Tom Ricketts says quick fix not in cards for Cubs
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter September 4, 2013 9:53PM
Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said Wednesday that the franchise makes “personnel decisions based on what’s best for the organization over the longer term.” | Sun-Times library
Updated: September 6, 2013 4:09PM
DUNEDIN, Fla. — As the smallest crowd in more than a decade was being counted at Wrigley Field, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts joined a contingent of Cubs executives at a Class A ballpark in Florida for a first-hand look at what might be his best hopes for fixing his local baseball problem.
Considering this was the Class A Florida State League playoffs, that doesn’t mean much for next year’s Cubs — who don’t appear poised for any kind of quantum leap toward the top of the National League Central, even with a modest influx of major-league talent this offseason.
As for any kind of major influx this winter, don’t count on it.
In a conversation with the Sun-Times on Wednesday, Ricketts promised no splashy, expensive moves to reverse four consecutive years of losing on the field and at the gate. And he made no assurances that the third-highest ticket prices in the sport would get reduced for next season.
And while he acknowledged the team’s lingering purchase debt is a factor in spending ability, he said it’s “a lot less than you think,” and he said baseball budgets set by ownership isn’t holding back anything team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer are trying to do with the club.
“I know it’s not a money issue,’’ Ricketts said of the methods the baseball department is using to restock the farm system and overhaul the organization — and the consequent results at the big-league level. “You can’t just throw money at the problem. We have to build the organization from the ground up. And that’s what we’re doing right now.
“On the business side, we have to continue to develop more revenue lines so that we can have more financial flexibility in the future, and we’re doing that with stadium renovations and other media contracts that are coming up in the future.”
To that end, Ricketts hopes to put outfield signage and the Jumbotron-like board up as soon as possible to reap the revenues, he said.
He also said the clubhouse and training facilities planned for underneath the existing clubhouse and workout room are “probably not going to” be ready for the 2014 opener as originally planned, “but it’s a priority for us.”
Ricketts doesn’t deny Wrigley Field is a revenue producer by virtue of its drawing power as a venue, nor does he deny that team debt that Forbes recently estimated at a major-league high $580 million has an impact on business operations.
He referred to seller Sam Zell’s well-documented requirement that large debt be a part of a “partnership” purchase arrangement for tax reasons.
And, he added, “Every team has some form of debt. For us, it’s a factor, but there’s also a lot of other factors.”
He listed capital investments and increased administration costs.
What remains clear is that the baseball practices one sport economist described as “mid-market” figure to continue until at least the Jumbotron revenues or Class A prospects starting coming in — maybe both.
That and the WGN portion of the local TV rights that the club is trying to negotiate toward $1 million per game levels comparable to other recent deals in the game.
That alone would make attendance drops easy to tolerate — even at internal estimates of more than $7 million per 100,000, according to sources.
“In terms of attendance, the way I look at it is we have to win,” Ricketts said. “We have to get a more exciting team. We’re not disappointed with this year’s attendance. We’ll be in the 2.7 [million] range. But obviously, it’s incumbent upon us to make sure we put a more compelling team on the field, and attendance will take care of itself.”
As for Sun-Times columnist Rick Morrissey’s contention this week that the Cubs, from an ownership level, weren’t trying to win, Ricketts said: “We go into every season wanting to win. But we also make personnel decisions based on what’s best for the organization over the longer term.
“The fact is, we’re doing it the right way. We have the best leaders in our baseball organization, the smartest guys. It’s one step at a time. And we’re getting better.”