Our old pal Alvin Yellon got another crack at interviewing Tom Ricketts (remember his previous disaster?), and it seems only fitting to take the time to take it down. So let’s get to it.
MESA, Arizona — Cubs 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).
Nobody reads you for the weather report, Al. Actually, I don’t know why anybody reads you at all.
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.
Bloggers-plural? Why would they need anybody but Al? Did he bring his girlfriend with so she could eat cold cuts in the back of the room like she does at Cubs press conferences? Did Al get there six hours before the other bloggers so he could claim the worst seat in the suite? Was Bleacher Nation there or was Brett trading hilarious barbs with the Rockies Twitter account?
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.
Nice that Al made sure to ask him the same shit he’d just talked about. Quality interviewing.
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.
“Quite a few questions,” I can only imagine. You just know Al asked him, “Who owns the network?” 27 times.
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.”
Why is “equity partners” in quotes? I can only imagine Tom made airquotes when he said it. Much like he did when he said [airquotes]”Nice to see you again, Al”[closed airquotes.]
“If the network makes a profit,” is really reassuring, isn’t it? The Cubs have based their entire financial future on this one move and now they’re not even willing to commit to it being profitable. Things are going great.
And it’s typical Al that he wants to know how many seats each will get on the board. Like we don’t know. The Cubs will have seats for Crane Kenney, Tom Ricketts, Todd Ricketts, Clark the Cub, Dave Kaplan, Ronnie Woo Woo and Jim Belushi and Sinclair will have seats for everybody who resigns from the Trump White House over the next 10 months. So, like 1,000.
“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.
The Cubs continued faith in Crane Kenney is astounding. He botched the TV and radio deals when he worked for the Tribune, and they just let him keep doing it. Now he can ruin the day-to-day operations of the network. And, nice of Julian to get a chance to say something other than, “OK, just one more question!”
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.
The Cubs should welcome these non-sensical questions about political content being aired on the network, because it distracts from the real issue. The network will result in revenue that Sinclair can use to continue to add to its collection of local network affiliates where they force their news employees to regurgitate their whacked out right wing conspiracy theories.
I have found, over the years, that Tom Ricketts is a man of his word.
Tom got the coveted Al endorsement. Nothing is more valuable. This and two dollars will get you a week’s worth of pressed meat at the 7-11 of your choice.
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.
I can guarantee you that it won’t. It’s to have hours and hours of awful infomercials because 24 hours is way too much time to program with Cubs content, no matter how many times you replay the nightly “Ryan Dempster Pseudo-Celebrity Chuckle Fest.”
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.”
Look, we all know that lots of Cubs fans are dumb, but is it really that hard to figure out what channel a game is on? And if that’s the “largest single complaint” that Tom has been getting, let me tell you, that’s about to change. Between playing the domestic abuser at shortstop and refusing to add payroll to a team that is supposed to right in the middle of its window of contending for championships, I don’t think what channel Tuesday’s game is on, is going to make the list. That doesn’t even factor in Papa Joe’s racist e-mail corner.
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.
The Cubs botching the distribution of this new channel isn’t an issue, it’s a guarantee. Even Al knows to be worried about it. There were a dozen possible ways the Cubs could have gone to avoid a distribution rights catastrophe and they passed them all up. The easiest and best solution would have been to use their clout at NBC Sports Net, where they were the cash cow, to renegotiate the deal so that they got a majority revenue stake and then just take over the plus channel 24 hours a day. It’s already distributed. Hell, if they pushed hard enough, they might have been able to kick everybody else over to that channel. The Bulls, Sox and Blackhawks combined aren’t as popular as the Cubs are. They can all brag that they get a bigger share without the Cubs around, but that channel is massively less valuable than it is with the Cubs on it. The Cubs were so hell bent on owning their own network that they ignored the reality that RSNs are declining in value (ask Disney how selling all of theirs is going) and lept blindly into a shrinking market instead of using the clout they had to maximize their profits at a known entity. If you don’t think the potential for this network being a complete flop is the main reason the team froze payroll, you are nuts. And, if it goes as badly as it could, next season will be fun when instead of not adding payroll, they start trading guys to cut payroll.
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.
SPOILER ALERT: It won’t.
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.”
I know that Cubs Productions is good at creating short videos, but the task of filling hours every day with this stuff is a million times harder. Some of it will be great, a lot of it is going to be boring as fuck. Get ready to watch, “Cubography: Steve Buchele” nine times a week.
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.”
