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Cubs might be six years away from big-market spending

Updated: May 6, 2014 6:16AM



The casual mentions of ‘‘no end in sight’’ have increased with every passing month and year during the Cubs’ renovation process.

How’s this for an end line: 2020.

In other words: another six years of growing pains and limited baseball budgets.

Even before the Cubs lost their home opener Friday, their third loss in four games this season, chairman Tom Ricketts didn’t rule out the possibility that a long-promised boost to the baseball-operations budget might take that long to be fully realized.

That’s when the Cubs’ TV-rights deal with CSN (for more than half of their games) expires, making it the first year the Cubs can offer a single regional outlet their full schedule of TV rights — and theoretically reach full cash-in potential on any megadeal they plan to negotiate between now and then. The Cubs exercised an opt-out clause for the end of this season with the WGN portion of their rights package.

Industry analysts say the potential of a new TV deal — far more than new stadium revenues — is the real game-changer for Cubs revenues and, by extension, their on-field rebuilding.

So Theo Epstein’s front office doesn’t get its big-market budgets back until 2020? The Cubs won’t have spending power comparable to their market size before that?

Ricketts didn’t offer the teeth-gritting, patient fan base much reason to think so when he answered that question before Friday’s 7-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.

‘‘We’ll see,’’ he said ‘‘I mean, we’ll know a lot more about what our media-rights options are as the year goes forward. I’m not really sure.’’

That can’t be a comfort to fans paying some of the top ticket prices in the game — fans who just endured a last-place season, followed by a do-nothing winter, followed by four games in which the Cubs are averaging 1.8 runs per nine innings.

Even the news that the Cubs might be willing to create cash flow through minority investors might not be the baseball boon it has the potential to be. The plan would involve big-pockets investors buying ‘‘shares’’ of the team to offset the $500 million tab for stadium renovations and development outside Wrigley Field.

Asked if that kind of revenue could be used as cash flow to add to baseball operations, Ricketts said: ‘‘Well, in the end, renovating the ballpark does create that cash flow.’’

Eventually, maybe.

‘‘The way we look at it is, if you’re going to put the dollars in, you want to put it into something that has a long-term return,’’ he said. ‘‘We think the renovation of the ballpark is $30- to $40 million in incremental revenue per year.’’

Which, according to sources, about covers the Cubs’ annual debt-service cost.

‘‘If you’re going to put money in,’’ Ricketts added, ‘‘why would you not put it in in a way that gives a long-term return, where it’s consistent and you have that in perpetuity as opposed to a single season or one player?’’

Of course, it’s not about necessarily a single player, or even deep dives into the free-agent market. But it is about paying for major-league players — whether at market price or in strategic overpays for ideal fits ­— a necessary and large cost for any successful front office.

Even Epstein has repeatedly said the kids in the farm system won’t get this done themselves. And an accelerated competitive timeline would go a long way toward restoring annual attendance losses projected to cost $23 million in lost revenue this year alone.

‘‘Obviously, attendance is somewhat correlated to wins, right?’’ Ricketts said. ‘‘So a better team would help some. But for us, the focus is to do the things right for the long term.’’

Long. Term.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

Twitter: @GDubCub



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