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BCB Interview: Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts (Part III)

Tom Ricketts, Chariman of the Chicago Cubs, greets fans before the Opening Day game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Tom Ricketts, Chariman of the Chicago Cubs, greets fans before the Opening Day game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The third and final part of my interview with Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts touches on TV territorial rights -- something I know is a key issue for many BCBers -- as well as what he hopes to accomplish in "Year Two" of the Ricketts family ownership of the Cubs.

Many thanks to Tom for his time and his candid answers to my questions. I hope to be able to do this again later in the season. And now, it's almost time for real baseball to start as pitchers and catchers report to Mesa on Sunday and will have their first workout on Monday.

Follow me past the jump for Part III.

BCB: Is there anything that surprised you about your first year?

TR: Well, there’s a pretty steep learning curve on a lot of different things. A lot of the more subtle parts of the operation, but in terms of surprises, I don’t think there’s anything that really sticks out as a surprise. But obviously we’re still learning and we have a lot to learn to get better.

BCB: Getting to something specific, were you pretty sure Lou was not coming back?

TR: It was left open to start the season. It was one of those things if they had gone well and Lou had felt like that he wanted to continue managing and he had a pretty good season and things had fallen into place, it was possible. But we did anticipate the mid-season shifts, and I think we did our best to get through that.

BCB: Let me beat the drum for television broadcast rights again. You know that certain places are blacked out and certain people who read BCB in Iowa can’t watch certain Cubs games. Is there anything you can tell them about whether broadcast rights will be opened up so that anybody who pays to watch a game can watch a game, no matter where they are?

TR: I know we talked about this last year. I know that Crane knows more about it than I do. I don’t’ know what kind of flexibility the league has on it. I guess it’s a territorial…

BCB: It’s a territorial rights that dates back to the 1970s that .. I don’t have the specifics, but these areas were all carved about by the different teams and so certain teams can prevent other teams from carrying their games in those markets even though those broadcast channels don’t carry the games anymore. You know, pretty much everybody’s on cable these days or satellite.

TR: It’s worth revisiting. Obviously there’s some pretty good reasons on the front end for these territories and the idea of just defending your space for your team. But as people have stopped going over the air maybe those reasons don’t exist anymore, but let me check that.

BCB: How does it feel being the new kid on the block?

TR: First of all, Chuck Greenberg (Texas Rangers) is the new owner on the block, right? But the owners have been universally supportive. It’s a good group of people. I think the Commissioner’s been great to work with. He’s actually been very, very helpful on a handful of different issues. So, so far, so good. It was relatively smooth. I’ve got a pretty steep learning curve on that too. The fact is that I can always call the Commissioner. I can call Jerry. Everyone is pretty open.

BCB: Despite the North Side - South Side rivalry, you and Jerry Reisndorf get along well enough?

TR: Absolutely.

BCB: What would you say your goals are now for the next year?

TR: First and foremost, we want to start wrestling this Wrigley issue to the ground. I think we owe it to everyone to take these issue head on and try to get through them. Obviously, always improving as a team on the field. Looking at ways that we can get better; I think that’s something that just never ends. With respect to the in-game experience that’s sort of a thing that never ends. We started a lot of initiatives last year. Obviously, the Ambassadors, we tried a lot of stuff. We did a lot of surveys for the first time. We’re really trying to understand what we can do better in the park on an ongoing basis. I think that’s another thing that’s good for next year. Just a lot of work.

BCB: In those surveys, was it 37 percent are from out of town or first timers?

TR: In the two weeks that they were in the park, the people they surveyed, 37 percent were from out of state. But it was a week in August and a week in September so it was probably kind of skewed a bit. I don’t think we have that kind of numbers in April or May but I think we use it as just how indicative of how powerful an attraction Wrigley is from a tourism standpoint. And you know as well as anyone, you can be sitting next to someone from Ohio or Iowa.

BCB: I always find people from out of town.

TR: And the other thing that was interesting about those people from out of town, most of them came because they wanted to come to a baseball game at Wrigley. Most of them aren’t convention goers, or happened to be around or visiting a brother-in-law who’s graduating from college…

BCB: They came specifically to go to Wrigley?

TR: I think most of them were Cubs fans, but I think people come because Wrigley’s unique and it is baseball the way it’s always been. It’s definitely got a special charm to it.

