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Cubs' new radio deal all about marketing

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs and WBBM Newsradio 780 are on the air!

Almost, anyway.

The Cubs and the CBS Radio station held a news conference Thursday afternoon to officially announce their new seven-year partnership, which begins next year.

Excuse me, the "game-changing partnership."

Both Cubs vice president of communications Julian Green and Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney used that phrase to describe the deal.

The game has changed, folks. Don't worry, Pat Hughes will still be describing it. He's part of the deal as the Cubs leave WGN Radio in a divorce that was, like most marriages, strained by bad finances.

WGN Radio opted out of its deal last fall, citing major losses in a locked-in rate that cost the station reportedly $10 million a year in rights fees. But, tellingly, WGN was still negotiating with the Cubs for a new deal. During his media tour Wednesday, WGN Radio President Jimmy de Castro said they offered the Cubs, among other things, equity in the station, a revenue-sharing agreement, similar to what they do with the Blackhawks, and even a very small rights deal.

Kenney said it was difficult to leave WGN, which first broadcast Cubs baseball in 1924 and concurrently since 1958.

"When we went into the marketplace, we were humbled, to be honest, from the degree of interest not just from CBS and WGN, but others as you can imagine," Kenney said. "We were flattered. We explored each one of those various options. By far CBS understood our vision and added to it."

Kenney then called out CBS Radio President and CEO Dan Mason for asking, in a business meeting, why little Tony Campana wasn't a Cub anymore.

Don't worry, the radio suits aren't allowed to sit in on the Cubs' draft meetings Thursday night.

The Cubs will be on WBBM, not CBS affiliate WSCR, the all-sports station that currently has the rights for White Sox games, Mason said. But don't worry, Bears fans. When a Cubs game conflicts with a Bears game on WBBM, the Cubs' game will move to one of the FM stations.

The new deal is about much more than baseball. It's all about marketing, the nebulous term to describe everything off the field.

It includes a partnership with all seven CBS stations in Chicago, which means expect a lot of Cubs ticket commercials on your favorite country station and a lot of radio personalities making awkward conversation with the TV and radio broadcasters and singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

Yes, we're all hoping CBS Radio maven Les Grobstein gets a chance to sing.

The deal also includes a "50-50" deal on putting on concerts at Wrigley Field, Kenney said, which has become a big moneymaker for the Cubs. It's a business that isn't included in baseball's revenue sharing agreement. Kenney disputed de Castro's remark that the Cubs ditched WGN for an "all-cash deal."

"This is sort of three parts," Kenney said. "There is a cash component, there's also a joint venture on the music side that is truly a 50-50 partnership between them controlling talent and promotions and we controlling the venue. And there's the marketing aspects. To have access to this platform in this market, even before carrying our games, they cover 65 percent of our market, that's power we've never had to promote tickets and everything else we do here. So this was a multi-layered agreement with all sorts of elements to it. But cash is obviously important, too."

But really, the deal was about cash, be it annual rights payments, concerts or ticket sales. Nothing wrong with that. The Cubs need money as they prepare to start those long-awaited Wrigley Field renovations.

On his way out of the deal, de Castro slammed the Cubs as a money loser, noting some late-season weekend games showed no ratings. He told the Sun-Times, "In my opinion, they're making step after step after step that are PR nightmares."

On his way into the deal, Rod Zimmerman, the senior vice president of CBS Radio Chicago, referred to the Cubs on the radio as "marquee oceanfront property."

They're both right.