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WGN Sports is the programming division of WGN-TV (channel 9), a CW-affiliated television station located in Chicago, Illinois, United States – which is owned by the Tribune Broadcasting subsidiary of Tribune Media – that is responsible for all sports broadcasts on the station, some of which was previously also broadcast on its former national superstation feed WGN America.
WGN-TV also distributes its telecasts of Chicago Cubs, White Sox and Bulls games to television stations in Illinois, Indiana and Iowa – primarily those affiliated with The CW and MyNetworkTV – that are within each team's designated market area (including sister stations WHO-DT in Des Moines and WQAD-TV in Moline, Illinois – respectively affiliated with NBC and ABC – which carry WGN's baseball telecasts on their respective Antenna TV- and MyNetworkTV-affiliated digital subchannels). In the Chicago market, WGN-produced telecasts also occasionally air on WCIU-TV and WPWR-TV.
Throughout its history, WGN-TV has had a long-standing association with Chicago sports. Perhaps with the exception of the NFL's Chicago Bears, each of the city's major professional sports franchises, along with several area collegiate teams, have had its games regularly televised over channel 9.
Cubs and White Sox baseball
The station's relationship with the Chicago Cubs traces back to channel 9's inception in April 1948, and was further cemented during the 28 years (from 1981 to 2009) that the Tribune Company owned the National League franchise. At the same time, channel 9 was also broadcasting games from Chicago's American League team, the White Sox. Jack Brickhouse, the longtime sports director (and later, vice president of sports programming) for the WGN television and radio stations, handled play-by-play announcing duties for the home games of both teams until 1967, when the White Sox ended their first stint on WGN-TV, and continued to call Cubs games until his retirement from broadcasting in 1981. With both teams, Brickhouse called over 5,000 baseball games during his career, sharing the booth with announcers such as Milo Hamilton, Lou Boudreau, Vince Lloyd and Lloyd Pettit. Over the years, the number of Cubs games on WGN gradually decreased (down to 70 per season by 2008, which by that time were split between WGN-TV and WCIU-TV), culminating with the sale of the team from Tribune to Thomas S. Ricketts in 2009.
On November 5, 2013, the Cubs exercised an option to opt out of their television contract with WGN-TV following the 2014 season; as part of the opt-out clause exercise, the team gave the station a 30-day window to make a counteroffer for a deal lasting through the 2019 season – which, in any instance, would raise the rights fees that WGN pays the team from an annual rate of $20 million, and align the contract with the end of the team's cable rights deal. On January 7, 2014, WGN-TV announced a deal with the Cubs to air a reduced slate of 45 games per season beginning in 2015; the remaining 25 over-the-air Cubs telecasts will air on ABC owned-and-operated station WLS-TV (channel 7), which acquired partial broadcast rights to those games in December 2014. WPWR-TV will also replace WCIU-TV as WGN's secondary outlet for these baseball games.
WGN-TV regained broadcast rights for the White Sox in 1973, but it opted to enter into a contract with then-competing independent station WSNS-TV (channel 44, now a Telemundo owned-and-operated station) to have that station carry the games, an arrangement that lasted through the 1980 season. With this, White Sox broadcaster Harry Caray joined the WGN family, occasionally sitting in as a sportscaster on the station's newscasts in the 1970s.
Channel 9 exclusively carried White Sox games in 1981, but lost that team's rights to another independent station competitor WFLD-TV (channel 32, now a Fox owned-and-operated station) the following year. With the retirement of Brickhouse after the 1981 season, Caray was dispatched from the South Side to replace him as the Cubs' lead television voice. For the next 16 years, primarily working with analyst Steve Stone, Caray further established his place among Chicago's most-beloved personalities. Like Brickhouse, Caray was known for displaying an unapologetic, home team-oriented enthusiasm to his game calls, punctuated with memorable signature catchphrases for big plays (such as Caray's "Holy Cow!" and Brickhouse's "Hey-hey!"). Caray also brought his unique rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch to the channel 9 broadcast booth. With WGN-TV's prominence as a national superstation during the 1980s and 1990s, Caray's fan base – and that of the Cubs – grew beyond Chicago and the Midwestern United States.
After moving their games to WFLD in 1982 for an eight-year run, the White Sox returned to WGN-TV in 1990 when co-owner Jerry Reinsdorf agreed to long-term deals with the station for both the Sox and his NBA franchise, the Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls originally broadcast their games on channel 9 from the team's inception in 1966 until 1973, and again from 1976 until 1985; Jack Brickhouse, Lorn Brown, Milo Hamilton and Bob Costas were among those assigned to work as Bulls play-by-play announcers, with Johnny "Red" Kerr serving as an analyst. The team's games returned to WGN-TV for the start of the 1989-90 season, just in time for the Bulls' dominance of the NBA during the Michael Jordan era.