BCB: You’ve got the longtime cable exposure from the ‘80s and ‘90s. There are Cub fans at BCB that have never lived in Chicago. They became Cubs fans because they could see them on television all the time.

TR: And we understand and we get that part.

BCB: This is where the territorial rights come in. you’ve got people who at one time could see 140 games on WGN and now they can’t. Okay, so some of them could pay extra, buy an Extra Innings package and see it, but there are some who pay for that and still can’t because of the territorial problem.

TR: Right. I’ll look into that territorial thing again.

BCB: One of the things that I have noticed, watching you from spring training on. That first day when you came out to the berm in Mesa and you were swarmed by people -- it seemed you weren’t quite ready for that. But as the season went and you settled into the role of the face of the franchise and you got out and talked to people and listened to people, what did you hear? Did you hear complaints? I heard "Can I have a picture with you?" but what did you hear?

TR: There’s a couple of things. I think really early, like in the spring training games and in the first few weeks of the season it was a little overwhelming because I think that people didn’t really realize I’d be there a lot. So by the time that we got to the middle of the season you’d see me come out to the bleachers, and I’d walk around every game. People got used to seeing me there so it got a lot more comfortable where I could just sit down next to someone and just talk. That’s when it got easier at the park, no question to get around and talk to people. And a lot of photos. That happens. But as I go around and talk to people, it’s all over the map in terms of what they want to talk about. There are some people who have specific issues or suggestions and we acted on some of them. Sometimes I’ve walked into an usher who had a suggestion and we’ve used that. I think one thing that we’ve learned in our first year is that communication can get better around here. I don’t think that a lot of the suggestions get up to the level that they can be acted upon and our people don’t know what the process is for a suggestion is to get to the right level. Some people had suggestions on general manager or manager, and I don’t mind that. That’s great. That’s a really healthy thing to talk about. That’s a fun thing to talk about. Even for me, even though I can’t say anything, it’s fun. I would say that literally of the thousands of people that I met in the park or at the airport or anywhere last year, I could name two that I thought were inappropriate. And one was just a young guy who was over served who misunderstood, he thought we were putting in some kind of PSLs or something and he was afraid of PSLs. And one was just an odd cat out at the All-Star Game who didn’t like our pitching coach. But those were very isolated instances, and I think people were opinionated but respectful.

BCB: Speaking of PSLs. No plans for PSLs?

TR: No.

BCB: Do you feel any particular pressure personally when you hear people say: "Why doesn’t Tom Ricketts do this" or "Tom Ricketts needs to do this" or "Tom Ricketts is the one who we’re blaming for this".

TR: I guess ultimately someone has to take the blame for everything. I guess you have to accept that as part of the job. I mean, I really don’t worry about that too much, to be honest. I think that my goal is that everyone that does spend a few minutes actually watching the team knows that the family and I are doing everything we can to hit those three goals, and we’re looking at very long days looking at very creative solutions and pushing really hard. And when you read something or you see something unflattering about me, maybe in respect to the bond issue or you hear somebody say something that’s not true… hopefully most people discount that stuff appropriately. And ultimately what we have to be known for, or what I have to be known for is being a guy that went to war for the team on the topics that were important and got us to a level of success that we hadn’t been to before. So the only way to really gauge what we’re doing now is to fast forward 10 years and look backward because we’re not managing toward how people feel today, we’re managing toward how people feel in the future and you just have to keep the big picture in mind whenever you hear people concerned about any type of individual decision or something that did or didn’t happen that may or may not have upset them.

BCB: Is there anything else you want to say in conclusion?

TR: I’m excited about Mike Quade. I really am. I am excited about Quade but I think here's another case where maybe the media created a problem that didn’t exist -- the Sandberg issue. I mean, Ryne and I talked throughout the process. He’s a complete gentleman. We have a good dialogue, we have a good relationship. I think it just seemed the media was try to make a lot more out of it than just the fact that Jim, and we support him 100 percent, made the call on the guy he thought could win the most baseball games. And to read any more into it than that is not productive.

BCB: So the door is always open for Ryne Sandberg to come back?

TR: From our standpoint, Ryne is always a Cub. He’s always been part of this organization. To the extent that if there’s a role for him in the future that’s more specific than that, we’ll always be open minded. And frankly, with all sincerity, everyone here wishes him the best and success in the future. It’s nothing but an incredible amount of mutual respect that I think all the parties have in this case and I just wish him all the best.