Hey, Crane Kenney! Here For Another 5 Years? Here's Some Advice

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In which I make some (hopefully) helpful suggestions to get the Cubs president of business operations through his next five years.

News item from last week: Crane Kenney re-ups for five more years as Cubs president of business operations, as reported by Paul Sullivan in the Tribune. In fact, this wasn't "news" -- apparently, this contract was signed several months ago and just revealed now publicly by Kenney himself while on a radio show:

Kenney's announcement Saturday during an interview with WSCR-AM 670 host Bruce Levine seemed to catch the Cubs off guard. The Cubs inked him to the extension "several months ago," team spokesman Julian Green confirmed.

I am well aware that this revelation was not popular among BCB readers and the Cubs fanbase in general. Personally, I have always had cordial relations with Crane Kenney; he's given me several interviews and always responded to questions I've sent him by email.

But it's clear that he could use some advice, because the business operations side of the Cubs appears, from an outsider's viewpoint, to be a mess. Just look at the quote from Sullivan's article. "Catch the Cubs off guard." Really, Cubs? Why wasn't this contract extension announced "several months ago," as Green stated? Was it supposed to be a deep, dark secret? If so, why?

I'm here to help. Here are several suggestions on what Kenney can do over the next five years to not only make the Cubs a better team, but maybe help his tattered reputation among Cubs fans. First is to stop doing what's noted in the previous paragraph. At least in matters like this -- a significant executive signing a long-term contract extension -- be open. There are times it appears that the Cubs' business operations department is sitting in a concrete bunker, trying to decide which things they're going to hide from everyone. Given that the Chicago Cubs are a baseball team that lives and dies on support from its fanbase, this seems foolish to me. I'm not saying that every single decision they make needs to be laid bare and explained in minute detail; any business has some things they want to hide from competitors, or spring as surprises to their customers.

But really -- sign your team president to a contract extension, it shouldn't take "several months" and a "Oh, by the way" revelation on sports talk radio for the public to know.

Next, just buy the damn rooftops out already. A couple of weeks ago, Danny Ecker of Crain's Chicago Business wrote that money figures for this have been discussed:

Eventually, insiders say, conversation moved to a buyout — something the Cubs probably should have done two decades ago. But there was no agreement, with one source telling me the rooftops wanted $250 million but the Rickettses were prepared to pay only $50 million.

It's not clear from that whether this "buyout" was simply to buy out the nine years left on the Cubs/rooftop deal, or to buy out the businesses and buildings entirely. Whatever the case, there has to be a number in between those two figures that would end this ridiculous rooftop charade. The Ricketts family would not be restricted in this buyout by the Sam Zell terms of purchase, since the Cubs wouldn't be buying them out, the Ricketts would.

It's ridiculous for the Cubs to keep negotiating different types of outfield signage plans, knowing the saber-rattling will continue from the rooftop owners; as pointed out by a couple of commenters in the post I did last week on that topic, this dispute won't wind up in court, but instead would be heard by a panel of three arbitrators. The Cubs surely don't want that.

Just pony up the money. If and when the Cubs start winning, those rooftop clubs could be full again, and the money would be made back. The Cubs could continue to rent out the apartments on the lower floors of the buildings, getting revenue that way, or convert them to other money-making uses (perhaps bed-and-breakfasts?).

Negotiating the new broadcast deals is another key thing Kenney will do over the next year (and then five years out, when all the TV deals will expire at the same time). Whether the Cubs wind up on WGN or WBBM radio is really immaterial; both stations have large broadcast coverage areas, the current radio affiliate network is likely to continue, and many people listen to the games online or on mobile devices, where the call letters of the station are irrelevant. Here's hoping Kenney makes the most possible dollars out of that deal.

The TV issue is more complicated and I wrote about all of that last week. Whatever is to become of the WGN portion of the TV deal, Kenney has to try to make as much money as possible for the next five years, selling ratings that are down and a team that could be hard to watch for as much as half of that time. Good luck with that.

But the more important deadline comes up in 2019, when that presumably-extended deal and the CSN Chicago contract both come up at the same time, meaning the Cubs could sell their entire broadcast package as a unit for the first time since 1998. (The last year that all Cubs games were on WGN-TV, with rights owned all by one broadcast entity, was 1997.)

The Cubs have hinted broadly that they might want to start their own TV channel. This, in my view, would be a colossal mistake. With the TV landscape changing so quickly, no one knows how baseball games will be distributed in 2020 and beyond. It could be mostly online streaming; it could be partly that and cable; it could be partly streaming, partly cable and partly broadcast.

While it's certainly possible that the Cubs could be a winning team by 2019 and deliver better TV ratings than they do now, the Cubs should look to Los Angeles for a cautionary tale. The Dodgers' new SportsNetLA channel is carried in only about 30 percent of the Los Angeles market, meaning that most Dodger fans in their home city can't watch the team on television due to blackout rules. There's now a threat of a lawsuit by Time Warner, the company that lavished $7 billion on the Dodgers for 25 years' worth of their TV rights (accusing collusion among cable and satellite companies), but as the linked article states, regarding those possible charges regarding the carriage of SportsNet LA:

DirecTV Chief Executive Mike White, discussing options for dealing with rising programming costs, said this on May 15, at an industry conference in New York: "… the distributors start to stand together, like most of us have been doing in Los Angeles for the first time ever, by the way, with the Dodgers on outrageous increases and excesses."

Cox spokesman Todd Smith said his company has no agreement with DirecTV, or anyone else, on a joint negotiating stance regarding SportsNet LA.

"We can't do that," Smith said. "We don't have direct conversations with the other guys on issues like this."

DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer said White was referring to the greater context of other sports channels that are not on the air, and not just in the Los Angeles market.

"It seems that many of the distributors have independently reached the same conclusion," Mercer said. "With all the top college conferences and individual teams creating their own overpriced channels, many families can no longer bear the cost of having to pay for every single one."

Now, it's entirely possible that by 2019 blackout rules will have been eased or eliminated (let's hope!), which would allow a Cubs channel to be viewed online. But if not -- the Cubs could wind up in a Los Angeles-type situation, which would be a disaster. Better idea: put all the games on CSN Chicago, which already has universal coverage in the Chicago area, and is 20-percent owned by the team. And Crane -- you've probably had it up to here with threats of lawsuits. You surely don't need any more of those.

Next, replace the entire marketing department. No, I mean it. Everyone. From the mistakes made on the Wrigley 100 murals to the phone call made to Ron Santo's son asking if the late Ron Santo could come to the 100th-anniversary celebration to tossing out Santo memorabilia and the silly cake-discarding incident to refusing to re-hire the organist in Mesa (and then playing pre-recorded organ music there) to other tone-deaf things the marketing department has done, it's clear to me that no one in marketing has any sense of the Cubs fanbase, history or culture, or is even a baseball fan. If they were, these things wouldn't happen. Seriously, Crane, they all gotta go. Bring in people who are marketers who are also baseball and Cubs fans. Previous marketing regimes (particularly under John McDonough) had an instinctive understanding of what Cubs fans were and what they wanted -- because they were Cubs fans themselves.

I can see this has gotten quite long and I haven't even begun on the lack of respect the organization has for season-ticket holders... and you all know my position on that and it doesn't really have to be rehashed.

But I'm sure you have your own thoughts on what Crane Kenney and the business-operations side of Cubs management can do better. Dive on in.

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