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Crane Kenney Talks TV, Wrigley Project, More In Wide-Ranging Forum

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The Cubs President of Business Operations talked about all aspects of the Cubs' operations in a forum with me and other Cubs alternative media Tuesday afternoon.

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In what they termed the first blogger forum, the Cubs invited me and several other members of the alternative media to an hour-long session with Cubs President of Business Operations Crane Kenney Tuesday afternoon in the Presentation Room at the Cubs' offices on Clark Street north of Waveland Avenue. I had never been in this particular room in the offices before; they have a scale model of the restored Wrigley Field in there (which doesn't necessarily have all the changes made to the plan since last summer). Some photos of the model to come at the bottom of this post.

The biggest news made Tuesday: Kenney told the group that the bleacher construction project is, in fact, behind schedule, largely due to delays in finishing water-main work on Sheffield Avenue. The Sheffield work was begun right after the Zac Brown concert at Wrigley September 13 and was supposed to be completed by October 6. As you've no doubt seen from the photos we post every day here, they're still wrapping up that work nearly two months behind schedule, and can't even stage any of the heavy equipment on Sheffield (as it is now on Waveland) until that work is done.

The water-main issue isn't the only reason they're a bit behind; they have already had issues with not being able to work on some of the bad-weather days we've already suffered. Kenney noted Monday in particular, when there were high winds and the workers were simply sent home. Further, there have been design plan changes since the project began, so Kenney wasn't blaming the city for the fact that the project, which is now up to a total overall cost of $600 million, is behind schedule.

I asked him about contingency plans in case they're not done. Two things are certain: they will not play games at the Cell, nor would they be able to swap series with the Cardinals and open the season in St. Louis. If the entire bleacher structure isn't finished by the time single-game tickets go on sale March 6, they'd simply sell fewer bleacher tickets to early-season games, and if they can't seat anyone in the new bleacher structure at all for April games, bleacher season-ticket holders would be temporarily accommodated elsewhere in the ballpark.

So regardless of the timeline of work actually being done, there will definitely be baseball Sunday night, April 5 at 7:05 p.m. CT at Wrigley Field, televised nationally on ESPN. Kenney said they expect what they're building now to last at least 50 years, so they want to get it done right, even if it takes longer than expected.

To a question regarding some "fan backlash" at the opener being scheduled for Sunday night instead of the traditional daytime opener, Kenney said he's all in favor of it, saying, "A Sunday night game with the Cardinals? Great!" Fans, he said, have generally been against change, citing a season-ticket holder forum several years ago in which only about 50 percent of fans were in favor of a video board. Now, he said, that number is up to 70 or 80 percent. He doesn't perceive a backlash at all about the Sunday night opener. (For the record, neither do I, and I'm all in favor of it.)

The other major item addressed in the session was the new TV contract, still under negotiation, for the WGN-TV games. Kenney said he expects to have a deal signed by January 1. It might be with WGN-TV... but that would only be on the local broadcast channel, as we've discussed here several times. WGN America is on its way to being reclassified as a basic cable network (like TBS, TNT, FX, etc.) and such channels cannot carry Cubs games. So, we have likely seen the last Cubs game on WGNA and probably, after January 1, the last sports event, as Bulls games won't be carried on WGNA starting then. It's doubtful White Sox games will be on WGNA, either, in 2015. They'll have to find another carrier for their WGN schedule.

The Cubs might have an option to put some game on CSN Chicago's second full-time channel, which launched in October. Thus, the 70 games that are now up for bid might turn out to be fewer than that number, with more games carried via CSN. For those of you who live in the blackout areas, Kenney's suggestion was to "call your cable or satellite company," but that doesn't really help with games on broadcast channels. He hinted that the Cubs will attempt to get some games on local co-owned broadcast outlets in the Illinois/Iowa/Indiana blackout areas, or on digital subchannels if they're available.

