The winds of change are blowin' - just don't ask the current Cubs business management to tell you which way.
As Al requested, this is a report on the annual "Meet the Cubs Business Management" panel, held as always in the scenic Boulevard Room of the Chicago Hilton and Towers. The first and most obvious sign of the impending change obviously was the new faces at the panel this year (Out: John McDonough and Jay Blunk. In: Cubs Chairman Crane Kenney. Returning: Executive VP of Business Operations Mark McGuire and Director of Ticket Operations Frank Maloney). While this year featured much more serious pending issues than usual (honestly, there aren't many issues more serious than the sale of the team and stadium), there were few answers, and not much resolution. On the whole, Kenney and McGuire came across as fairly sharp guys who have an understanding of what their responsibility is for stewardship of the Cubs. At the same time, their answers also reminded everyone in no uncertain terms that at the end of the day Major League Baseball and the Cubs are businesses, they have to be run like businesses, and that that's the bottom line for Tribune, Zell or no Zell. The Green Bay Packers this aint.
The panel started on a somewhat bizarre note as He Who Shall Not Be Named chose to test the microphone right before the panel members entered. He was largely greeted with silence.
Mike Lufrano, Cubs Senior VP for Community Affairs, then introduced the group and acted as the master of ceremonies. Kenney started off with a summary of where matters stand with the sale of the Cubs, Wrigley Field, and the Cubs' share of Comcast Sportsnet. As most of you know, Sam Zell closed on the Tribune Company on December 20 and is now running it. According to Kenney, Zell's main focus now is on the stadium transaction. "The fact is the stadium needs improvements" - substantial capital improvements within the next 10 years. The stadium deal is attractive because the ISFA (Illinois Sports Facilities Authority) would be in a position to rehabilitate Wrigley and put substantial money in to do things like the bleacher renovation. Tribune wants to raise cash to do that in order to get a commitment from the new owner - and many of the suitors are from out of town - to play at Wrigley for the foreseeable future.
Overall, Kenney said it would be hard to predict the timeline for the closure of the ownership transfer, but it is most likely to be no earlier than mid-season or perhaps even after the season - and there apparently are issues with changing owners mid-season. Kenney said that - in his view - this would not affect player payroll or in-season transaction flexibility, and he believes they proved that last year with the trade for Kendall, resigning Zambrano, and approval for the playing field renovation.
That renovation is one of the main changes we can expect to see at Wrigley next year - McGuire explained at some length the drawbacks of the old, crowned field (the last last left in the majors). The new brick pavers will be put in starting at the marquee (!) and running toward the ticket windows. The Ernie Banks statue is on target for opening day, and there will be 70 seats in the new Bullpen Boxes. McGuire said the wall and the tarp will be moved closer to the field. Finally, Lufrano asked McGuire about the March 31 opening day. Clearly he was frustrated, and said they had complained to MLB about the schedule and opening in Chicago in March with a team that plays in a domed stadium. He also wishes they had more time for the sod to grow in.
The discussion then went to questions and answers, which I'll simply summarize in order:
- What's going on with the triangle building, and the new parking spots that were owed to the City under the bleacher agreement? They've bought a new lot for parking and will be leasing more space in the permitted geographic area. The triangle building has been deferred pending the new ownership. McGuire thinks those plans will evolve significantly, and there is a realization that it is better off focused on fan amenities rather than parking. Kenney suggested that they want to move new parking away from the stadium to reduce congestion in the neighborhood. ISFA apparently has a long-term plan for a parking solution some blocks away with another, multi-layered building. They would like to have more night games if the parking situation can be resolved.
- Naming rights for Wrigley Field? Kenney acknowledged that a naming rights agreement - like the bleacher renovation - would "create some sensitivity". (Channeling Hugh Hefner on the bleachers, he said "I thought it was tasteful".) His answer, however, seemed to convey far more between the lines than on its face. Kenney noted that there had never been any agreement between the Wrigley Corporation and the Tribune to keep the name on the field, they had just left it that way. (Say, Crane - just why is it that your lawyers were looking at this question?) He repeated that they were staring at a large bill for stadium renovation, and acknowledged they had an outside firm looking at the value of the naming rights. However, he also said he hoped fans would give them some credit to be sensitive, and concluded that he did not yet know which way it would go.
