Bernstein: What Matters Right Now About Marquee

The rollout was bumpy technically, but it was a soft launch.

Dan Bernstein
February 24, 2020 - 3:30 pm

(670 The Score) It wasn't an ideal debut for the Cubs' new proprietary television network, but most of the issues -- for now -- are really no big deal.

Keep in mind that even attentive Cubs fans are rarely taking the time to consume spring training games, these tedious and languid affairs with meaningless outcomes and mostly unrecognizable players. This first one on Marquee Sports Network on Saturday felt more significant than it otherwise would have, and it was under harsher glare as the first tangible representation of the product, picked apart by those of us who may care more than many.

The rollout was bumpy technically, but it was a soft launch. The difficulties getting it up and running in some DirecTV packages and the delays elsewhere were unfortunate -- and are also unlikely to be remembered. The same goes for the apparent miscommunication regarding the timing of carriage on Hulu. A weather delay didn't help much either, causing unwelcome scrambling amid uncertainty.

Related: Javier Baez excited by Cubs' revamped lineup

This is all about the games, the real ones. The fact that Marquee has them all to itself allows for a month's worth of tweaks and do-overs as the channel ramps up, adding graphic bells and whistles as they go and gauging customer reaction along the way. It's not like Marquee officials really have to care, however, because there's now no alternative.

The continuity of play-by-play man Len Kasper and color analyst Jim Deshaies is warm and welcome throughout this process, allowing for Cubs baseball to sound reassuringly like itself. Their experience and professionalism will also smooth over rough edges in the broadcasts, keeping us from noticing some of the natural fits and starts that occur in the developing communication between the booth and the new people in the truck.

Behind-the-scenes footage from training camp and the convention was mostly fine, looking sharp and giving off a positive vibe even if it was lacking in hard content. The access should matter as the channel matures and finds its editorial voice, paying off with more insider stories and information that can drive viewership during non-game Cubs programming.

So here are the two things that actually do matter and will for the near future. First is reaching an agreement with Comcast to fully integrate Marquee into Chicago area households. We're hearing the usual brinksmanship from the adverse heavyweight parties, with consumers urged by one side to contact the other. It's a tactic of dubious effect in these times, with the hassle of actually calling or emailing a telecom company or an MLB team enough of a pain in the first place, even before we consider what it even accomplishes. Consumers are warier than ever of being exploited as free negotiators and would rather the squabblers figure it out on their own. The best bet is a compromise at the 11th hour before the regular-season opener, after final proposals are exchanged.

Second is how the Cubs follow through on a critical component of the sell when the idea of a network was floated, the creation of a revenue stream that allows for major-market expenditures on players. We can't let the Cubs move the goalposts as they have tried to do already, talking about baseball spending on staff and equipment and facilities as proof of their willingness to allocate funds. Owner Tom Ricketts keeps reminding us that payroll doesn't guarantee success, which is a possible warning sign of being set up for a bait-and switch that sees new TV revenue going into the coffers of owners instead of players.

He's right that there are no guarantees, but it never hurts to try. That's the point of big-market financial flexibility, not having to worry as much about the bad money because there's always more. Instead, it appears we will be hearing more about the luxury tax functioning as a self-imposed salary cap that allows new revenue once presented as competitively significant on the field to make its way into pockets elsewhere. The Cubs have the money now, even, and are simply choosing not to spend it. There's no reason to think that will change as Marquee comes on line, despite how it was made to seem.

We will be watching.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s Bernstein & McKnight Show in midday. You can follow him on Twitter @Dan_Bernstein.