Kenney seemed very firm about the notion that the Cubs expect to launch their own TV channel starting with the 2020 season, and are exploring various ways of putting this channel on the air so they don't wind up with the issue the Dodgers have (non-carriage in about 70 percent of the Los Angeles market), including a possible partnership with private equity firms.

There were several other issues touched on in the session, including how the new video boards are expected to affect wind patterns (short answer: they aren't), dealings with the rooftops (Kenney, in a moment of candor, said he wishes the Cubs hadn't settled with the rooftops in 2004, but instead had litigated to the end) and more about media rights, specificially streaming rights, which are currently controlled by MLB Advanced Media in a deal made in 2000. Kenney said that the teams never intended that to include their local media rights in granting internet rights to MLBAM. That's the reason you can't watch streamed-online games in your local market, but he noted that's changing. Example: MLB's streaming of this year's playoff games. If you had a cable/satellite subscription, you could watch games on your phone or tablet, and negotiations are currently ongoing to be able to do that for regular-season games in 2015. Kenney added that he'd expect this issue to be solved in the "next generation" of media contracts.

Also touched on: the new radio contracts with CBS. Kenney seemed most excited about the music concerts that CBS can help them promote, noting that all concert revenue stays with the Cubs and isn't shared with other MLB teams, as ticket and national media revenue is. There could be concerts in the new outdoor plaza, once it's completed, that could attract crowds in the range of 6,000 - 7,000.

All the signage approved last July is going to be constructed; Kenney said the sales department is busy getting partners for the advertising signs and they expect all of them to be placed. The two light towers approved by the Landmarks Commission last July aren't expected to be built until Phase 2, next offseason, which will also include the completion of the bullpens underneath the bleachers. To a question about that, Kenney said he believes it's better for the pitchers, who don't have to sit outside all the time, and safer for outfielders, who won't have to worry about running into the mound or bullpen bench or bullpen phone box (as Alfonso Soriano did in 2009, seriously injuring his knee).

Finally, as the discussion turned to Theo Epstein and the baseball side, Kenney said he thought Theo was absolutely on the right track and he mentioned the bigger moves regarding the reconstruction of the farm system and the players who have begun to come to the big leagues as a result (Javier Baez and Jorge Soler, though not mentioned specifically, are likely who he was referring to). He also noted, though, that some "smaller" moves are just as important. I asked him to name one, and he specifically cited the Jake Arrieta trade as something that wasn't thought of as a big deal at the time, but certainly is now. I wholeheartedly agree with that, and Kenney also praised the scouting department, calling it one of the best in the game.

He concluded by saying, in answer to a question regarding what message he thinks should be out there to Cubs fans that isn't, that "it's time to start winning, to be competitive, to start playing in October."

To which I wholeheartedly agree, as well. Thanks to Crane Kenney for his honest and candid comments on the business-side future of the Chicago Cubs.

Many thanks to Julian Green and Kevin Saghy of the Cubs for arranging this forum for me and the other alternative media writers. They've told us that they intend to get us more sessions like this one, not only with Crane Kenney but with Tom Ricketts, with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, with Jason McLeod and possibly with Joe Maddon (that one, in particular, would be great fun, I think), at various times during the winter, at spring training and during the season. Also thanks from me to Alyson Cohen, Cubs public relations coordinator, Jason Carr, assistant director of media relations, and Lindsay Bago, assistant director of organizational communications, for their assistance.

Finally, a shout-out to the other alternative media at the session: Brett Taylor (Bleacher Nation), Chris Jorgensen (Chicago Cubs Insider), Catherine Garcia (Cubs Den -- substituting for John Arguello who couldn't make it), Neil Finnell (Chicago Cubs Online), Corey Fineran (Ivy Envy), Jason Alspaugh (Wrigley Renovations) and Miriam Romain (Cubs columnist for examiner.com).

I'll be posting a full transcript of the Q-and-A session with Crane Kenney sometime next week. Here are the photos of the Wrigley Field model in the Cubs' Presentation Room.

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