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Tom Ricketts talks about TV, emails, Addison Russell, player payroll and more

The Cubs chairman had a wide-ranging discussion with bloggers Monday afternoon.

Al Yellon

MESA, ArizonaCubs Chairman Tom Ricketts had a busy Monday. First, he had his traditional annual talk with Cubs players, as he does on the day of the first full-squad workout (which was mostly indoors because it’s been raining off and on in the Valley all day). Then, he met with local and national media. And after all that, he had a session with Cubs bloggers, including yours truly, in the suites at Sloan Park.

We touched on many of the same subjects you might have heard him respond to in his streamed news conference. But we also had the chance to go into a bit more detail, especially on the Cubs’ new TV channel and also on some payroll matters.

I asked Tom quite a few questions about the new Marquee Network, which will launch for the 2020 season and carry all Cubs games, and specifically about Sinclair Broadcasting’s role in the network, since Sinclair has been the subject of some controversy for the political views they take on some of their owned OTA broadcast channels.

He said that Sinclair and the Cubs will be “equity partners” in the new network, that both will invest in the channel. The new network will, as do most other regional sports networks (RSNs), pay the Cubs a rights fee, and he added, “if the network makes a profit, we split the profit with Sinclair.” It’s not yet clear how much the rights fee paid to the Cubs will be from this channel. Both the Cubs and Sinclair will have seats on the board of the Marquee Network, though Ricketts wouldn’t say how many each would have, only that “we will have control of our content.”

“Crane Kenney will be president of the network and its employees will be Cubs employees reporting to him,” noted Julian Green, Cubs VP of communications, who also attended the briefing.

Ricketts added that they decided to go it alone instead of going with other teams “because we wanted to control the content.” As far as any political content, he said, “It has nothing to do with me or anyone with the Cubs,” and he compared it to NBC Sports being co-owned with MSNBC, or Fox Sports being co-owned with Fox News, and no political content is on those co-owned sports channels.

I have found, over the years, that Tom Ricketts is a man of his word. I’m going to take him at his word on that, and I believe that the Marquee Network will contain only Cubs and sports-related content.

Tom said he feels it will be “a big benefit” to bringing all the games to one channel, adding, “The largest single complaint I get is from people complaining they have to look all over for games, whether it’s Comcast, NBC, WGN, ABC7. It’ll be the second sports channel in the Chicago market. In other places like Los Angeles and New York, they have at least four.”

The implication there is that there shouldn’t be resistance to carrying a Cubs channel on systems within the Chicago market territory. This is the single biggest issue with this change, I think. Right now, between NBC Sports Chicago, WGN and ABC7 and the affiliates of the latter two in the market, most people in-market can see all the games. The Cubs don’t want to lose that, as the Dodgers have, as I pointed out to Tom. He said, “We still do have to work out all the carriage negotiations, that’s the next step of this process.” Indeed it is, and all we can do is hope it works out for all of us.

As far as programming the network, Ricketts said, “This is still all pretty new to us,” and besides the obvious content of games and pre- and post-game shows, “we’ve already had the guys from Cubs Productions meeting with some of the players to get behind-the-scenes types of footage, and a little context around their personal lives. Fans like that, and we’re going to do some of that.”

Regarding revenue from the channel, Tom said he expected “eventually” they hoped to make more money from it “than our current situation, and that’s one of the reasons we did this, beyond to deliver better content,” and that “ultimately it will go back to the players, but it’s too early to tell how much.” He did say, “I’m not going to promise extra dollars for player payroll, but it will allow financial flexibility.”

“Financial flexibility.” Where have we heard those words before?

That led to me asking a question about whether the luxury tax determined the amount of money that Tom Ricketts makes available for Theo Epstein and the baseball operations department.

His response: “No. It hasn’t yet, no. The amount of dollars that goes over to baseball is independent of the competitive balance tax. The baseball guys can manage around the tax if they think that’s the best thing for the club, but we don’t decrease the amount to spend based on what the CBT is.”

I followed up by asking him if he was willing to spend up to the highest level of the tax. He replied, “Keep in mind that you can’t spend that same dollar twice. If you have to spend the luxury tax dollars, that’s a dollar that comes out of some other place to put it, whether it’s a signing or whatever. So the baseball guys have to manage around it.”

As you might have heard, Ricketts said this at the media news conference:

That generated headlines everywhere, but I’m not making it the headline here. Why? Because that’s an easy quote, a clickbait headline, and all it really means is this: The Ricketts give Theo Epstein and his baseball operations department a budget every year. Theo spends it the way he sees fit, and generally spends all of it. Whatever the budget was this year — and I’ve taken a number of looks at the estimated payroll including this one last week — it clearly didn’t include enough to sign someone like Bryce Harper, and it seems clear that no additional money is going to be freed up to do something like that at this late date.

So it’s a headline quote, but I hope I have given you more detail here.

