The Chicago Cubs, baseball’s loveable losers, have bounced back in the ratings as they’ve climbed in the standings and positioned themselves for a playoff berth.
Led by a group of hard-hitting rookies, the performance has electrified the Windy City and made Cubs games a hot commodity with viewers—and more important, advertisers.
The team, which hasn’t won a World Series in more than 100 years, was sold by the Tribune Co. in 2009 to the Ricketts family, which hired former Boston Red Sox executive Theo Epstein in 2011. Epstein shed high-priced players, and as the Cubs lost, he used high draft choices to stock its farm system with young talent. The message for fans, as the team lost 197 games over two seasons, was be patient; the Cubs would be contenders in 2016 or 2017.
Also needing patience were the media companies that held Cubs’ TV rights.
“The last handful of years were from a business perspective painful. Ratings and revenue were just challenged,” says Larry Wert, the longtime Chicago media executive now president of broadcasting for Tribune Media, owner of WGN, long the Cubs flagship station. “Mr. Ricketts has made a commitment to the fan base to evolve with a long-term plan to make a competitive team. Fans are now seeing the fruits of that labor might pay off.”
Wert notes that one recent Cubs-Brewers game peaked with a 10 household rating on WGN—10 times what games the past few seasons have been drawing. “Season to date, the audiences are almost twice as big, and obviously the clients’ enthusiasm has grown as well,” he says.
“Even during the lean years when we were not doing the kinds of numbers we were accustomed to in 2007 and 2008 [when the Cubs were a playoff team], we still had a pretty strong sponsor base that was committed to stay with the team,” says Phil Bedella, VP and general manager of Comcast Sports Net Chicago, which carries the Cubs on cable. “It’s really amazing to see how fast the numbers have grown. People are talkingCubs.”
Cubs games on CSN are up 140% among adults 25-to-54 to a 1.2 rating. Household ratings are up 108% to 3.1.
Bedella says that advertising for the remaining Cub games this season is nearly sold out and that rates are up nearly 100%. “I think people are seeing the numbers and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, these are only going to get bigger was we get closer to hopefully a playoff-clinching game.’”
If the Cubs make the World Series, “I think this town will go crazy and the ratings would be there,” said Kevin Gallagher, executive VP at Starcom in Chicago. “The Cubs are a national story.”
This season, the Cubs also changed its TV roster. Games have been on WGN since 1948. In 1997, the Cubs started putting games on cable. Now, in addition to 45 games being produced by WGN (five air on WPWR), another 24 are airing on WLS, the ABC-owned station.
CSN’s Bedella says the change initially caused confusion for fans, especially in Cub TV territory outside the Chicago DMA, particular because WGN America on longer carries Cub games on cable. “I think now people know where to look for the games,” he says.
The Cubs’ cable and broadcast media rights deals all run through 2019 and there’s been some speculation that the team might look to cash in with a deal for its own cable network, like the Yankees and Dodgers have.
Bedella thinks there are advantages to staying with CSN, which is unique in having rights to all four of the city’s big-league teams—the Cubs, White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks. (If the Cubs get into the playoffs, their wildcard game Oct 7—the day the Blackhawks would open their season and raise their Stanley Cup Championship banner. Both games will be on national cable networks and not CSN.)
“I think when you’re trying to do a year round regional with one team, it certainly presents challenges,” he says. “I think we’re all seeing the headwinds that exist today on the affiliate side of our business.”distributors, advertisers and viewers.”