Crane Kenney Holds Court on Construction, Cubs Network, In-Market Streaming, and Creating a Better Brand Through Twitter

After receiving an invitation recently, I was able to join a small group of fellow non-traditional journalists at the Cubs offices for a Q&A with Crane Kenney, the team’s President of Business Operations. Also present were VP of Communications Julian Green and Communications Manager Kevin Saghy (who is the driving force behind the awesomeness that the Cubs Twitter account has become). The setting was much more well-appointed than the basements of our respective parents, gathered as we were around a scale model of the now-revised 1060 Project.

Informal and transparent, Kenney addressed the assembled gaggle of bloggers sporting signs of participation in No-Shave November. He led off with a description of the construction currently underway at Wrigley (the old girl is looking quite different these days, what with so much of the facade removed for the moment), then allowed the conversation to trail into details of in-network streaming possibilities, the Cubs Network, and even the change in the organization’s social media presence.

Kenney seemed bullish on the Cubs’ desire to offer some form of streaming to fans, though he admitted that the situation is a bit more complicated than that recently announced by MLB and FOX. The Cubs, as you should be well aware by now, are dealing with a hodgepodge of broadcast partners and won’t have their TV situation consolidated until 2020. The plan, however, is to work out streaming deals for both the short- and long-term.

As for the Cubs Network, Kenney confirmed that that is very much still the plan and that the Cubs would be working with a partner, though who that would be he did not yet know. And unlike the current situation with CSN Chicago, this would be a Cubs-only deal. That not only allows the team to further hone its brand (I know it may sound strange for such an established team to be concerned with that, but it’s true), but also eliminates the truncated pre- and post-game coverage due to overlap with White Sox, Bulls, and Blackhawks coverage.

Another interesting tidbit dealt with the availability of a Cubs Network to those fans in other markets. Unless MLB’s blackout restrictions are lifted or altered, the station will have to be restricted to the Cubs’ territory. While you might be wondering why you can’t get a channel you’d be willing to pay for, consider the infringement upon other teams’ broadcasts. For instance, Cubs fans in Arizona would be more willing to watch a Cubs/D-backs game in Phoenix on the Cubs Network, thus usurping the credibility and revenues of the local station(s).

As for some more notes from the conversation:

  • Bringing more energy to video board packaging for video board stuff; more interactive stuff, historical info; Kenney used the analogy of musical “deep cuts” to describe archival footage that could be used.
  • Bleachers will be finished next year but won’t move bullpens; bleachers only 70% done right now; kill a couple rows and add new food and beverage area; larger area beneath scoreboard for congregating
  • Beginning to ready the areas beneath left and right for the bullpens; ceremonial pavers will be moved from the main entrance to around the bleacher entrance; Harry Caray statue coming back too
  • In terms of improvements, new restrooms going in; points of sale have gone from 1:100 people to 1:30 in bleachers, which also means fewer roaming vendors in order to give people more baseball
  • Clubhouse will be ready by opening day; core done now and the HVAC going in currently; should be done well before ST; visitors’ side done at some point in the future; 30,000 square feet, up from 13,000
  • Office tower will be done later, but in the 2016 calendar; Hickory St. Developments (in which Ricketts family has ownership interest) operating; primarily restaurants and light entertainment
  • Showcase studio (think College Gameday) to be used by all media partners, then to be home of Cubs Network in 2020
  • Not giving numbers out on signs; at least one, but still negotiating with rooftops
  • As for rooftops the plan is to continuing to operate as they have, but the six that Ricketts familiy controls will be under common website and will be available with various concession packages; site debuts next year
  • Magnetometers at the entrances; walk-through metal detectors, which should have been in a couple years ago but got waiver due to construction;
  • Western gate will be completed during the year; will continue construction during the year to finish plaza, office building, western gate, etc; fully open in 2017
  • Some seats temporarily removed from 3B line; looking at really cool tech through Dow Chemicals to coat the concrete to extend life and make more slip-resistant; could allow team to accelerate the projects due to various ages of different parts of concrete
  • Outfield light towers seen in various renderings are still planned, but will not be up in 2016
  • Aisles and sections being re-numbered in some areas, which means no more Seat 105 right next to 1 in an unbroken row; also, some season ticket holders may find that they have different rows/aisles/seat numbers despite being in the exact same place
  • In terms of network launch, concerns included the one in Houston not drawing enough ratings and collapsing; LA has problems because it’s not in enough households, but Time Warner guaranteed the subscription fees, so Dodgers still get paid even though it’s not good for brand
  • Very intentional initiative with increase in social media presence, namely Twitter; worked with MLBAM and planned out voice, dedicated staff, working to build brand and engagement
  • Same number of restrooms to open season as there were at end of season last year

Aside from all the solid information shared, it was nice to hear Kenney and Co. express thanks to and respect for those of us who were there. It was evident they were familiar with the work each of us puts out, so to have them acknowledge the relationship we have with the fans was pretty cool. Those of us in the new-school media represent a more direct conduit through which the team can present its brand to the fans. Kenney also spoke of the immediacy with which blogs and social media address questions and needs, lauding blogs for being a part of that.

I’d like to address the Cubs’ brand just a bit more too, if I may. I think it’d be a bit of hubris to say that I’m uniquely qualified to comment on it, but as someone who went from watching the Cubs via antennae on one of the four stations we pulled in to owning a blog devoted to the team to tweeting (constantly) about them, I think it’s true. I think I’m a Gen-X’er, though that buzzword isn’t so much in vogue any longer. In any case, I think those of use who’ve been around the team for a long time tend to think its brand is pretty well set it stone.

Thing is, the image of Cubs many of us grew up with is not the same one the team wants and needs to cultivate moving forward. That’s not to say they’re looking to revamp the whole thing, but rather that they’d like to hybridize that tradition-rich image with a newer, edgier one. Just like having a centruy-old ballpark equipped with multiple state-of-the-art video boards, the Cubs want to make sure they’re appealing to fans of all ages and in all the various media they utilize.

That’s why Saghy’s efforts on the social media front have been so big. It may not seem like a very big deal if you’re not really into the whole Twitter thing, but the transformation that occurred with the Cubs’ account this past season was really something to behold. Fans really felt as though they were interacting with the team itself, which, in a way, they were. Taking part in the online conversations added new depth and dimension to the game-viewing experience, and Saghy and his crew were a huge part of that.

Whew, I’ve rambled a bit long here. While there can be no doubt mine is the definitive version of Tuesday’s meeting, you may still want to read more about it from different perspectives. Al Yellon wrote about it on Bleed Cubbie Blue and Brett Taylor summarized things at Bleacher Nation.

In closing, I’d like to thank you all for your support. I only hope that I can continue to repay you by providing quality content, and perhaps a little more access, moving forward.

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