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Tom Ricketts talks about Cubs finances, the Marquee Network, David Ross and more

The Cubs chairman granted a wide-ranging interview Monday afternoon.

Al Yellon

MESA, Arizona — As has been the case for the last few seasons, I had an opportunity to sit down with Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts Monday for a wide-ranging conversation about many aspects of the team.

We began with discussion about team finances and the perception by many that the Cubs have made efforts to stay under the $208 million first luxury tax level. Ricketts told me that the team hopes to have more money from the Marquee Network to invest in team payroll, but added that “we won’t know until all the carriage deals are finished and until we get through a whole year.” So — hopefully next winter, the Cubs will have completed a successful season on the Marquee Network and will have brought in enough money to add to payroll.

He added, regarding the tax penalties, “We have to manage around it,” suggesting that the higher penalties for going over the tax levels in consecutive years were a consideration, but it wasn’t the only factor that the team looks at in setting budgets. A suggestion that teams are looking at this as a de facto salary cap was shot down, with Tom noting, “What it forces teams to do is, if I’m going to keep my payroll high, how many years can I do that?”

Further, he added, “It’s always nice to be able to sign a big free agent. It kind of gets people excited, but there’s a couple of things involved. One is, there isn’t always a fit. Secondly, some of our financial flexibility that we had, we used up on Craig Kimbrel last year. We’d love to have something fun to talk about, but we don’t want to do it just for that reason, we have to make sure it’s the right fit for the long run. Trades are tough, teams don’t trade starting players for each other very often anymore.” Then I wondered about the possibility of keeping the core (Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras) together after 2021, and Tom was pretty noncommittal about that, saying that was really a “Theo question.”

Regarding the Wrigley restoration project, which is now (mostly) complete, Tom addressed this comment he made last fall:

He said that the original estimate made, when the family first bought the Cubs, was about $300 million, but when they got in and saw what was needed in terms of replacing steel, walls, etc. it quickly got larger. The final amount spent was somewhere around $740 million. You might recall that when the renovation deal was finally approved in 2013, the budgeted amount was $500 million, so the overage was more in the area of 40 percent, not 100 percent. I don’t think this is uncommon with many renovation projects, especially one of this nature.

I asked Tom if it was worth it. “Absolutely,” he said. “We didn’t skimp on the quality, the amenities, the food, elevators, and the different types of clubs. We’re real happy with it.” Some of it was financed, as you know, by the team selling minority shares in the ballclub.

The project is complete except for the press box, which will be ready by Opening Day, and one last club space that you can see from the street at the corner of Addison & Sheffield, behind these windows (which will NOT be open for the 2020 season):

Al Yellon

Turning back to the Marquee Network for a moment, I asked about the booing he heard when he talked about the network at the Cubs Convention and what he would say now to fans who booed: “I’d say the same thing now, actually. This network is the best thing we can do for the fans.” He cited having all the games on one channel, as well as the additional Cubs-related programming that will be carried. I asked whether the non-game programming would be available to those of you who don’t live in the Cubs market territory. “We’ll wind up putting a lot of that on the Cubs YouTube channel,” he noted, “and also, we should have more carriage of this channel within the market area, especially in the Des Moines area and hopefully the Indianapolis area and southwest Michigan.”

Regarding all the various Cubs personalities who have been hired to broadcast on the channel, he said, “We love Len and JD, they’ll still be the core, but we’ll mix and match having the other guys come in, one week it might be Mark DeRosa, one week it could be Lou Piniella. Once people see the quality of our game broadcasts and all the additional programming we’re going to have, we think they’ll love it.”

On a final note about Marquee, I asked whether there were any upcoming deals in the works for the channel in the wake of Monday morning’s announcement of signing with Hulu. Tom noted that Hulu is the No. 1 streaming service and that they do hope to have a deal with YouTube TV and Comcast sometime in the future, though he had no details on either of those at this time.

Monday was also the day Tom had his annual talk with Cubs players, and he said he didn’t give a message that was any different from previous years, saying “I don’t give out the big pep talk, that’s not my role.” His three points, as always, were:

  • Don’t forget the fans, because they are the team, too. Without them we’re all doing something else. Always be good to fans.
  • Make sure you comport yourself in a way that positively represents the team on and off the field. You’re in a family business, respect the family you’re in and don’t do anything to embarrass yourself.
  • If players have any charitable initiatives they want to do, let management know and they’ll assist you.

He did make one performance-related remark, saying, “We know we had a disappointing finish to 2019, let’s put that behind us and play like the team we know we are.”

About David Ross, Tom was asked if he had any words of wisdom for the new Cubs manager. He laughed and said, “He’s the guy who had the words of wisdom for the team. He’s a great communicator. It’ll be a different team — same players, but they should be a different team under David.”

I asked Tom about the proverbial elephant in the room, the Astros cheating scandal, and what he would say to fans to assure them that baseball is being played on the level. He noted that there’s a certain amount of gamesmanship in baseball but, “Everyone agrees that this [the Astros’ behavior] crossed the line, the whole league understands that this crossed the line. It’s a disappointing, dark moment in baseball history, and I think it’s behind us.”

Lastly, I asked Tom about the possibility of getting an All-Star Game for Wrigley Field. The first possibility would be 2022, The answer was illuminating: “The league typically rewards cities that have given financial support to teams that have built stadiums. We’re the exact opposite, so that’s been a challenge for us.”

Personally, I find this attitude on the part of Major League Baseball disturbing. The Cubs spent $740 million of their own money improving the physical plant at Wrigley Field — and for that they’re having a hard time being considered? So, Ricketts said, “We have to think of a strategy where we can go to the league and say that our city does support us and put together a proposal to bring the All-Star Game to Wrigley Field.”

Thanks to Tom Ricketts for his time and also thanks to Nicole Bersani and Julian Green of the Cubs for arranging this interview.