It's one of those times during the baseball season when we feel it's forever until the next game (a Sunday day game, a day off, a Tuesday night game -- 48 hours between games), so I thought I'd start discussion today with some of my personal thoughts about what Tom Ricketts should do when he and his family (it's not just Tom, though I suspect he'll be the Ricketts family face of the franchise) officially take over the Cubs sometime in November.
My suggestions are going to run the gamut from baseball operations to broadcasting to the fan experience at Wrigley Field. Before I get into my own thoughts, what do we know already about Tom Ricketts and his family?
The Ricketts family, originally from Omaha, made their initial fortune through starting a discount brokerage firm called First National Brokerage Services; it later was renamed Accutrade and then became the online trading firm known as Ameritrade; it is now TD Ameritrade. Joe Ricketts is the family patriarch; Tom, his son, who will likely become chairman of the Cubs, has lived in Chicago for over 20 years, and, according to various sources, once lived across the street from Wrigley Field and met his future wife in the bleachers. About ten years ago Tom Ricketts started the investment banking firm InCapital, based in downtown Chicago. Personally, I think the Ricketts are the perfect choice -- Cubs fans who are locally based.
Now, on to my suggestions (warning: long!). Since baseball is a nine-inning game, I'm going to make nine suggestions -- that doesn't mean there are only nine things to do, but I think these are the most important ones, and though I'm putting them in numerical order, they don't necessarily have to happen exactly this way chronologically.
1. Announce that ticket prices are being rolled back by a small amount for 2010. Or at the very least, that prices will remain the same. Prices went up about 10-15% (depending on what kind of seat) for 2009, and that was done just about the same time as the economy was tanking last fall. Granted, the Cubs are a big-market team and do need ticket revenue (as well as other sources, which I'll get into later) to keep up the payroll. But doing this would be a real goodwill gesture saying to fans, "We want you here." At the same time, the Cubs could ask for a small amount per year -- say, $50 -- for the 100,000 people on the season ticket waiting list to remain on the list, and give these people the right to buy a small number of tickets before the main on-sale. You'd get some attrition from people who didn't want to pay, but even if half the 100,000 paid, that's $2.5 million in the team's pockets without having to spend a single dollar.
2. Retain Crane Kenney. Kenney took over as chairman of the Cubs when John McDonough left as team president in November 2007; before that he was a member of the team's board of directors. Since taking over as, essentially, the CEO, Kenney has brought in new advertising deals (the Under Armour deal the most visible), opened up management to fans by having meetings with season ticket holders, and, at least until the Tribune Co. bankruptcy this year made it impossible to do so, gave Jim Hendry the green light on high-priced in-season acquisitions (such as Rich Harden) to improve the team. Kenney's vision is to take the model that John Henry's Red Sox have made over the last seven years and make the Cubs into that team -- a perennial contender. Kenney has done a good job -- keep him.
3. Build the Triangle Building long-planned adjacent to Wrigley Field. This may not seem important, but it is, and as soon as possible. All of these things could go into such a building: team offices, parking for several hundred cars, batting cages and workout facilities for the team, restaurants and bars that could be open year-round, a Cubs Hall of Fame and museum that would be open year-round, and meeting and convention space that could even host the Cubs Convention in future years. The key points for competitiveness are the workout facilities and batting cages, something every other team has available to players during games. A tunnel could be constructed so bench players could walk over to a batting cage and stay loose, something they cannot do now. Also, moving the team offices out of Wrigley Field would clear that space for possible premium seating and a stadium club that would have views of the field, something that doesn't exist now. The Cubs don't need more seating -- most of the new ballparks being built have capacities close to Wrigley Field's 41,160 -- they need better seating that they can sell at premium prices, and this would help provide it.
4. Give Jim Hendry one more year and enough money to improve the team. Hendry signed a contract extension last off-season through 2012 and it's extremely unlikely that any new ownership would simply eat all those contract years. That said, this year has, at least to date, been a serious disappointment and Hendry has been unable to add any help midseason as he did last year with Harden. We have discussed the backloaded contracts that may hamper Hendry in the future at length on this site; the Ricketts group has to open the purse strings so that Hendry can make at least some short-term fixes. With two division titles and a contending year for a third, I think Hendry deserves at least one more shot.
