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Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts addresses franchise issues, night games off the table

Pete Ricketts left Tom Ricketts center talk with Kerry Wood before ceremony for RSanWrigley Field Friday July 27 2012 Chicago.

Pete Ricketts, left, and Tom Ricketts, center, talk with Kerry Wood before a ceremony for Ron Santo at Wrigley Field Friday, July 27, 2012, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 17, 2013 5:03PM

MESA, Ariz. — Cubs fans won’t see any big CITGO or Dunkin’ Donuts signs at Wrigley Field this year, and the issue of additional night games at Wrigley for 2013 is off the table, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said Sunday at Fitch Park.

But during his annual spring media address, Ricketts said he expects to make enough progress on lifting the requisite neighborhood and city restrictions “in the next few weeks” that the five-year Wrigley renovation plan unveiled last month should start on time next October.

Beyond that, look for the next big revenue push to involve putting the squeeze on WGN to substantially increase its annual broadcast rights fees – now believed to be less than $20 million for the roughly 70 games it has each year – to compete with some of the mega-deals struck in recent years with Philadelphia, the Texas teams and some of the California teams.

The Cubs are expected to exercise an opt-out of their TV deal with WGN that would allow them to renegotiate for that portion of their local broadcast rights for the 2015 season and beyond.

“We’ll find out a lot more over the next 12 months,’’ said Ricketts, who would not say whether a long-discussed Cubs-owned network – similar to what teams such as the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees have – would be a viable option by then.

It’s widely believed the Cubs would not have the time (nor, perhaps, the will) to grapple with such a large undertaking with so many other projects in progress. Some insiders suggest a third network – or the threat of one – could create a negotiating foothold for the Cubs in dealing with WGN.

Among the potential speed bumps is the fact that Comcast’s contract with the Cubs for most of their other games doesn’t allow the Cubs to sell TV rights to another local cable outlet. That contract goes through the 2019 season.

Also, Tribune Co.-owned WGN could be at an economic disadvantage to negotiate a significantly higher fee for games in the aftermath of Tribune’s recent emergence from bankruptcy.

“We’re still in the early stages,’’ Ricketts said, ``so we really don’t have all the options laid out. We’re not sure what’s next. It’s just time to start the discussion.’’

Ricketts said WGN’s ability to give the Cubs’ wider exposure through its national cable platform will be a “factor” in negotiations.

But he also said, ``Obviously, local media rights have been increasing in value. Hopefully, at some point we will be able to get more value for our media rights. But it’s something that’s just playing out over time.’’

Meanwhile, where are the revenues going now?

Ricketts has long said all the money taken in by the operation goes back into the team. And he also has said that the baseball operations’ piece of the pie will stay the same.

Payroll has gone down each of the three full off-seasons since the Ricketts family took over the team, and while the front office has grown, and spent more in some areas of scouting and player development, there has also been numerous cost-cutting measures through those departments – including pay cuts in both departments, per diem cuts for scouts and cost savings by eliminating mileage allowances for scouts through acquiring a fleet of cars.

This year’s projected payroll of just under $110 million is roughly 25 percent less than the Ricketts’ first-season payroll in 2010.

Ricketts suggests the finances for baseball operations have been recalibrated since the family took over.

``You’re kind of comparing it to the Tribune payrolls of the last couple years, which from our standpoint and from the team’s standpoint were just unsustainable,’’ he said. ``but what I can say is that it’s a closed system. Every dollar does stay in the baseball organization. That’s why it’s so important when we have these discussions about how you improve the field … that I’m representing Theo [Epstein, team president] but I’m also representing the fans to make sure that we get the financial resources of the team to be as large as we can be.’’

If Tribune payroll trends have been reduced, Tribune ticket-price hikes in the years leading up to Ricketts ownership – and into the early part of new ownership – have not.

Even this year’s touted 2-percent average price drop is just one way to look at a dynamic pricing system that also includes increases on 38 of 65 price points.

Either way, Ricketts said he is optimistic about this year’s team improving on last year’s 101-loss season and heading in the right direction long-term on the field.

“We’re on a mission to be the best organization in baseball,’’ he said, ``and that’ll lead us to the World Series. And it’s all about doing the right things one step at a time, being consistent and always moving forward.’’

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