The team on the field is always going to take precedence, but it’s impossible to separate that from where and how fans consume it. That means Wrigley Field and television, both of which have been big topics of conversation over the past few years. With the completion of the fifth and final phase of the 1060 Project and a new media broadcast deal on the horizon, members of the Cubs’ business operations team sat down to discuss their plans.
Carl Rice, VP of Restoration and Expansion, has overseen the wide-ranging changes and upgrades to the Friendly Confines that should be completed by mid-June or early July. This latest phase has focused largely on the upper deck, adding more amenities like patios, concessions, and bathrooms.
There will also be additions to the outfield corners to wedge in more seating, approximately 220 additional seats on each side. The Cubs are also working on the visiting clubhouse to double the space and put in weight-lifting and training areas, something that has been a bit of a sore spot for opponents to this point. One area that won’t be improved right now is the press box, which will be overhauled in conjunction with the new TV network.
Speaking of which, it’s expected we’ll know the specifics of that deal in the next month or so (30 days was the arbitrary figure thrown out). Crane Kenney, Cubs president of business operations, confirmed that they will be working with a strategic partner but declined to offer details on who exactly that partner will be. The media ecosystem has changed and the situation with the FOX Sports RSNs is still unresolved, then you consider the matter of the Yankees partnering with Amazon to buy the YES Network back.
For the sake of clarity, this next part is my own speculation and was not part of Kenney’s discussion.
Sinclair has been mentioned frequently as the Cubs’ favored partner in a new deal, which is very interesting because the broadcast media giant is also involved in the bidding for the 22 FOX RSNs. Owning hundreds of local television stations gives Sinclair a lot of clout when it comes to extracting large carriage fees from cable providers, but imagine how much juice they’d have with a couple dozen sports networks.
The same could be said for Amazon, which could bring its general ubiquity and expertise in technology and streaming to the party. Of course, that would be mitigated by MLB’s territorial restrictions, something Kenney doesn’t expect to change in the near future. Same goes for local blackout rules, though the expectation is that in-market streaming and ability to watch without a traditional cable subscription will improve with the new deal.
Again, much of this is yet to be determined and we’re still in the speculative realm at this point. But keep your eye on what’s going on with the FOX networks and YES, as those developments could determine the Cubs’ direction.
Shifting back to matters with a bit more clarity, there’s going to be a nice little value-add for season ticket holders who lost access to paper tickets once the Cubs went all digital. The plan is for the team to produce commemorative tickets at the end of the season, allowing them the opportunity to customize the appearance — David Bote for the night of his walk-off grand slam, snowflakes on the comeback against the Braves — and give fans something more permanent than a screenshot of their digital ducat.
This will initially be for season ticket holders only and the games will be proactively chosen and shipped by the team. Kenney conceded that the program could evolve to the point where any fan could purchase commemorative tickets, so I’m crossing my fingers that they’ll cut me in on a portion of those profits.
The Cubs also understand the need for upgrades on their tickets.com service, like the ability for fans to pick specific seats when buying online. That could even mean tickets to a future All-Star game, though the Cubs have thus far been unsuccessful in convincing Commissioner Rob Manfred that they’re suitable hosts.
As for the payroll, Kenney was understandably veiled when it came to specifics, generally repeating the company line we’ve heard repeated by Theo Epstein and Tom Ricketts. While admitting that it’s much more fun for fans to talk about big free agents in January, the Cubs feel they’ve got a really good team.
Kenney noted that 2018 saw a record payroll for the organization, as did the year before. And they will be spending substantially more this year, almost certainly going over at least the first threshold of the competitive balance tax. They get fans’ desire to go even bigger, Kenney said, but the fact is they’ve got one of the highest payrolls in baseball.
That payroll is determined by revenue (where the Cubs are one of the top teams) and ownership freeing up that revenue to the baseball operations side. The Cubs have both a top revenue and top payroll, so it’s not as if they’re just being stingy for the sake of being stingy. And while there might not be huge signings this winter, the roster on opening day is probably not going to be the roster after trade deadline. As Kenney said, “There always has been” room for moves at the deadline and that is still the case.
One of the factors in the Cubs’ revenue is all the development around the ballpark, which falls under the purview of the Ricketts family’s Hickory Street Capital. The new restaurants and Hotel Zachary and so forth are all beneficial both directly and indirectly to the Cubs. Those ventures do produce revenue that can be added to the budget, but they’re still getting off the ground and the impact thus far is reportedly minimal. More obvious to fans is how the additions make for a more exciting overall experience.
Of course, the best way to ensure a great experience is just winning. Whether and how much of that the Cubs are able to do this year is going to depend on some positive regression and good health, but a little financial wiggle room sure helps. And that’s one area in which the Cubs have said they’re very limited, though maybe that changes when things with the RSN are finalized.
Again, much of that is in flux, so just stay tuned over the next few weeks.