Tom Ricketts finally played the card used by so many other owners in professional sports: The threat to move.
While it still seems unthinkable that the Cubs would actually leave Wrigley Field, Ricketts opened up that possibility on Wednesday for the first time. As the $500 million renovation project moved into the public-approval phase, the chairman went all-in with the Jumbotron.
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“If we don’t have the ability to generate revenue in our own outfield, then we’ll have to take a look at moving,” Ricketts said. “No question.”
Ricketts – who associates have described as sometimes being too nice of a guy – definitely sounded edgier, on point and more combative speaking with reporters after a City Club of Chicago event. The guests inside the downtown Maggiano’s banquet hall included Rosemont Mayor Brad Stephens, who’s grabbed headlines by trying to lure the Cubs out to O’Hare International Airport.
Those kinds of ideas sounded like total non-starters ever since the Ricketts family finalized the $845 million purchase of the team – as well as a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago – from Tribune Co. in October 2009 and made repeated pledges to stay at Clark and Addison.
“We are committed to trying to work this out,” Ricketts said. “We’ve always said that we want to win in Wrigley Field. But we also need to generate the revenue that we need to continue to compete as a franchise. And having the ability to put the video board or signs in the outfield is very important to us. It’s a primary focus of what we do going forward.”
The Cubs project they could make $20 million more annually in advertising revenue without the signage restrictions. They are also locked into a contract with the rooftop buildings that runs through the end of the 2023 season. They envision a 6,000-square-foot Jumbotron rising beyond left field.
Ricketts said the Cubs tried to “minimize” the impact on the rooftops with these designs and didn’t sound at all concerned about a possible legal fight. The team filed development plans with the city on Wednesday, officially beginning what will be a series of public hearings, zoning negotiations and neighborhood meetings.
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Beth Murphy – the owner of Murphy’s Bleachers and spokesperson for the Wrigleyville Rooftops Association – didn’t get a sneak peek and seemed to be still processing her first looks at the renderings. A reporter asked if her group is still considering a lawsuit.
“I know you all want me to say that,” Murphy said. “We have work to do with the Cubs. We haven’t had a seat at the table and we haven’t had legal representation.”
More than two weeks after announcing the “framework” of an agreement with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Alderman Tom Tunney, the Cubs still have to address a variety of neighborhood concerns, from the number of night games, to the size of the video board, to how Sheffield and Waveland would be used for street fests.
Murphy was asked if she viewed moving as an empty threat: “I don’t think it would be a wise business decision.”
“The reason the Cubs are such a tourist destination,” Murphy said, “is because it’s a ballpark in a neighborhood. (It’s) an interesting place for tourists to come to – I don’t think a new ballpark in a parking lot is interesting.”
As these talks drag out – team executives made a splashy presentation with sketches at Cubs Convention in January – the baseball operations department risks losing the upgrades promised by Opening Day 2014.
Ricketts confirmed that the new clubhouse, batting tunnels and training facilities depend on when the Cubs green light construction for the five consecutive offseasons it will take to complete the entire project.
“We’ll know the timetable better when we get to the end of this process,” Ricketts said. “That will really help us decide when we can do what.”
But the Cubs are not a flight risk. The Ricketts family has been strategically buying up property on the North Side, including the lot across from the Wrigley Field marquee, where the plan is to develop a 175-room hotel along with Starwood.
“The Yankees are the most storied baseball franchise there is,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said, “and they tore down the original stadium and built a brand-new one. (This is) going to be something special.
“I know Mr. Ricketts wants to win. He’s building a winning environment here. He’s going to do whatever it takes to (do) what needs to be done. He wants to bring a championship here, whether it’s at Wrigley or not. We all want it to be at Wrigley.”
Ricketts is playing hardball now, and that’s going to overshadow all the cool drawings for the future.
“Keep it in context,” Ricketts said. “The talk of moving is relative to being able to have our flexibility in the outfield. I think everything else is going forward.”