Epstein waiting for Wrigley deal to take Cubs to next level

Epstein waiting for Wrigley deal to take Cubs to next level

April 1, 2013, 3:30 pm
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PITTSBURGH – The Cubs are waiting for the puff of white smoke to come from City Hall, bless the Wrigley Field renovation deal and transform them back into a big-market team again.

Chairman Tom Ricketts and president of business operations Crane Kenney had set Opening Day as the deadline to reach an agreement with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the 44th Ward, preserving the building season that would begin in October.

[RELATED: Cubs, City rush to hammer out Wrigley deal]

The Cubs say they need lead time to order materials and set their plans in motion. Ricketts won’t green light the $300 million project until all the details are finalized. With the team expecting a new clubhouse, training facilities and player amenities ready by 2014, is this a true hard deadline?

“That’s my understanding,” said president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. “They’re working hard on it as we speak. Parallel fronts, I guess.”

Epstein laughed at one of his own buzzwords while standing outside the visiting clubhouse, surrounded by cameras and microphones before Monday’s 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. But there’s definitely a sense of urgency in his department.  

The USA TODAY salary survey ranked the Cubs at No. 14 out of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams – in between the Cincinnati Reds and Baltimore Orioles. At a projected $104.3 million, the Cubs would be spending roughly $15 million less than the White Sox.

“It’s fundamentally important to get us to the next level as an organization,” Epstein said. “We have a baseball plan and we have a business plan and they’re timed to sync up with one another. They’re interdependent.

“And if we don’t get a Wrigley renovation done in a timely manner and done in the right way, then we can’t accomplish our business objectives and that will certainly get in the way of us ultimately accomplishing our baseball objectives.”

This follows the Forbes rankings that assessed the Cubs at $1 billion, the fourth-most valuable franchise in the majors. Even if the numbers are only good guesses/projections, reports confirm the suspicions the Cubs are leading the league in profit.

[RELATED: Time for Ricketts to make a Wrigley renovation deal]

A Chicago Sun-Times story that ran Opening Day also shed some light on the opaque financials behind the debt-laden $845 million deal the Ricketts family made with Tribune Co. in October 2009 to purchase the team (as well as a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago).

Ricketts has called those last-call, win-one-for-the-Tower payrolls – which soared to around $146 million in 2010 – as “unsustainable” within the current business model.

Coming off a 101-loss season, Team Marketing Report found the Cubs lowered ticket prices 3.8 percent, with an average cost ($44.55) that trailed only the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

Fueling their product, the Yankees ($228.8 million) and Red Sox ($150.7 million) ranked first and fourth in the USA TODAY payroll study.

The Cubs lost their $150 million renovation subsidy last May when team owner/family patriarch Joe Ricketts and his anti-Obama “Super PAC” made national headlines and angered Emanuel during a bitter presidential campaign.

Key provisions to the $300 million project bankrolled by the family – more night games, increased advertising signage, a Jumbotron – weren’t nailed down when team executives unveiled their plans at Cubs Convention in January.

Forget the idea of the Cubs finding a better location than Clark and Addison. There’s too much money to be made there, including the hotel the Ricketts family wants to develop across the street from the marquee.

[MORE: Rosemont Cubs? Suburban mayor makes his pitch]

Epstein – who didn’t buy a home within walking distance of Wrigley Field so he could commute to Rosemont every day – speaks with Ricketts and Kenney a few times a week and knows the Cubs need an economic game-changer.

“I’m not on the front lines,” Epstein said of the renovation talks. “I’m just there for support and ideas and to bounce things off one another. Sometimes it’s good – when you’re in the middle of something – to be able to talk to somebody who’s not embroiled in the step-by-step of the negotiation.”