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WGN fires parting shots after losing team to WBBM

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Updated: June 5, 2014 10:26AM

Cubs fans evidently don’t let go of traditions lightly. Nor, apparently, do executives of their radio affiliates.

A flagship station change that in almost any other baseball market would be mundane quickly escalated into a bitter, public divorce, underscoring the unique and deep-running emotions Chicago has for its institutions.

And when two iconic institutions such as the Cubs and WGN part ways after a relationship that began 90 years ago, be ready to grab some popcorn and enjoy the show.

“In my opinion, they’re making step after step after step that are PR nightmares,” WGN Radio president Jimmy de Castro told the Sun-Times on Wednesday after news broke Tuesday night that the Cubs officially had taken their broadcasts to WBBM-AM and its CBS Radio family in a seven-year deal starting next season. “At the same time, they’ve lost 35 games this year, 288 games in the last three years, and no one’s listening or watching.”

Of course, it was WGN that exercised an opt-out provision in its contract with the Cubs last October over bottom-line losses and a perceived decline in market value, then declined to match the larger CBS deal.

The Cubs fired back Wednesday:

“It’s obvious we’re not immune to unfortunate comments and below-the-belt punches as of late, but WGN opted out, period,” Cubs spokesman Julian Green said in an email to the Sun-Times. “We are taking steps, though. Some of those steps are tough with fans, but we’re taking step after step to build our organization and give Cubs fans a world championship. Like it or not, this deal puts us on track for future success.”

Fans apparently share de Castro’s disappointment, if not necessarily his charged critiques. Fans said they were unhappy with the move by nearly a 5-to-1 margin in a poll Thursday.

“It’ll be different, but I don’t think it’ll be that much different,” said former Cub Ron Coomer, a Chicago native who grew up listening to the Cubs on WGN and joined Pat Hughes this year in the booth. Coomer and Hughes will move with the Cubs. Both are under contract through next year.

“You have a very good station and something that everybody is very familiar with in WGN,” Coomer said. “It was always WGN and the Cubs when I was a kid, and it’s been that way for a long time. You’d hit 720 on the dial. That’s the way it was. Now you’ve got another high-powered station in town, WBBM. They’ve got the Bears. And they’ve got the Chicago Cubs.

“This was a business decision that was made by the Cubs organization and WGN and WBBM.’’

Even de Castro acknowledges the hard business decision involved.

“We’ve lost a lot of money on the Cubs, and we’ve stood behind their rebuild for years,” he said. “And we offered to continue to lose a lot of money in the future, but not the kind of money that CBS is going to lose. It’s just an amazingly layered deal. I can’t figure it out. I’ve been around the broadcast business a really long time, and it makes no sense.”

Whether WBBM and its sister stations reap the rewards they expect over the next seven years, the deal made sense to the Cubs in their efforts to increase revenues.

“We were presented with an opportunity to be innovative and grow our brand with a premier property in sports broadcasting,” Green said. “This will be a game-changing partnership in the Chicago radio market.”

Contributing: Rick Morrissey

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