The NHL's Chicago Blackhawks were carried by the station from 1961 until 1975. WGN-TV's broadcasts were limited to away games, as the Blackhawks' owner at the time, Bill Wirtz, had long prohibited televised coverage of his team's home games in order to sustain ticket sales. Following the elder Wirtz' death in September 2007, his son and successor Rocky Wirtz ended the home game television blackout, and soon made channel 9 the Blackhawks' new broadcast home. The station has aired 20 Blackhawks games per season, starting with a three-year contract that began in the 2008–09 campaign. On February 15, 2011, it was announced that the team had renewed their broadcast contract with WGN-TV for five additional years through the 2015-16 NHL season.
Other sporting events
In November 2010, WGN-TV became the home for Chicago Bears preseason and regular season games that are not carried by a broadcast network, simulcasting games televised on NFL Network's Thursday Night Football; under NFL rules, games that air on cable networks are required to be simulcast on a local broadcast station in each team's home market. This marked the first time that WGN broadcast games from all five major Chicago sports teams during the course of a single season; the Bears simulcasts were not carried on WGN America.
Along with its coverage of professional teams, WGN-TV also currently holds broadcast rights to the Illinois Derby, Hawthorne Gold Cup Handicap and Arlington Million horse races, the broadcasts of which are limited to the Chicago area signal. The station had formerly broadcast football and basketball games from Chicago area college teams – such as Northwestern University, DePaul University and Loyola University – and other teams of the Big Ten Conference.
Broadcast rights issues
In 1996, WGN-TV temporarily lost the rights to broadcast Chicago Bulls basketball games after the National Basketball Association filed a lawsuit over WGN's national transmission of the team's games over its then superstation feed. This decision led cable provider Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) to remove the national WGN channel from some of its systems outside the Chicago area. TCI cited the loss of Bulls broadcast rights, along with its own decision to make room for additional cable channels, as the reasons behind its decision to drop the superstation feed of WGN; however, viewer outcry over the decision in some markets led TCI to back off its plans to drop the national WGN feed from its systems in five Midwestern states.
In July 1999, WGN-TV and independent station WCIU-TV entered into a programming arrangement involving sports coverage, in which the latter station would air select Bulls and White Sox games, and a handful of Cubs games, that are produced by and contracted to air on WGN-TV for exclusive broadcast within the Chicago market. This is due to network affiliation contracts that limit the number of programming preemptions per year, as well as rights restrictions put in place by the NBA which limited the WGN national feed to fifteen Bulls games per season (though these national broadcasts usually vary between 10 and 20 telecasts depending on the year). The remaining Bulls games produced by WGN-TV were split between the station's Chicago area signal and WCIU-TV. Blackhawks games on channel 9 are also exclusive to the Chicago market (in this case, this was due to the NHL's exclusive broadcast contracts, such as its deal with NBCUniversal that began in 2008).
Restrictions similar to those that affected WGN America (as well as the absence of contractual streaming rights) also prevent WGN-TV from running sports highlights during live streams of the station's newscasts on the WGNTV.com website (unusual since some stations, including a few of WGN-TV/WGN America's Tribune-owned sister stations, have had permission to run sports highlights during live streams of local newscasts on their websites and mobile applications), which are replaced with a screen noting the restrictions as the audio portion of the sports segments are streamed.
As part of Tribune's conversion of the network from a superstation into a general entertainment cable channel, the company announced that WGN America would no longer broadcast Chicago Cubs, Bulls and White Sox games. Tribune Media president and chief executive officer Peter Liguori cited limited revenue and viewership accrued from the broadcasts (revenue was reportedly only covering 20% of the rights fees) behind the decision to drop the national telecasts; several seasons of sub-par play by the Cubs (whose television package cost five times as much for rights fees alone as the revenue it brought in for the national broadcasts) after Tribune's sale of the team to Thomas S. Ricketts in late 2009. Even prior to the decision, WGN America had chosen not to air certain sports related programming carried on the Chicago signal such as the Blackhawks' victory parade following the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs and a half-hour special paying tribute to the late Cubs player and broadcaster Ron Santo in 2011 (although a few Tribune and Local TV-owned partner stations aired the funeral on their digital subchannels and the Blackhawks' victory parade was shown on the NHL Network using the WGN-TV feed). The last sports telecast from WGN-TV to air on WGN America was a Chicago Bulls NBA game against the Golden State Warriors that aired on December 6, 2014; with the move, WGN-TV's sports telecasts are now only viewable outside of the Chicago market via Canadian television providers carrying the Chicago television station's signal.
- WGN America | Contact Us/FAQ
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- Richard Katz (December 2, 1996). "Networks on chopping block; TCI makes mincemeat of programmers' lineups". <span />Multichannel News (via HighBeam Research). Retrieved February 24, 2011.
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- Confirmed by WGN-TV "WGN-TV Contact Page". Accessed June 8, 2007.
- Chicago Professional Sports L.P. & WGN Continental Broadcasting Co. vs. National Basketball Association. 961 Fed. 2d 667 (7th Cir. 1992)
- Lynne Marek (May 30, 2014). "WGN America to drop Chicago sports". Chicago Business. Retrieved June 27, 2014.