So far, Ricketts family last in standings among Cubs owners
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter January 18, 2014 12:58AM
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Updated: February 20, 2014 6:50AM
When the Ricketts family took ownership of the Cubs in the fall of 2009, they promised championships, stability and a long-term hope.
While that hope appears to remain intact — it’s the club’s only selling point these days — there’s not much certainty about baseball performance or management stability four years later.
In fact, as the Rickettses prepared this weekend to face their most restless, if not hostile, fan base in five years of Cubs Conventions, their track record includes some of the worst baseball of any ownership tenure in the history of the franchise.
The promises are still there, in the physical forms of Javy Baez, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora roaming the ballrooms and lobbies of the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers.
But as those touted prospects head to the minors again for the start of what figures to be another lost season of North Side baseball, an unflattering view of the Ricketts ownership is starting to develop in the game, with some industry sources questioning the fitness of the family to operate a big-market franchise.
The third-year rebuilding plan under baseball president Theo Epstein is starting to flow with minor-league prospects/saviors. But the Cubs remain strapped for the financial resources to rebuild more quickly and aggressively through such avenues as pre-prime international player acquisitions. (They remain a long shot for free agent Masahiro Tanaka despite focusing this winter’s resources on strengthening a bid.)
How quickly baseball operations gets a promised cash boost is linked to factors ranging from the highest franchise debt load in Major League Baseball to Wrigley Field renovations that have been delayed for more than a year to promises of a local-TV rights increase that might not be seen for years.
Despite suggestions that this third-year overhaul has taken a toll on the Cubs’ substantial brand, sports business experts so far say that’s not the case — but that the next two or three years could be critical.
Chicago-based sports business consultant Marc Ganis said the lengthy honeymoon is at least partially because of ‘‘the fact that the team losing games on the field, unfortunately, has been part of its persona.’’
Still, the last four seasons have put the Ricketts family in an unenviable class of its own among Cubs owners. No other ownership group in Cubs history has failed to reach .500 in its first four years, and the .421 winning percentage is worst among all Cubs owners.
Along the way, the Rickettses have run through four managers in five seasons, watched attendance decline each season (down 17 percent total) and maintained an average ticket price roughly 10 percent higher than it was the year before they took over a then-contender.
All of which will be forgotten very quickly if The Plan works.
‘‘Even if the Cubs take a short-term hit in the box office,’’ New York-based sports scholar Marc Edelman said, ‘‘if they’re able to build a team that can win the World Series in the next decade, they will more than offset any temporary loss in revenue.’’
Or damage to the Cubs brand and the Ricketts reputation.
Edelman, an associate law professor specializing in sports-related fields at Zicklin School of Business, Baruch College, City University of New York, compared this stretch of Cubs history to the losing New York Yankees teams in the early ’90s that had Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte developing into a core that would deliver six pennants and four championships in eight years.
‘‘There were similar concerns that the Yankees were tarnishing their brand equity based on performance and on-field record,’’ he said. ‘‘But if you look at the Yankees today, it is clear that the rebuilding strategy they took in the early 1990s ultimately led to a colossal increase in the franchise’s brand equity.’’
But Ganis, who consulted on the Cubs sale for Tribune Co. and works with the Yankees, cautions that the success of a rebuilding plan built on big promises is critical.
‘‘It’s not like they’ve over-promised and under-delivered,’’ he said. ‘‘But they are promising a lot for the future, and if they don’t perform in the future, there is a risk of tarnishing the brand — and losing a meaningful part of the next generation or two.’’
So far, Edelman and Ganis say they’re impressed with the improvements the Cubs have made to their spring and Dominican facilities, their technology upgrades and the early signs of their commitment to player development.
It’s the focus on those things that the Rickettses said — through a spokesman — are why they’re not concerned about perceptions from the outside or whether the lights will come on when they decide to flip the switch on baseball resources.
‘‘From the family’s perspective, the only thing that matters is winning the World Series and becoming a consistent championship contender,’’ family spokesman Dennis Culloton said. ‘‘And everything [else] with regard to how the family and the team are perceived will all be wrapped around the success of that endeavor.
‘‘Theo Epstein was very clear about the path that we would be taking when we signed him a few years ago, and we’ve stayed on that plan. And he described a long, hard slog. . . . No shortcuts.’’
As for the resources, Epstein paused Friday when asked if he’d gotten the kind of budgets he expected when he signed that five-year deal two years ago.
‘‘There can’t be any hard-and-set expectations,’’ he said, pointing to unforeseen delays in the ballpark-renovation process. ‘‘It’s a dynamic landscape that constantly changes . . . that you have to adjust with.’’
Said Culloton: ‘‘[The front office is] on plan, and they have the resources they need to execute that plan.’’
Meanwhile, the bar is clearly set very high.
‘‘Theo Epstein has been sold as a savior of baseball on the North Side,’’ said Ganis, who said the transition would be helped by a star player the fans could embrace, especially in an age of social media.
‘‘But they’re not there. That’s why they’re hanging their hats on Theo. And that’s where I get to, if the team does not come through under Theo’s stewardship, then there are risks.
‘‘They’re not there yet.’’