In 2015, the Cubs revealed that they would launch their own regional sports network by 2020, the season after their broadcast deals expired. But it wasn’t until 2018 that news of the network’s name and partner broke. That’s when it became real for the fans.
In October 2024, NBC Sports Chicago’s contract with the Blackhawks, Bulls and White Sox will expire. As far as time goes, we’re in the same ballpark as when Marquee Sports Network and Sinclair Broadcast Group first started discussing a partnership. So what’s brewing for the NBCSCH and its three teams?
The landscape of sports broadcasting is still fluid, and there are many ways to achieve this. Teams could renew with NBC Sports Regional Networks. NBCUniversal could pull out of the RSN game altogether, which it would be happy to do if it could find a buyer.
Or the Hawks, Bulls and Sox could create their own network, which industry insiders say is being discussed.
It makes sense. Bulls and Sox president Jerry Reinsdorf could form a year-round RSN himself, much like YES in New York does with the Yankees and Nets. And you might say it would make sense for the Hawks to join the Cubs and give Marquee a winter tenant, eliminating conflict with Bulls games.
But don’t expect Hawks president Rocky Wirtz to back down from his family’s longtime partnership with the Reinsdorfs. They have been together since their SportsVision days in the 1980s, and they are equal owners of the United Center. This bond is strong. Also, neither would want to help the Cubs, who left Reinsdorf and Wirtz to chase their own golden goose.
NBC’s waning interest in RSNs is evident in its limited support for affiliates. NBCSCH brought back a weekday talk show hosted by David Kaplan, and its Bears postgame show was a hit. But other than that, the channel’s only value is in its coverage of the game.
Marquee has developed original programming — like it or not — to help fill its schedule. And it added live events with Sky and Cubs minor league games. Imagine the programming possibilities of a Hawks-Bulls-Sox network with the support of a broadcast partner.
There’s the possibility of a return to the heyday of NBCSCH’s predecessor, Comcast SportsNet, which covered all of the city’s teams on the nightly “SportsNet Central.” Only WGN airs such a show in Chicago. New York’s SNY only has the Mets among the city’s pro teams, and it even has an evening show.
Beyond a linear network, the teams also intend to explore streaming. Currently, their games can be streamed through an authenticated cable or satellite subscription or live TV streaming service that airs them. But the goal for some teams is to remove the middleman and create a service in the market, directly to the consumer.
This month, Boston’s NESN became the first RSN in the country to launch such a platform. NESN 360 is a digital subscription service that offers Bruins and Red Sox games without the need for cable, satellite or streamer. Additionally, MLB is part of the partnership, which lends credence to the possibility of a similar development here.
The Cubs have already announced that they want to launch their own service. Bally Sports is set to launch a DTC service for its 19 RSNs this year, starting this month with five MLB teams (Brewers, Marlins, Rays, Royals and Tigers). And NBC explored the streaming space for its RSNs.
Considering the Sox entered the digital realm in 2009 with the launch of media company Silver Chalice, which shares ownership of the Stadium sports network with Sinclair, it’s surprising the team hasn’t yet taken the leap. The stadium did not have the success Reinsdorf hoped for, but he and the team gained hands-on experience in the space. Now they have to put it to use.
The sports media landscape is always changing. Chicago fans could end up watching games on two team-owned networks and streaming services. With the NBCSCH contract expiring in two years, we expect to know more about what’s to come by then.