Cubs Convention: Final Tidbits and Thoughts

Development of the Minor League Organization

Cubs’ management (comprised primarily of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod, and Rick Renteria) repeatedly stressed the development of the minor league organization.  Obviously, when a team has lost 197 games over the prior two years, touting its minor league players makes sense. In this case, however, the Cubs can back up their enthusiasm by citing numerous scouting services that place the Cubs’ minor league system among the top three in baseball.  Epstein proclaimed that “the morale in this organization is fantastic in the minor leagues.”  Let’s hope some of that positive energy finds its way to the parent club in what looks to be another challenging season from a competitiveness standpoint.

Invest In Infrastructure

From the business-side (let’s call it primarily Tom Ricketts and Crain Kenney), the Convention emphasis focused on the Cubs’ fairly impressive capital investments in the Dominican Republic training facility and the Spring Training complex in Mesa, Arizona.  Other than the rapid improvement in the depth and quality of the minor league system, the financial investment in the team’s infrastructure shines as the brightest example for an organization intent on backing up its rhetoric about building a baseball operation that will provide sustained success.  Ricketts calls these projects “reflection points,” but I prefer to characterize them as beacons of light in this otherwise tumultuous storm known as the rebuilding process.

Wrigley Field Renovation

The process of renovating Wrigley Field has been as frustrating to watch as Carlos Marmol taking the mound to protect a ninth-inning lead.  After a year of negotiations and wrangling, the Cubs have reached an agreement with City officials to renovate the ballpark and surrounding area over the next four (previously planned as five) off-seasons.  The new amenities at the ball park pleases me as a season ticket holder; the plaza and hotel complex are positive developments for me as a neighborhood resident; and, the expanded office space for the front office and clubhouses for players assists in the effort to provide competitive facilities.

At the Convention, Ricketts, Kenney, and others seemed optimistic that the team could negotiate a deal to complete the final piece of the puzzle – the rooftop situation.  Since that time, such optimism appears more shaky as the team and rooftop owners have been unable to reach a workable deal.  Last Wednesday, the rooftops filed a defamation lawsuit against Marc Ganis (a Chicago sports business consultant formerly hired by the Cubs) for statements he made that the rooftops were “stealing” from the Cubs by selling tickets to view the games played at Wrigley Field from the adjacent rooftops.  The Cubs have insisted that the resolution of this issue (the rooftops, not the lawsuit), is a condition precedent for the renovation.  Knowing that the Cubs plan to begin the renovation by upgrading various parking lots in mid-summer ahead of the off-season expansion of the clubhouses and the erection of the video board (otherwise known as a “jumbotron”), the time to strike a deal is near.

The media has speculated about what the Cubs should or can do to placate the rooftop owners and resolve this matter, but the Cubs’ efforts clearly have fallen short to date.  The inevitable call for the Cubs to move to the suburbs will become louder this week as the media fans the flames of frustrated Cub fans.  I neither expect the Cubs to flee to the hinterland and abandon Wrigley Field nor expect the Cubs/rooftop owners standoff to continue into next off-season.  The political ramifications implicated by the stalling of the renovation plan (such as the City’s urgent need for additional tax money) lead me to conclude that the two sides will reach a compromise in the coming weeks.  I hope to have some additional information to share in the coming days that will help place this dispute in better perspective.

TV Contract

Next to the ballpark renovation issues, the most intriguing decision facing the Cubs concerns the future status of their radio and television contracts.  Based on comments made at the Convention by Ricketts and Kenney, I believe that the Cubs will renew their WGN radio contract.  The WGN partnership has extended through generations of Cubs fans and appears as strong as ever guided by the comforting voice of Pat Hughes.  Kenney noted that even if the Cubs left WGN radio, Hughes would continue to call games for the club (apparently the team has final say over who broadcasts their games).  Given the current nature of this relationship and the powerful signal range that WGN provides (on a clear night, I could faintly pick up WGN broadcasts in college from Massachusetts!), I see no reason, business or otherwise, why the Cubs will not renew this contract.  Kenney even intimated at the Convention that the Cubs hoped to be able to make an announcement concerning the contract renewal in the near future.  If the Cubs left WGN radio AM 720, their likely options include either moving to WBBM news radio AM 780 or WMVP sports radio AM 1000.  Again, neither of these possible alternatives appear preferable to WGN when factoring in issues such as continuity, tradition, and signal strength.

For as much stability as the radio-side has provided over the years, television is another matter.  As I previously reported, both Ricketts and Kenney took great pains to let fans know that the team’s television deals provided essential revenue avenues needed to be competitive with other large-market teams.  The team’s current WGN television contract expires after the 2014 season while the Comcast Sports Net (“CSN”) contract runs through 2019.  The Cubs acknowledge that they are looking at other options for their games currently televised on WGN television.  FOX has made recent forays into the local baseball broadcasting business.  A television deal with the Cubs would help to raise FOX’s profile while proving the Cubs with a bridge to 2019 when their CSN deal expires.  Ultimately, the Cubs most likely want to either begin their own network (see the Yankees on YES) or, at a minimum, broadcast their full package of games on one network at a significant rate increase.

To place the Cubs’ television situation into perspective, the Philadelphia Phillies recently signed a contract with Comcast Sportsnet to televise their games for the next twenty-five years in exchange for 2.5 billion dollars.  Last year, the Los Angeles Dodgers entered into a television contract with Time Warner that pays them 8.5 billion dollars.  The Texas Rangers, Anaheim Angeles, and Houston Astros all recently have inked local television contracts far more lucrative than the Cubs’ present deals.  Cubs’ ownership sees a new television deal as an essential part of their business operation.  Given the amount of money involved, the Cubs’ future television contract could give them a considerable financial advantage over their smaller market National League Central opponents when funding baseball operations (such as signing free agents).  The monetary potential that a left-field video board offers the Cubs pales in comparison to the revenue possibilities of a new television contract.