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Crane Kenney on extended netting, the All-Star Game, new coaches and more

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There’s more than just Marquee Network news at Cubs Convention

Crane Kenney at the World Series rally in 2016
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The talk of Cubs Convention has been the Marquee Network, but there were a lot of other topics that players, coaches and President of Cubs Business Operations Crane Kenney covered with bloggers and fans this afternoon.

Extended Netting

The Cubs will extend the nets at Wrigley Field in 2020. The nets will not go foul pole to foul pole at Wrigley Field, however they will be extended to what Kenney called the “elbows” of the grandstand just shy of the bleachers. You can see that spot in this photo of the left field side of the park — the nets will basically be extended to where the wall angles:

Al Yellon

Kenney indicated it was one of the three hardest conversations the Cubs have had internally. It’s a constant balancing act to preserve the character of Wrigley Field and to adapt to the changing needs of fans. He compared it to the decision the Cubs made to pull the bullpens off the field, which was not popular with fans but was deemed a necessary change to ensure players were safe.

While extended netting seems popular in the comments section of Bleed Cubbie Blue and among the baseball Twitterati, it is not popular with the season ticket holders who sit in the seats that would be impacted. Kenney indicated the Cubs held focus groups with those fans and he’d estimate that half of them do not want the nets extended. A common refrain among those fans is that the park is 100 years old and fans in those seats should just pay closer attention.

However, given the increased prevalence of cellphones and other distractions at the ballpark, the Cubs are joining the 29 other teams in extending their nets. While many teams will take their nets foul pole to foul pole in 2020, the Cubs determined the unique design of Wrigley Field allowed them to stop short of that. They looked at first aid data to determine the location of the nets for 2020.

Sports betting

One of the reasons the Cubs decided to extend their nets was a projection that fans would spent more time on their phones when sports betting became legal at ballparks. It is still unclear just how gambling will change the fan experience at Wrigley Field because Illinois hasn’t written those regulations yet.

There has been a lot of speculation about what the gambling operation at Wrigley Field could look like, including the location of a sports betting facility, but Kenney was clear that those conversations will not begin in earnest until the Cubs have a better idea what the regulations will look like from the state of Illinois.

Money, Money, Money, Money

There have been a lot of questions about how the Marquee Network will impact the Cubs finances going forward. There has also been a lot of speculation about the 1060 Project, cost overruns, and the ADA lawsuit at Wrigley Field. I was grateful that Crane took some time to clear all of this up.

Firstly, Tom Ricketts’ comments about the 1060 Project being “100 percent over budget” have gotten a lot of press. The precise context of those remarks has been lost, however. That 100 percent was not off the $500 million (ish) baseline the Cubs projected at the start of the 1060 Project. They were off the $300 million estimate that the Ricketts thought it would cost to renovate Wrigley Field when they purchased the team. Importantly, the driving factor was a desire to get the renovation right even if it cost more. So, for example, when the team realized that their initial estimate for the clubhouse wasn’t adequate, they doubled the size despite it costing millions more. Similar decisions were made throughout the project.

Second, as Al has reported previously, the 1060 Project and baseball operations budgets are separate. The additional costs to renovate Wrigley Field were generated by a Ricketts campaign to get one-time investors to help with those overruns. None of those costs impact the Cubs ability to sign players. The Cubs had a top three budget in baseball in 2019 and estimate they will have a top three or four budget in MLB in 2020.

Third, there have been questions about how the money generated from the Marquee deal will impact the baseball budget going forward. The carriage deals that the Cubs are working out with Marquee are generally three-year deals, although some are two and others are four. The 2020 portion of those deals is prorated since the network will not be on the air for the whole year. That money should be available to the Cubs for the 2021 payroll. However, Kenney also stressed that the primary interest for the Cubs with Marquee was better content and the Cubs ability to maximize and shape their own narrative on the new channel. Specifically he noted that the Cubs organization was built by WGN and the Superstation provided the Cubs a national audience and brand. Marquee is an effort to serve, grow and maintain that legacy.

The All-Star Game

It’s no secret that the Cubs want to host the midsummer classic. They have put in multiple bids for the All Star Game and last year during this session expressed hope that with the completion of the 1060 Project they would move up in consideration since Commissioner Rob Manfred has been favoring bids to teams who are investing in their clubs. I was a bit disappointed to hear that the Dodgers and Braves would get the next two games given that information.

However, in today’s business session Kenney noted that the criteria appeared to be geared more towards cities that are investing in their teams, hinting that one reason the Cubs may have lost out on the All Star Game to the Braves was that the Braves new park was taxpayer funded while the Cubs renovation was privately funded. If true, that deepens my disappointment in Major League Baseball. The Wrigley renovation was substantially more fiscally responsible than the city of Atlanta financing new stadiums every 20 years.

New Coaches

A mix of new and old coaches debuted this morning at Cubs Convention and it was immediately apparent how David Ross’ talent for communication will be a tremendous asset to the Cubs. The reaction to most of the news the Cubs have shared so far has been tepid, mixed or both. The reaction to David Ross felt more like a rock concert.

He’s clearly comfortable saying “I don’t know” when he doesn’t have an answer, as he did when asked about the Cubs’ leadoff position. That is a tremendous quality for any leader, but particularly for a first time manager of a baseball team in a big market. His new bench coach Andy Green was explicit that he came to Chicago to work with Ross. For his part, Ross was clearly thankful he’d have Green’s experience as a manager on his bench.

There were also some lighthearted moments like when Ross mentioned not making jokes about 2016 around the new quality assurance coach Mike Napoli, or when he passed a question about hitting into the shift or hitting coach Anthony Iapoce with a joking comment about accountability.

While the mood for this session was upbeat and light, this crew of coaches has quite the task in front of them. They are basically being asked to get more out of a group of players that is functionally the same as 2019 minus some key free agents like Nicholas Castellanos. The only word Ross said more during this press conference than “accountability” was “win” but that may be a tall order for a team seems pretty much the same as last year.