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Bud Selig weighs in on Cubs’ revenue issue

Updated: April 24, 2014 10:05AM

Short on specifics and long on vague pledges of support, baseball commissioner Bud Selig started fighting the Ricketts family’s public-relations battles for them Wednesday during Wrigley Field’s centennial celebration.

Selig pressed the Cubs owners’ case against rooftop owners but struggled to defend that position when reminded the rooftops have a contract with the team. He insisted ownership is “very capable economically” but pleaded for its need to make more money to compete.

He said that the Cubs’ success on the field is important to baseball but that the long string of losing seasons was “fine” as they rebuild. He seemed to scoff at the idea that the big-market Cubs were acting like the small-market Kansas City Royals or Pittsburgh Pirates.

If the last 100 years at Clark and Addison were history in the making, this was an attempt at history in the remaking — right down to Selig’s shrugging off an MLB-high debt that costs nearly $35 million a year to service and to suggesting a $75 million roster is part of Theo Epstein’s plan.

“You can’t ask a team to be competitive, and you can’t ask people to do things and then tie their hands and their legs,” he said, referring to restrictions on outfield signs and video boards related to the 20-year contract business president Crane Kenney signed more than a decade ago with rooftop owners. “That’s just wrong. Somebody has to say it, so I’ll be happy to say it.”

Selig also seems happy to have his Wrigley birthday cake and eat it, too — because the city has given the Cubs every major concession on construction plans within its power. And more than one source with knowledge of the Cubs’ side of the rooftop battle calls it a “red herring.”

One internal document obtained by the Sun-Times shows the Cubs have included projected litigation costs into spending plans for the Wrigley project for at least two years.

What’s become clear with every year of delays and baseball budget cuts under this ownership is that the finances are strained, in part by the leveraged purchase terms and in part by steep attendance declines since the family took control — and as evidenced by recent revelations that the Rickettses have interest in taking on minority investors to help pay for renovations.

“No, no,” Selig said. “A lot of clubs have limited partners. When I owned the Brewers, we had a lot of limited partners, and it was not a sign of financial distress.”

A big difference is that the Cubs’ revelations coincide with a direct, apparent need for cash after promises of big spending. According to one source, at least one major Cubs creditor in the last year suggested the family sell all or part of the team.

“The fact of the matter is this group is more than capable economically. I have no concerns about their economic viability,” said Selig, who nearly five years later has no regrets over approving the restrictive financial terms dictated by Sam Zell and Tribune Co. as a condition of sale.

“None. Zero. Absolutely none,” said Selig, who once approved the ultimately leveraged and disastrous sale of the Dodgers to Frank McCourt.

That’s not to compare the Rickettses to McCourt as much as it is to add context to Selig’s unqualified support for a revenue-seeking member of MLB’s ownership “club.”

“The Cubs are in very good ownership hands. Couldn’t be better,” he added. “I have a lot of concerns on a daily basis. This is not one of them or ever has been.”

Maybe the Cubs’ billionaire owners will get the revenues they seek through the stadium and a new ­local media-rights package. Maybe they will do it in time to give the baseball department enough resources to compete before another five years are lost to the process.

But they’re not the victims — unlike their weary fan base.

Even as Selig waxed about 1940s Wrigley and vowed to do “whatever is legally” possible to help the Rickettses prevail against the rooftops.

Even as he was nowhere to be seen by the time the “L” flag was hoisted again.

“I’ll try and do everything I possibly can,” he said. “They know that. We’ve already had that conversation today. It means a lot to the sport.”

Never mind that what Selig rails against is a contract negotiated and signed by the Cubs – who are now trying to get around some of the terms to erect revenue-producing signs and video boards in the outfield.

“Look, this is a team trying to stay in this historic setting in a really tough economic environment, trying to modernize without disturbing the tradition,” he said, “trying to build a competitive baseball team. I have a lot of faith in them, and I think they’re doing that. But you can’t impose conditions on them that nobody else has.”

But didn’t they agree to the contract?

“Well, this ownership didn’t,” Selig said — ignoring the fact that Kenney, ownership’s top business executive since jumping from Tribune at the point of the sale, was the team’s lead man on the rooftop deal.

Everybody knew the terms coming in.

“But whatever,” Selig said. “They’re willing to do whatever their contracts say. … But you can’t tell them, stay in this setting, but you can’t put this up, you can’t put that up, you can’t do that, and your people can watch your games under conditions that don’t exist anywhere else, which really hurts a franchise, and then tell me that’s fair. Because it isn’t.”

How long will the whole thing take? When will the baseball be good again? Does it matter?

“I have a lot of faith in Theo, and I’m sure they’re on the right track,” Selig said. “I know what the Rickettses are trying to do. I monitor every franchise very, very closely, and I’m satisfied they’re on the right track.

“But you’ve got to give them the economic wherewithal to do that. That’s all. That’s not asking for anything that anybody else hasn’t done. So we’ll do everything we can.”



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