Sale of Cubs nearly finalized
Chairman talks about Spring Training, new restaurant, Wrigley Field
MESA, Ariz. -- The Cubs' new ownership, the possibility of moving out of Mesa, a new restaurant at Wrigley Field, summer concerts and retiring No. 31 were among the topics discussed Wednesday in a session with team chairman Crane Kenney.
Sale of the team: Kenney said Tom Ricketts and the Tribune Co. are very close to finalizing their deal, which is the first domino that needs to fall. Because the Tribune is in bankruptcy, a court must be involved to approve the transaction to make sure the creditors are taken care of. Major League Baseball also needs to approve Ricketts. Kenney said MLB Commissioner Bud Selig has assured him they will do whatever necessary to get the sale completed.
As for a timetable to finalize things, Kenney said there was none.
"I think it'll be a challenge to make Opening Day," Kenney said. "If I would tell you Opening Day, everything would have to fall into place just perfectly, and I would say that's unlikely."
The Cubs were put up for sale on Opening Day 2007, and the final sale price was expected to be close to $900 million. That includes the team, Wrigley Field and a share of Comcast SportsNet.
Revenue: On the ticket sales front, the Cubs are on the same pace as last year, Kenney said. The team drew a record 3.3 million fans in 2008.
As for advertising, Kenney said some important sponsors have dropped out and there will be new ones in 2009. For example, there will no longer be Under Armour ads on the outfield doors, but Kenney said he expected other advertising there by Opening Day.
"I think our business will be as healthy as it was in '08, and that should continue to support [things]," he said. "We took the payroll up in double-digits this year percentage-wise, and I would think there would be room to make moves at the turn again. That will be someone else's decision by then.
"We need to see what moves need to be made. We like our club today. ... We won 97 games [in 2008], and we think this club is better than the team that won 97 games. We'll see when we get there."
Mesa facility: If the Cubs give the city of Mesa notice before Spring Training 2010 that they want out of the lease early, they could leave after the 2012 season. Kenney has been meeting with the Mesa mayor, the HoHoKam leadership group and city officials this week to discuss their options.
"We are the ratings leader in the Valley," Kenney said of the Cubs, who currently lead all Major League teams in home Spring Training attendance. "Our obligation is to make sure we have a state-of-the-art facility, that we have the best economics in the Valley and that we're providing a facility for our players, and not just the Major League players, who spend a month here, but the Minor League players."
The facility in Mesa is an 11-month operation for the Cubs and has to handle rehab, international players, offseason training and Minor League development as well as Spring Training. It's not state of the art, Kenney said.
"It could be done here [in Mesa], and it could be done in a different state," Kenney said. "The state of Florida has been in touch with us. People are aware that if we were a free agent, we'd be the most desirable free agent in the market and that free agency, just like with a player, is about to occur. We have been in touch with a number of municipalities and states."
He would not specify which cities in Florida have contacted the Cubs. Kenney said the city of Mesa has done a great job, but new facilities at Goodyear and Glendale show how far behind the Cubs' setup is.
The Arizona Diamondbacks have been in discussions for a new facility in the Phoenix area, but Kenney said the Cubs do not want to share a facility with another team.
"We don't want to be a tenant, and we don't want to be a landlord," Kenney said. "We think the Cubs deserve to stand on their own."
Addison and Sheffield project: Fans will have a new dining option near the Harry Caray statue at Wrigley Field. On Opening Day, there will be a new restaurant facility on Addison and Sheffield streets with a 7,000-square-foot outdoor patio plus a pavilion that will take up some of the space.
"This is our first foray into sort of a 12-month operation and restaurant and outdoor space," Kenney said. "We think it'll be very lively."
Harry Caray's restaurant will operate the facility. There will be flat-screen televisions and more restrooms. The goal is to combine the outdoor and indoor experience by using accordion doors to open the area up. People who do not have tickets to a Cubs game can take advantage of the space -- it'll be open to the public.
"We need to compete with all the other bars and restaurants in town," Kenney said.
The name of the area has not been released yet, he said. Kenney said the project will also act as a test for the "Triangle Building," which is still on the table to be built along Clark Street west of Wrigley Field. That facility has to wait for the new ownership to be finalized before it can proceed.
Wrigley Field: The entire field has been resodded and will be ready by Opening Day. The NHL, which sponsored the New Year's Day hockey game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, helped pay for that.
There will be three concerts at Wrigley Field this year, which Kenney acknowledges will tax the field. He knows they have not been received well by some.
"We have to be as aggressive off the field as we are on the field," he said, "and have to be excited about the new business operations because they support what we're doing, whether it's the Asian scouting operation, whether it's player facilities in Mesa, whether it's the payroll. We're not apologetic about the concerts."
The Cubs will make a $150,000 charitable donation to the community from the concerts, and they will generate $700,000 in amusement tax revenue for the city.
As for other changes to Wrigley, Kenney said they learned a lot from the NHL game. The NHL dressed up the outside of the ballpark and also installed temporary Jumbotrons for the game. Those are things to be considered.
"The element of preserving the scoreboard and yet giving the fans more information about the game, there could be an argument that that's a positive," Kenney said.
The Cubs would have to get the city of Chicago's approval to install large video scoreboards.
"On the one side, you have a great number of fans who are fantasy players who crave statistical information," he said, "and our hand-operated scoreboard doesn't provide much, particularly about the other games that are occurring, and there's no replay capability."
The Cubs have not pursued mascots, pyrotechnics and loud music, and are well aware of the importance of preserving Wrigley's unique atmosphere.
"We think the experience you have at Wrigley Field is special, because in some ways it is a walk back in time," he said. "For all of us who work there, we get this great benefit, 81 days a year, watching these people and generations of families come back because the experience is similar to what they had when they were kids. I think we'd be foolish to ever disturb that."
Night games: Kenney said they are not actively discussing more night games or Friday night games with the city. That isn't because there have been problems between the team and the city, he said, but there have been other projects that have been a higher priority.
Television: Kenney knows fans aren't happy with the fact that there are fewer games on WGN-TV this year than in years past. He pointed out that cable TV has two forms of revenue in subscriptions and advertising, while WGN only has advertising revenue. The cable programmers can pay the team more for the games, and that results in more revenue for the Cubs.
He noted that other than network games, all of the Boston Red Sox games are on cable TV.
Kenney said he and general manager Jim Hendry watched the World Baseball Classic game Tuesday night between Japan and Korea and pointed out that the Far East is a great market to tap into to find players. The Cubs have expanded their international scouting efforts in the last couple years.
"You see people opposed to concerts [at Wrigley] and they're Cubs fans, and this will sound odd, but Elton John is going to help us win some ballgames," Kenney said. "It's a weird way to look at it, but those three concerts will generate enough revenue, and that's somewhat the way I look at it.
"The CBOE auction last year paid for Rich Harden," he said. "The 'Road to Wrigley' game sponsored our Asian scouting operation. From a business end, that's the way we look at these things. All these elements help our business move forward.
"My view is if you're a Cub fan, you should enjoy the concerts, whether you're an Elton John fan or not."
No. 31: The Cubs will officially retire No. 31 on May 3 in honor of Greg Maddux and Ferguson Jenkins. The team wanted to wait until Maddux officially announced his retirement, which he did at the Winter Meetings in December.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.