“I’m not going to promise extra dollars for player payroll…” For years he claimed the family wasn’t worried about making a profit off the team and that revenues would be poured back into the team, and nobody with any brains should have ever believed him. At least now he’s stopped even trying to make that absurd claim.
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 mean, this is pure bullshit, Of course the luxury tax determines the payroll, how could it not. Ricketts has been spouting nonsense about “not spending the same dollars twice” for weeks now, and that’s exactly what the ill-named competitive balance tax does. It requires you to spend the same dollars twice. The tax, and the reality that the TV deal isn’t going to be remotely as profitable as they once hoped is the reason the Cubs have frozen payroll and it’s the reason they will cut it sooner than later. I’ve got news for you, we all better hope they win the pennant this year, because things are going to get really shitty really soon.
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.”
And, there you have it. Even Al wasn’t too obtuse to get to this point with Ricketts. After saying the tax doesn’t impact the payroll he says that it does and he trots out that ludicrous “can’t spend the same dollar twice” nonsense.
Then Al gets to Tom’s pathetic “we don’t have any more” money quote from his spring training press conference and he punctuates it with a Tweet from baseball dummy Bob Nightengale.
Al then goes on to say that he has looked at the Cubs projected payroll and he knew all along that the Cubs couldn’t afford Bryce Harper and how Al would know what the payroll projection really was is asinine, so let’s just skip all this and get to another big point where Tom refused to say what we all know what he meant.
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.”
The Ricketts want to keep as much ancillary revenue as possible out of their revenue sharing calculation, and I can’t blame them for that. Somehow, the Cardinals have managed to keep the money their jorts kiosks generate out of that calculation for years1 So, it would be foolish for Ricketts to brag about how much revenue they are generating out of the hotel and all that other development just outside the park. Should they find a way to funnel that back into the payroll? Yeah. Will they? I think we know the answer to that.
The session moved on to the topic of the Joe Ricketts e-mails 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.
This is the part where Tom’s in a no-win situation. The shit in those e-mails is horrendous and it paints a picture that dad is a racist and an Islamophobe, but he’s still Tom’s dad, and he’s trying to thread a very small needle of admitting they are offensive without saying mean things about his dad. I don’t envy him. Lots of bad things have and should be said about Joe Ricketts, I don’t think they have to necessarily come from his son.
But, I will not even pretend to believe Tom when he says that his dad has no financial stake in the team. That’s beyond belief. The kids used dad’s money to buy the team and would not own the team without it. To insist that Joe doesn’t gain from the investment is ludicrous.
Then, Tom was asked about Addison Russell and among other things, he said this:
“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.”
That’s all well and good, but the Cubs should have launched Russell last fall. You can make the decision on two fronts. The less important is that his regression as a player has really hurt the team the last two years. He was a very important part of the championship team, and yes, his play was uneven (great first half in 2016, bad second half, and then good and bad stretches within each playoff round), but they needed him to continue to ascend the last two years and he didn’t. More importantly, his continued regression as a human should have disqualified him from keeping his high-paid baseball player job with the team. The Cubs pride themselves on the charitable work they do and it’s laudable, but they undermine it with the shifting morals they have exercised when it comes to player behavior they have tolerated the last few seasons.
And then, with little time to spare, Al got to the really important thing. Why are the Cubs so cheap when it comes to the number items they give fans when they have giveaway days?
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.
Al uses his season ticket holder status to get in line hours before any game, regardless of whether they are giving away a bobblehead or not, so clearly he really doesn’t care about this. But he is right, the fact that the Cubs only give away 10,000 of anything is bullshit. They can blame it on the sponsor, which is also bullshit, but it really comes down to one thing, They’re cheap. It’s cheaper to give out 10,000 boobbleheads than it is to give out 30,000 of them, so that’s what they do. They can claim it allows them to provide giveaways of higher quality, but that simply bolsters the argument that they’re cheap.
It all comes back to the overall theme of this interview and every interview Tom Ricketts has given lately. They won a World Series, they fixed up Wrigley without (mostly) ruining it and now they want to make as much money as possible. Payroll’s not going up, they’re not paying tax if they can help it, they’re not giving away 20,000 more of anything when the same number of tickets will be sold regardless. They’re keeping their wife-beating shortstop because it’s cheaper than releasing him and signing somebody else. They are going to own their own TV network because keeping 100 percent of less money is more desirable to them than 40 percent of more money and if you can’t watch the games, well, tough shit, you can always move to another city with a cable provider who did pick up their new network funded partially by money from a broadcast conglomerate who forces their local newscasts to run pieces with indefensible claims in them.