The Chicago Cubs open the shortened 2020 MLB season Friday against the Milwaukee Brewers, and coverage of that game on Marquee Sports Network will now be available to Comcast Xfinity subscribers. That’s important, as Comcast is the largest pay-TV provider in the Chicago area, but was a notable holdout from Marquee when the network launched in February. But the two sides struck a deal Friday, and as Phil Rosenthal and Robert Channick of The Chicago Tribune note, that deal also includes extended national carriage for Sinclair’s regional sports networks (the former Fox Sports RSNs), their local broadcast stations, and Tennis Channel:
“We finished our negotiations with Comcast to carry Marquee and it will be available in all Xfinity homes,” Crane Kenney, Cubs president of business operations told the Tribune Friday.
Kenney declined to disclose the terms of the carriage agreement with Comcast but said it was a “multiple year deal.”
…The Marquee deal was part of a larger agreement between Sinclair and Comcast that also secured continued carriage of 78 Sinclair TV stations in 51 markets across the country as well as Tennis Channel, 18 Fox-branded regional sports networks and YES Network.
As per that piece, the Marquee terms Sinclair struck with Comcast are “in line with” the other carriage deals they’ve signed. So the specific Marquee terms don’t appear to have been the holdup. And that means Comcast customers in the Chicago area who can now get Marquee (channel 202) will be paying more a month; the specific per-subscriber fee Marquee is charging isn’t known, but Mediacom raised their regional sports fee by $2.05 per month earlier this year and cited the addition of Marquee for that, so Comcast customers are likely to see a similar increase.
Why did this take so long if the eventual terms weren’t that different from what Marquee signed with other distributors? Well, several other factors likely played into this on both sides. In particular, while Marquee has been offering some daily studio programming and specific baseball content even before MLB’s restart, Comcast was still likely not eager to sign on for a sports network that didn’t actually have live sports until those live sports started. It’s yet another case of a carriage dispute going down to the wire ahead of big sports events, but at least this one didn’t go past it. And everyone involved here is very aware of how much the start of the season mattered to this deal, with Kenney telling the Tribune “This is the catalyst — the beginning of the regular season — that we needed to finish the agreement.”
Meanwhile, on the other side, Sinclair might have been able to get this deal done sooner if they hadn’t tied it to carriage extensions for the other local broadcast stations and RSNs they own (or, in the case of YES, have a minority stake in), especially as those other deals hadn’t actually expired yet. But working in Marquee did perhaps give them some extra leverage, especially with the MLB season now starting. And those portfolio extensions mean that we won’t see ugly carriage disputes between Sinclair and Comcast over RSNs or local broadcast stations for a while. (And it’s notable that Sinclair wound up in a significant month–long dispute with AT&T over local broadcast stations last year; they’ve now managed to avoid something similar with Comcast, at least for a couple of years.)
Overall, this leaves Marquee seemingly in pretty good shape. They already had deals with more than 40 providers, but Comcast was a glaring omission given their size, with around 1.56 million subscribers in the Chicago area. A February estimate had Marquee missing out on $100 million in revenue annually without a Comcast deal. Now, the main Marquee holdouts are Dish/Sling and YouTube TV (as well as some smaller providers), and neither’s anywhere near Comcast’s size in the area.
Will those deals also get done? A YouTube TV deal is possible, but Dish hasn’t carried any of Sinclair’s RSNs since last July, with Dish CEO Charlie Ergen saying “It doesn’t look good that the regional sports will ever be on Dish again” around that time. So a Dish deal probably isn’t happening unless something big changes. But that aside, Marquee has pretty strong carriage now, and Comcast is a big addition for them. And a renewed carriage deal for the other RSNs and local broadcast stations is a big deal for Sinclair.