development means the end of near daily national broadcasts of Cubs games.

As the next generation grows up without Cubs games regularly broadcast into their homes, they are much less likely to adopt the Cubs as their team.  Furthermore, this means a future with decreased ticket sales and less merchandise sold.  It forebodes the long-term shrinking of Cubs Nation.

Hopefully, Cubs leadership will worry about the potential consequences. If they take action, it could ensure that a kid in Arkansas a decade from now will have easy access to Cubs games and can share the news of a thrilling record-breaking performance with his old man. 

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