Ricketts family hits topics at Cubs Convention
Fan question-and-answer session focuses on Wrigley Field renovation, TV deal
CHICAGO -- The impending Wrigley Field renovation, the Cubs' expiring TV deal with WGN and the current state of negotiations with the rooftop owners were the main topics on Saturday morning during a fan question-and-answer session with the Ricketts family on the second day of Cubs Convention.
Chairman Tom Ricketts and members of the board of directors, Laura Ricketts and Todd Ricketts, fielded questions at Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers, the biggest of which revolved around the Wrigley Field renovation project.
The good news: Once the club and the rooftop owners come to an agreement, Tom Ricketts said the renovation could be completed in four offseasons, instead of the originally-planned five.
The bad: That agreement has yet to come to fruition -- but it could be nearing.
Although the Cubs received the go-ahead from the city in July for the $500-million project, construction has yet to begin as the rooftop owners threaten to sue over blocked views.
Ricketts likened the arrangement to a neighbor watching a premium TV channel you paid for through your window.
"All the rooftop owners, I do like them personally and the experience is unique, and it does give Wrigley a bit of charm," Ricketts said. "But the fact is, we just have to know ... in 2023, when we no longer have a contract, we can do whatever we want to for the park and do what's right for the team, and not have to worry about the people across the street."
Ricketts said his family has discussed offering a buyout to the rooftop owners, but each has their own agenda.
"It's not like we can just write them a check," he said.
The consensus expressed from the Ricketts family and president of business operations Crane Kenney on Saturday indicates the sides have made progress in the past two weeks. That's especially key because executive vice president of community affairs Mike Lufrano said the rooftop owners told the Cubs they would challenge the entire project if they don't reach a solution.
Laura Ricketts is hopeful it won't come to that.
"It's a matter of continuing the dialogue and figuring out what could work for everyone right now so we can get moving and really move forward," she said.
Regardless of the outcome, Kenney said the Cubs plan on having the left-field videoboard up for the 2015 season.
Another key to the organization's future is its TV deal with longtime partner WGN, which is set to expire after the 2014 season. Several clubs have signed significantly higher TV deals in recent years, leading to increased spending for those clubs. The Cubs -- who have taken heat from some for not spending like a big-market team -- will no doubt have options, but Kenney said there is a possibility of leaving WGN and/or negotiating a smaller package of games.
Said Tom Ricketts: "There's a lot of shifting dynamics in television economics that are a part of the discussion, but we like WGN."
As for the radio deal with WGN, which also expires after the 2014 season, Kenney said an announcement is expected before Opening Day. He also said that longtime radio voice Pat Hughes "is coming with us," regardless of which station the Cubs agree with.
Although a big-money TV deal would help increase future payroll, the Ricketts family still must handle the debt taken on when they purchased the team in 2009 -- a requirement by the Tribune Co. Tom Ricketts said the organization has focused money in other areas of need, but the organization has enough for a solid on-field product.
"We still have a very, very strong baseball budget. It's not limiting us -- in fact, it is sufficient," Tom Ricketts said. "The problem that we have isn't money. The problem we have is not having enough talent in the system."
One season-ticket holder asked how the team can justify its ticket prices after losing 197 games over the past two years.
"We're doing everything we can to make sure that you feel like you get value for those tickets," Tom Ricketts said. "I think this year, we're going to bring up some exciting young players and hopefully you'll start to feel differently about those dollars that you spend. But I do know that, ultimately, we're really focused on the payoff, which is playing championship baseball."
And, Laura Ricketts added, the wait isn't for only one memorable season.
"We're not shooting for one World Series, one championship one year, so 30 years from now we can all point back to it and say, 'Remember that year how great it was?'" she said. "We're trying to change the culture of the team so going forward we'll consistently be champions."
Off the field, the Monday unveiling of the team's new mascot, Clark, has drawn some criticism. During the business operations forum, one fan asked senior director of marketing Alison Miller if the organization would reconsider Clark, to which she replied: "No, Clark is here to stay."
Kenney assured fans that Clark wouldn't be on the dugouts or riding around the field. Instead, he'll mainly represent the Cubs off the field at schools, hospitals and other places.
"He's gotten some bad press," Laura Ricketts admitted. "But I will tell you that I went to Casals School of Excellence where he made an appearance the other day and he had a very positive response. The kids loved him immediately. And that's who he's for: the kids."