He was asked if the Cubs are generating cash flow, and he said, “This year? It’s questionable.” A follow-up asked if money from Hickory Street Capital (the Ricketts venture that includes the Hotel Zachary, among other things) is used for the ballclub, and his response was, “As much as the hotel has been successful, it doesn’t generate a lot of money to help the club, and those assets are kind of outside the team, at the moment. You can’t sign a free agent on hotel revenues.”

I asked about the five percent of the club that had been retained by Tribune Co. after the sale in 2009, and the fact that the team recently repurchased that five percent, and whether that reduced the debt service the Cubs had been paying. He answered, quite directly, “We had to take on debt to make that purchase, so the amount of debt service is about the same.”

The session moved on to the topic of the Joe Ricketts emails that were made public recently. Tom said, as he has before, that “the emails were very insensitive and offensive. We made it very clear that these did not represent the viewpoint of the organization, and then we reached out, trying to turn a negative situation into a more positive situation. Particularly with the Council on American Islamic Relations, we’re working with them to make something positive out of the whole thing.” Ricketts and Green said that they have just begun this outreach and it would be “a few weeks” before they had any further details.

At this point, I think Tom and the team have said about all they can say on this topic, and I think I will comment further when the Cubs announce whatever plans they do make regarding the outreach to the Muslim community. In the meantime, if you have not already read it, I would commend you to read this FanPost from a Muslim BCB member who describes himself as “a lifelong Cub fan.”

The conversation then moved to Addison Russell, which Tom described as “one of the most complicated situations we’ve ever run into.” He gave a lot of credit to Theo Epstein for “being as thoughtful and as thorough as he has, and including Melisa [Reidy, Russell’s ex-wife]” in the dialogue. He noted that MLB also did an investigation and requires certain things from Russell before he’s reinstated, and that Russell “has gone far beyond what MLB has asked” and has done everything the team has asked of him so far.

“Ultimately,” Ricketts said, “it comes down to a choice, as an organization. Do you want to feel like you’re doing something that is proactive in trying to help, and maybe be part of a solution, or let him move on and start somewhere else?” He added that he had spoken to Melisa several times, and “I give our guys credit for including her in the dialogue.”

As you know, I’ve gone on record here in the past as saying the Cubs should have cut ties with Russell. I’m reconsidering that based on the remarks Theo has made, as well as some comments by BCB readers here last Friday. (Incidentally, you should read through those comments if you haven’t; there are some very personal stories told that are worth reading.)

Domestic violence is never, ever right. But everyone’s situation is different, and perhaps if the Cubs are part of a solution here that can turn one young man’s life around, maybe it could even be a template for how other sports teams can handle this type of thing. For now, since Russell appears to be doing what he’s been asked (even if he did appear very ill at ease in the news conference last Friday), I am going to reserve judgment. Tom Ricketts appears to agree, as he told us today, “After talking to the parties involved, and third parties who are specialists in domestic violence, it seemed like the best answer for us was to see if he could follow through the process, take his suspension and try to come back and be a Cub again. He needs to live up to standards to the league, his teammates and the organization, learn and grow and put this all behind him. The ball’s in his court.”

He concluded by saying Russell had shown remorse and, “I talked to Addison when he was in Chicago last month. He understands the gravity of the situation. I think he’s a good young man who deserves the chance to try to straighten out and to become a better person.” Tom said he was satisfied with the progress he’s seen but noted, “It’s not a short-term thing. He’s got to continue with all the support he’s getting and make sure none of these things ever happen again, and we’re going to give him that chance. Ultimately, Theo will make a recommendation.”

Ricketts said he didn’t say much about the Russell situation in the meeting with the team, but said he did touch on the email controversy with them “because in this case you can’t be seen and not heard because it’s such a big story,” and also let them know his usual message: behave in a respectful manner on and off the field, treat fans like gold, and that the team will help them out in any charitable endeavor they want to be part of.

After these heavy topics, I decided to turn the discussion to something a bit lighter, a fan experience thing that I have mentioned here before. I asked Tom about the 10,000-item giveaway limit, which causes crowd control issues, among other things. His response: “I assume the sponsor wants them that way, and it gets people in the park.” The latter, I know, has been mentioned by others here. Ricketts and Green also noted that the Cubs have more giveaway days than many other teams (between 37 and 45, in the “top three in the league” according to Green) and that some of the items, bobbleheads in particular, were “of higher quality” because there were fewer made. They did say they’d look into this going forward. It’s too late to change this up for 2019, so you’ll once again have to make your plans to arrive early for the most popular giveaway items.

One thing’s for sure: Tom Ricketts is, as are the all rest of us, ready for real baseball to begin, to have actual games on the field, which begin this Saturday. He said he’d be back in Mesa sometime in the middle of March.

Thanks very much to Nicole Bersani and Julian Green of the Cubs for their assistance in including me in this session with Tom Ricketts, and also to Ricketts family spokesman Dennis Culloton, who was also in attendance and who has given me assistance on various topics involving the family.