5. Commit money to expanding the baseball operations staff. This goes along with the point above. The Cubs have the second-smallest front-office staff in baseball (only the Marlins have fewer full-time, year-round employees). This flies in the face of the stated desire to be like the Red Sox, and also doesn't make sense in a city the size of Chicago. The Cubs need more scouts and more baseball personnel at all levels of the organization. I've ranked this point #4, but only in chronological order. This may be the most important thing of all to do, because by doing this, the Cubs can lay a firm foundation at all levels of the organization. This would also include creating a "Cubs way" so that when a young player does come into the organization, he would be taught the same things at all levels as he moves up toward Chicago.
6. Beef up security at Wrigley Field and make it more fan-friendly. This isn't necessarily even about the beer-tossing incident earlier this month, although more security would have avoided the problem. The Cubs don't have enough security people in the bleachers; they need to hire more and further, they need to change the policy that rotates security in and out of the same location every day. If they assigned double the number of security people in the bleachers and kept them there every day, the security folks would get familiar with their locations, get to know the regulars and it would be much easier to avoid trouble. It wouldn't hurt to have a few uniformed Chicago police officers, too. And also -- please tell the elderly ushers in the box seats that if someone wants to go down there and just say hello to a friend sitting there, it should be OK to do so! Not only do these people think it's their life's work to prevent someone from walking down a couple rows into the field or club boxes to say hi to a someone, they're invariably nasty and rude about it. There are many fine employees at Wrigley Field, but some need some brush-ups in "how to treat the paying customer".
7. Talk to the city of Chicago and neighborhood groups about more night games. The major-league average for home night games is 54 -- about 2/3 of the season. The Cubs are permitted 30, by city ordinance, and none on Friday or Saturday nights. There should be a way to arrive at a compromise between all these conflicting interests. There really isn't much of a need to play Saturday night games, as the Cubs often have several 3 pm starts on Saturdays due to Fox-TV, and TV ratings on Saturday nights are the lowest of the week. On the other hand, Friday day games can be an issue on occasion because of late-night returns from road trips that end on Thursdays, even if they are playing a road afternoon game on Thursday (as it turns out, there were no such scheduling problems in 2009). The Cubs should ask for an increase in the number of night dates to 40, and to have the right up to three times a year, to play at home on Friday night if they are coming back from a road trip. This increase would allow the Cubs to keep much of the tradition of day games, while still allowing them to be competitive with other teams.
8. Renovate the rest of Wrigley Field. The bleachers were completely rebuilt before the 2006 season and the job was well-done. But the rest of the park seriously needs upgrading. The lower deck was gutted and rebuilt in 1968, so it's only 40 years old. But the upper deck hasn't had any serious work done since it was built in the late 1920's, and we are all familiar with the incidents where chunks of concrete fell from it about five years ago. It may be necessary to close Wrigley for a year and play at the Cell (thoughts of playing in Milwaukee are not realistic -- there's no way you could schedule the Cubs and Brewers so that only one team is home at the same time), although Kenney has suggested in the past that this kind of work could begin right after one season ends, get mostly done by Opening Day, and then be finished over road trips the following year. This renovation would include rebuilding the now-20-year-old cramped press box, and rehabbing the suites, also 20 years old. It could also include building a Jumbotron -- perhaps in conjunction with the rooftop clubs across Waveland and Sheffield, likely the only location you could put such a structure -- and/or a ribbon board on the upper deck facade. These things can provide a large amount of additional revenue.
9. Begin the process of starting a national Cubs TV channel. Such a channel, patterned on the Yankees' YES Network, which generated $340 million in revenue to the Yankees in 2007, could put multiple hundreds of millions of dollars into the Cubs' pockets. What management has to be sensitive to is the fact that the Cubs have a national fan base that has been created over the last 30 years due to the televising of hundreds of games on WGN. Not only has this helped out expatriate Chicagoans who have moved away to follow their team, but it has created Cubs fans who have never lived in Chicago. A TV channel like this could be a true financial boon to new Cubs ownership, but I wouldn't do it until and unless they could be guaranteed national coverage via satellite and digital cable (even if people had to pay extra for it on a premium sports tier).
There's more I could write, but I said I'd post the nine most important things to do, and in my opinion, that's what they are. Doing all these things would put the Cubs where they belong, in the top tier of major league franchises, emulate what the Red Sox have done, and hopefully allow the Cubs to do on the field what the Red Sox have done -- over the last 11 seasons (not counting this year yet) they have had a winning record every year, made the playoffs seven of those 11 years (and five of the last six), and won two World Series.
It's a great dream, Tom Ricketts. Make it so.