Remember when the Dallas Mavericks were an NBA doormat? No?
I am not surprised. I had to look it up as well.
They did not have a single winning season in the 1990s. Only once did Dallas win more than 30 games.
But as soon as current owner Mark Cuban bought the Mavericks in January 2000, they mattered. Since then, they have not won less than 50 games in a season nor have they missed the playoffs. In the meantime, the Mavericks have become a perennial championship contender with a trip to the NBA Finals and another to the Western Conference Finals.
I am not a Mavericks fan and may never be. But as a sports fan, I respect what Cuban has done for that franchise and daydream about what he could do were he the Cubs’ owner.
That is why I was so excited to hear, when Sam Zell and the Tribune Company were looking to sell the Chicago Cubs in 2008, that Mark Cuban was a prospective buyer.
In 1984 I watched a Cubs game for the first time, and never stopped. Sure, Harry Caray’s Budweiser commercials and his leading a 35,000-person chorus singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" made the games more fun and entertaining. But the reason I kept watching was because the Cubs won.
I don’t watch many games because I have little faith that the Cubs can win anything significant. But if Cuban were the owner, both of those would change.
When was the last time any Cubs fan saw the team’s owner sitting in the stands, talking with the fans, on SportsCenter celebrating a victory or lamenting a loss like Cuban has been shown so many times? And no, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling heckling his squad from a courtside seat does not count.
Compared to current Cubs’ owner Tom Ricketts and just about every other owner of a professional sports team, Cuban is one of the most visible and seemingly accessible owners in all of major league sports. And that is not made up.
Asked by the Times whether it makes the team more successful for him to be as accessible to the fans as he is, Cuban responded, "I think it absolutely helps. Fans are our customers. They know who is responsible for their team and [who] is making sure they get value when they spend money with the Mavs or come to a game. If they have an issue, they know my e-mail address and can and do contact me. With results. They know I care and have as strong an emotional investment towards our team as they do."
And when was the last time the Cubs were the perennial contenders the Mavericks have become? As an 8-year-old in the summer of 1984, what the Cubs did seemed as if it were something that could conceivably happen every year. But after watching the Cubs trot out dreadful teams year after year that I realized how rare a team like the 1984 Cubs were, at least for that franchise.
Despite the fact no such team has materialized at Wrigley Field since 2003, why couldn’t, or shouldn’t, it happen every year like the Yankees? I have always hated the fact that the Yankees and their fans expect – feel entitled to – annual World Series appearances. To the Yankees, anything short of a world championship is a failure. For the Cubs and their fans, just reaching the postseason would be considered a grand success.
Why? I am not saying that I think Ricketts is satisfied watching the team struggle. But it is difficult, as a fan, not to struggle with the team’s direction.
For the second straight season, the team is hovering near .500 while holding steady on payroll, limiting the potential moves the team can make to improve.
This comes after a 2010 season during which the Cubs sank toward 27 games under .500 as former manager Lou Piniella’s tenure came to an end. The team jettisoned every infielder (Derrek Lee, Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot) but third baseman Aramis Ramirez, and shipped off starting pitcher Ted Lilly. Both Lee and Lilly were earning more than $13 million. Lee’s production may have fallen off, but Lilly pitched well through the duration of his contract. It was difficult to view these moves as much more than a salary dump.
That perception was further reinforced when the Cubs pass on Ryne Sandberg and instead hired Mike Quade as the team’s manager. One Chicago columnist proffered the opinion that the move had more to do with money – the soft blow to the payroll of a $1.3 million salary versus $4 million or more for Sandberg or current Yankee manager, and former Cub, Joe Girardi.
In an interview with the New York Times last April, Cuban said that he would not necessarily spend tons of money on players, certainly not for the sake of spending on superstars as he did early in his tenure as the Mavericks’ owner. But he went on to say that part of the investment he made to make his team better were sports psychologists. I found that statement particularly compelling when I thought of pitcher Carlos Zambrano. I am more than willing to bet he has not spent much, if any, time with a therapist. While losing his spot in the starting rotation, and making his way back to a middle relief position in the bullpen, the Cubs lost a significant amount of the $18 million salary they were paying.
Despite the fact the bleachers and rooftops were still full of fans, it has to hurt the team from management on down to see the on-field product suffer that way.
This is particularly damaging to a team trying to climb out of what seems like a rut of former owner Sam Zell’s making.
When he bought the Tribune Company, it was highly leveraged. He put up only $315 million of his own money and took on $8 billion in loans to finance the rest of the deal. It did not take long for the deal to look pretty sour. The Tribune Company lost $124 million in the third quarter of 2008. By December 2008, the company was filing for bankruptcy.
"In these challenging economic times, a lot of owners are in a liquidity crunch, forcing them to sell," says Laurence DeGaris, a sports marketing professor at the University of Indianapolis, told Money Central.
The point of selling the Cubs was so the Tribune Company could take the proceeds of the sale of re-invest it in the newspaper business. However, according to Allan Sloan of Fortune Magazine, Zell changed the company from a standard C corporation to an S corporation in order to avoid paying taxes. Such a transfer then necessitated paying corporate gains on the sale of the Cubs, an asset in which, Sloan writes, the company has "built-in gains."
To get around this self-created problem, Sloan explains the sale of the Cubs to the Ricketts worked as such: The Ricketts family put $150 million of cash into a partnership that borrowed up to $698 million. The Tribune Company put the Cubs, the Wrigley Field stadium in which they play, and related assets into that partnership.
The economy is still not doing well. Print media is doing even worse. It has gone unexplained as to how this partnership exactly works, or how much the Tribune’s success affects the Cubs’ finances. But, with the Cubs holding payroll steady once again, it makes one wonder.
As Cuban put it in a blog entry in January 2009, shortly after falling out of the running to buy the team, "How much would I be willing to pay for the team? I wasn’t sure. More important to me was the cash flow. If the economy had a significant impact on future revenues, it would also impact how much I could invest in players. The absolute last position I wanted to be in was paying so much for the team, that if revenues fell off, I couldn’t play to win."
That seems to be the situation in which the Cubs find themselves until they can prove otherwise. Would they be in the same situation if Cuban were the owner? The Mavericks have cut ticket prices and their home games are no longer guaranteed sellouts, but Cuban still maintains the third highest payroll in the NBA, one that is also above the NBA’s soft salary cap.
The Cubs also maintain a large payroll, one of the larger in Major League Baseball despite a 9% cut from last year. So it may not be the Cubs’ propensity, or lack thereof, to spend. Instead, the difference might be where Cuban would invest his money. Given the track record between the Cubs and their owners for the past decade versus the Mavericks and Cuban, I cannot help but lament that Cuban is not the Cubs’ current owner.