- Where does the advertising end - the gradual changes are the most dangerous, and Wrigley now is substantially different than it was five years ago? The questioner then pointed out that he didn't want the Cubs to play at "Pepto Bismol Field". McGuire immediately responded that he thought there was a natural tie between Pepto Bismol and the Cub fanbase. Despite the passion behind the question, the panel pretty much (respectfully) blew it off, answering that there were many opinions on these issues, and that they were trying to help the club compete while still being respectful of tradition. Kenney talked about growing up in Boston, and how the changes at Fenway had helped the Red Sox win two championships. He said - in what seemed to me to be unusually personal terms - that he wrestles with the responsibility of running the Cubs, commenting to applause that "We've got a 100 year due bill."
- The next question was another passionate tirade, the upshot of which was that fans were "hoping we would have a new owner who wouldn't try to blackmail the State of Illinois" through the stadium deal for more profit for the Tribune Company or Sam Zell on the threat of moving out of Wrigley to Schaumburg. Kenney went to great lengths to emphasize that "not a dollar of tax money" would go to Zell or the Tribune, that a deal would never fly if that were the case, and that the transaction would be funded by bonds paid by the Cubs in the future in lieu of rent. They want and need a community partnership. (I haven't followed the intricacies of this deal, but I still don't understand if that is the case where the principal funded by the bonds ultimately will be going. Kenney didn't get into that.)
- What's the story with the MLB-Stubhub deal? Maloney said Stubhub will replace the Replay system. They still don't know how this precisely will work and will get details out closer to the season. McGuire: "We may have been ahead of our time" in recognizing the secondary ticket market with Wrigley Field Premium. (Yeah, thanks for that, Mark.)
- A young boy asked - how about making Wrigley into a museum and building a new field? Kenney said they want to have Wrigley be a functional museum, but they also have to compete with other teams economically.
- What about taking season tickets from scalpers and breaking them into 16-18 game miniplans for fans? Maloney said this would be practically difficult. The one thing he tells people is never to buy Cubs tickets on the street. (He did not specify if that included the Wrigley Field Premium booth on the street.) He said the question's tough, because his ultimate goal on the business side is to sell full season tickets, but they have capped them to try to balance the many competing demands and there is a very low cancellation rate. According to Maloney, there was a tremendous reaction to the "Starting 9" pack, and it was offered to the entire waiting list. (The questioner, however, apparently didn't get the email and is on the list.) McGuire emphasized the importance of giving them your email address.
- Where does the process of selling the Cubs stand? Kenney explained that interested parties are going through the process of vetting and qualification with MLB, and that that's almost done. Every member of every group has to be vetted, and they have two groups left. When that's done, financial and other material will be provided simultaneously to bidders. Then there will be an auction process. Kenney said the team would go to the "highest" bidder, then quickly restated that as "best" bidder. Read into that whatever you want. Also, they would like to get the stadium deal resolved because it is material to the financial side of the sale.
- He Who Shall Not Be Named then took the microphone. McGuire told him "No Woo-ing before noon." The question was whether the Cubs were going to leave Chicago - yes or no (in an attempted Mike Wallace style). McGuire: "No. Is this a trick question?"
- Many fans were sad to see John McDonough go. What are you doing to keep your staff? No real answer to this question, other than an acknowledgment of the importance of many, many longtime Cubs employees. Kenney said that they talked to McDonough about staying, but he has a 6 year deal with the Blackhawks and they could not bind a new owner to a President for that long of a term.
- Will the stadium be made non-smoking? Per state law, there will be no smoking "within the walls of Wrigley Field." Some consideration is being given to whether to let people step out for a smoke and come back.
- Do you appreciate how difficult it is to get tickets? Season ticket packages are expensive and many can't afford them - would you consider an early single game sale at the Convention again? Maloney said, once again, that the issue is difficult. Kenney said Frank Maloney has the toughest job, but that it was a good suggestion and they would consider it. (I know there's no answer there - I'm just trying to relay the tone.)
- What advice would you give to someone trying to break into a baseball job? McGuire: "Reconsider your decision." He then suggested starting as an intern, but acknowledged that a lot of it is luck.
- Is any consideration being given to PSLs (personal seat licenses) at Wrigley to fund the renovations? Kenney said that is not on the table.
- Why is the schedule so awkward and front-loaded this year? McGuire explained that the schedule is done in the league office, but acknowledged that he had complained about it with the hope that it may help in the future. Forty percent of the home schedule is in April and May.