It’s a rough time to be a fan of the Chicago Cubs, which is an odd sentence to write less than three years after the team famously won their first World Series title in over a century.
Back in the 1980s, before lights were added to Wrigley Field, all Cubs home games were broadcast on WGN-TV at a time that was great for a young fan growing up as a fan of the team. Games began at either 1:20 or 3:05, meaning by the time I got home from school I could catch at least the last couple innings. It was easy to go to the Wrigley ticket window and get tickets an hour before the game started. WGN Radio broadcast every game, home and away. There was always a free or relatively inexpensive way to enjoy the Cubs.
The barriers have been steadily going up since the mid-90s. When WGN-TV became an affiliate of The WB the network shunted about half of the Cubs games it carried over to UPN, a basic cable station. Since then things have become even more scattered around different channels, making it difficult for fans to find games on TV. On radio, broadcasts are now on WSCR.
The TV landscape will change further as Cubs ownership partners with Sinclair Media in a regional sports network named “Marquee.” That deal will effectively spell the end of free Cubs broadcasts, as the RSN will require an additional fee for cable subscribers. That will present a significant hurdle for some people who can’t afford access to the station, meaning a whole group of potential fans will never enjoy games on TV, an easy way to become attached to a team and a sport.
Narrowing the field further is the fact that cable subscriber numbers overall are declining, driven in part by cost and in part by streaming services becoming more attractive with original and licensed content. And the cost of tickets to see the game at Wrigley spiked in the wake of the World Series victory to the most expensive in the major leagues.
All of that makes becoming a fan more difficult logistically. People have less disposable income because while their wages may have risen, those increases have been outpaced by inflation, decreasing the buying power of each dollar earned.
Adding to that are other, more subjective issues. The Chicago Tribune, a corporate cousin of the Cubs when both were owned by The Tribune Company, has long been understood to have a politically conservative editorial stance. But Sinclair Media is even more of a right wing advocacy group, recently making headlines for requiring TV anchors read an inflammatory statement on-air regarding “false news,” meaning any news not found on its own stations. It lost in its bid last year to merge with Tribune Media, with regulators finding its proposed arrangement for station ownership was essentially a sham.
Additionally, Cubs owner Tom Ricketts recently had to address racist statements made by his father Joe in leaked emails, underscoring the family’s long-standing status as supporters of Pres. Donald Trump and other far right-wing figures. The elder Ricketts is no friend to the media in recent years, blaming those outlets for jumping on the email comments while the wounds from his abrupt and questionable shut down of the DNAinfo and Gothamist network of sites despite their popularity and potential were still fresh.
What has happened to the Cubs is indicative of how the media landscape has changed so dramatically so many times in the last decade. Free TV becomes Basic Cable becomes Premium Cable, all as the audience dwindles but revenues are maintained because the remaining subscribers are more wealthy and therefore more attractive to audiences.
At the same time, choices in what media to consume are being made increasingly on ideological affiliation. People are choosing what to watch, read and listen to only after determining that an outlet presents their preferred version of truth.
So the Cubs, once the epitome of how wholesome baseball was and could be, find themselves in the middle of a number of societal crosshairs. Watching the game on TV or in person is, because of the lack of free broadcast options, an expensive proposition not everyone can afford. And supporting the team – something that used to be an easy decision because in Chicago it was either that or the White Sox, which no one should be allowed to do – now implicitly indicates support for a hard right-wing agenda.
There’s a lot going on there that can’t easily be sorted out. As is often the case, it’s those who just want to enjoy the National Pastime free of such weighty concerns that are impacted the most.