BOCA RATON, Fla. — All along, the Cubs have pointed toward their next TV contract as the accelerator that launches the franchise into another economic stratosphere.
Until then, it appears Theo Epstein’s front office won’t have a big-market payroll, or will at least have to wait for incremental boosts from the Wrigley Field renovations and the buzz surrounding a young, compelling team that just won 97 games and two playoff rounds.
While Epstein created headlines this week during the general manager meetings in South Florida — essentially ruling out the idea of signing two free agents to nine-figure contracts this winter — president of business operations Crane Kenney made news back in Chicago on Wednesday by announcing a change in flagship radio stations.
As anticipated, the Cubs will move from WBBM Newsradio after one season and switch next year to WSCR-AM 670, another CBS affiliate. During a promotional appearance on The Score, Kenney sounded more certain than ever the Cubs will start their own cable network.
“2019 is our last year with Comcast, so we’ll move over and launch our own channel in 2020,” Kenney said on the “Mully & Hanley” morning show.
The Cubs have an ownership stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago — which owns exclusive cable rights through the 2019 season — and synced up their local deals with ABC and WGN with the idea of becoming a broadcasting free agent.
So does this mean the Cubs will be waiting until 2020 for their infusion of TV money?
“I think that’s just one option,” Epstein said at the Boca Raton Resort and Club. “My understanding is that we’d be open to a deal earlier than that as well, as long as a good one presents itself.”
Before leaving Fenway Park for a president’s title and a direct report to ownership in Chicago, Epstein helped build two World Series winners for the Boston Red Sox, a franchise that uses NESN to support a 2015 payroll that soared to around $200 million for luxury-tax purposes.
Epstein said he thought a Cubs network in 2020 would be “a very real option.”
“But, frankly, it’s a landscape that I don’t feel qualified to talk about,” Epstein said. “I don’t fully understand it, and I trust our people to deliver the right deal at the right time.”
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It’s a constantly changing landscape, and who knows what it might look like five years from now, or how the Cubs would find winter programming if the White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks stick together with their own regional sports network.
At a time of cord-cutting, online streaming and digital innovation, the Cubs can’t get stuck behind the curve or experience the gridlock that slowed the early stages of the Wrigleyville construction project.
All the carriage problems surrounding the Los Angeles Dodgers and their reported $8 billion deal with Time Warner Cable has fueled fears of a bubble.
The Ricketts family and Epstein’s baseball staff are counting on Kenney — a former Tribune Co. lawyer who’s spent more than two decades in the organization — to deliver.
“There’s a lot of content there for a launch of a network,” Kenney said. “Not everyone succeeds. The ones that have succeeded, though, have done really well for their teams in providing resources back to the club, and to save the ballpark, in our case.
“We’re very excited about it. Fortunately for me, that’s what I grew up doing. My career started in law and media, and we put together first Fox Sports Chicago and then Comcast SportsNet.
“Maybe the one thing I actually do know is how to put these things together.”