With Spring Training just weeks away, typically one of the most frequently asked questions this time of year pertains to the Cubs' upcoming broadcast schedule for the season ahead, and the number of games in which those outside of the Chicago area can expect to see on cable giant ‘GN.
In light of the past few years, the number isn't hard to predict.
Since the 2000 season, WGN has broadcast an average of roughly 70 Cubs games each season, both locally in Chicago (their Channel 9 feed) and nationally (their "Superstation" cable feed).
Those 70 games are a far cry from years past when WGN would carry well over 100 games in a season, but times have changed and there are plenty of reasons for the decrease in Cubs broadcasts on the superstation, as WGN executive sports producer Bob Vorwald explains.
"Since the 1990's, when Major League Baseball started doing the FOX and ESPN exclusivity, there are just a lot of nights when you can't carry the game," Vorwald said. "It's not for over-the-air television; it's either a full exclusive or a cable exclusive, so that takes a big chunk of games away."
Another important factor in why fewer Cubs games are shown on WGN today than in years past befalls on the station's partnership with the WB network (now "the CW"), which began in 1995.
"It's not truly as independent anymore," Vorwald said of WGN as a whole. "When you're affiliated with a network, the programming of the stations obviously becomes more difficult, so you have to float the games around."
Yet while all this has happened over the last several years, the Cub fan's relationship with WGN -- what started out as the ultimate in baseball summer flings -- has remained genuinely steady.
But, like many an old marriage, it might be that one of the two sides isn't quite as dependant on the other now as they were 10 or 20 years ago.
For example -- and in many cases, for the right price -- fans can now take solace in the arms of the younger, often more compelling mistress known as the internet. Online broadcast feeds in addition to live, updated box scores every few seconds and the always popular message boards, chat rooms and blogs all make it easier to follow Cubs games than in years past.
There's also the MLB-sponsored "Extra Innings" package offered by cable and satellite services across the country, and even XM Satellite Radio is in on the action with broadcasts of games for many of its subscribers.
In spite of these technological advances, Vorwald is quick to point out that WGN still airs more games nationwide than any other local broadcast station.
"If you look at any other team in any other sport, the mix of over-the-air TV versus cable for the Cubs is probably as aggressive if not more so than any other team," Vorwald surmises. "Look at the Yankees. Do they even have a game on free TV anymore, or is everything on the ‘YES' network?"
For years, the Atlanta Braves have maintained an affiliation with national superstation TBS that is similar to what the Cubs have with WGN. After the 2007 season, however, the Braves' weekly partnership with TBS will completely go the way of the dinosaur as the network introduces a new "Game of the Week" broadcast each Sunday beginning in 2008.
TBS will also broadcast post-season games beginning this fall as part of a new broadcast agreement with Major League Baseball.
In WGN's case, "the number of telecasts has been very consistent since the 1999 season," Vorwald said.
With that said, fans looking to get a heads-up on the number of games WGN expects to air in 2007 should not anticipate many changes.
"All told, we're looking at about 80 Cubs broadcasts this season," said Vorwald. "Now, eight of those get farmed out to WCIU. So the WGN Superstation Cub number is probably closer to 70 broadcasts."
Those interested in finding White Sox games on WGN in 2007 can also expect little change. Roughly 55 Sox games will air between WGN and WCIU with WGN expected to carry 25 to 30 of those contests, Vorwald said.
Vorwald said he did not know when the Cubs' official broadcast schedule for 2007 would be released, only that WGN, Comcast SportsNet and crew are all "working on it." The Cubs open the 2007 season at Cincinnati April 2 in a game scheduled for 1:10 p.m. (CDT) at Great American Ballpark.
"Right now, you're kind of at the mercy of waiting for FOX and ESPN to do their network schedules," Vorwald said. "So we're working through it with both the team and Comcast. It will probably still be a couple of weeks."
In the meantime, WGN has announced its 2007 Spring Training broadcast schedule. A total of five Cubs games will be aired by the station.