The Cubs are selling their fans the intersection of the baseball and business plans. A full-scale rebuild at the major-league level will be timed with a renovated Wrigley Field and a new television contract. That’s when they've promised to act like a big-market team again.
Chairman Tom Ricketts didn’t close the deal before Monday’s home opener. That essentially canceled the joint press conference with Mayor Rahm Emanuel some speculated about. The assumption was the Cubs would want the splash of good publicity, which would have drawn the focus away from a 7-4 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers.
Since the Cubs have no interest in leaving Clark and Addison - and moving to a place like Rosemont would kill their national brand and the generational bond among fans - the expectation is that a deal will get done eventually.
But Ricketts couldn't say how fast team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer would be able to pour those resources back into the on-field product once an agreement is reached.
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“I’m not sure when all of it comes online,” Ricketts said. “We’d have to think about sequencing and frankly I haven’t been focusing on that lately.”
These economic forces are supposed to transform the Cubs into the New York Yankees of the National League Central. A Cubs network - which can’t launch before 2020 - could help make them the Boston Red Sox of the Midwest and the flyover states.
That doesn’t guarantee a parade down Michigan Avenue. But at least on Opening Day the Cubs (No. 14, $104.3 million) wouldn’t be trailing division rivals like the St. Louis Cardinals (No. 10, $115.2 million) or Cincinnati Reds (No. 13, $107.5 million) in the USA TODAY salary rankings.
One industry source estimated the team’s annual broadcast revenues are north of $45 million. A Chicago Tribune report had it around $60 million. Another industry official declined to confirm those figures, using only a four-letter word to describe revenues and where the Cubs should be, given the nearly $8 billion deal recently made by the Los Angeles Dodgers and Time Warner Cable.
The Cubs can opt out of their WGN deal after the 2014 season and renegotiate with the network or find a new television partner.
In this light, Ricketts has called the payrolls during the final years of Tribune Co. ownership “unsustainable.” After a morning media blitz on television and radio, he spoke with beat writers, columnists and some more microphones for seven-plus minutes in the press box dining room.
“A lot of stuff we’re doing with the park is non-revenue generating,” Ricketts said. “We haven’t decided in what sequence all of it goes in. I think our highest priority, in all honesty, is the clubhouse.
“It’s way below standard. And one of the things that I’ve said since we got here is: If we want to have a first-class organization, we can’t have second-rate facilities.”
April 1 clearly wasn’t a hard deadline to finalize a deal with the City of Chicago and the 44th Ward so that the Cubs could begin construction this fall on their $500 million stadium/hotel project.
“I don’t use time-frames anymore,” Ricketts said. “I’m not sure what it means to have it done in 48 hours or not have it done in 48 hours. All I know is we’ve committed to working exclusively with the city to try to push this forward. (We’re) working with the mayor’s office and (Alderman Tom Tunney) to get to the solution that works for everyone.”
The baseball operations department had been promised that the new clubhouse, batting tunnels and other player amenities would be ready by Opening Day 2014.
“The guys who are in the midst of the negotiations say there’s a lot of momentum,” Epstein said. “They obviously wouldn't keep talking if they weren't close. They’re still talking. They’re still hopeful they get a deal done. There’s still time to get a deal done. So we’ll see what happens.”
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Epstein hates being the center of attention and had to ask for some breathing room when the cameras and microphones surrounded him on the field before Monday’s game: “Would you mind giving just like a few inches more? It’s a little tight. Yeah, thanks.”
The Cubs bought Epstein’s brand name and the credibility that comes with the two World Series rings he won in Boston. The Ricketts family has been forced to defend their record after a highly leveraged $845 million purchase of the team - and a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago - in October 2009.
The Cubs have the third-highest average ticket price in baseball ($44.55), according to Team Marketing Report. Forbes recently assessed the franchise value at $1 billion and estimated the team led the league in profit during a 101-loss season.
The fans and the media have bought into the narrative and listened to the pleas for patience. The Cubs are waiting for the game-changers.
Ricketts reaffirmed the renovation would take place across five offseasons (which would again rule out playing at Miller Park or U.S. Cellular Field for a time). The chairman described the 20-year contract with the rooftop association he inherited as “really awkward” and indicated there are no opt-outs or loopholes in a deal that runs through 2023.
Ricketts declined to say how many more night games his negotiating team is pushing for beyond the 30 limited by city ordinance. The Cubs want more flexibility with start times so they can maximize revenue, work with television partners and give players more recovery time after road trips. Issues like parking and other neighborhood concerns would be addressed through public hearings.
It’s still an open-ended question when all these changes would fuel the major-league payroll and put a better product on the field.