When the Ricketts ownership group arrived in Chicago in 2009, they made direct claims about being committed to winning, creating a strong culture, and being successful in business and baseball operations off the field. For a while, they seemed to be having success on all accounts, but since their World Series championship in 2016, the Ricketts can’t seem to decide what they want.
Are the Cubs a big market team? Based on fan commitment, resources, and worldwide reach, the obvious answer is yes. Which makes their recent moves, highlighted by the trade of Yu Darvish, all the more puzzling, and quite frankly, embarrassing. Since 2009 the Cubs ownership has consistently talked about wanting to build a brand, similar to that of the Los Angeles Dodgers. To do so, the Ricketts put money into the team to sign big free agents such as Jon Lester, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and Yu Darvish. Off the field, the Ricketts bought most of the land and property surrounding Wrigley Field, renovated Wrigley Field itself, and even started their own regional network, Marquee. These are the types of things big market teams do, and it is also important to note that it was the Ricketts venture group that bought the land and property around Wrigley and started Marquee Network, not the Cubs itself. That is an important distinction going forward as I break this down. They are separate balance sheets and their own individual entities, even though the Ricketts family and their holdings are what ultimately pay for both.
Since 2016 when the Cubs won the World Series, the Cubs have resembled a small market team far more than a big market one. If you think back on it, on the field, the Cubs have been basically dormant in free agency. They have only signed one position player to a multiyear deal since Jason Heyward in 2015, and that was Daniel Descalso, who was signed to be nothing more than a bench player, and who ultimately didn’t work out. That is insane for a team as big as the Cubs to be that inactive in free agency for the better part of five years. Yes, they did sign a couple pitchers to big deals such as the aforementioned Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, and Craig Kimbrel. Darvish being the only one who worked out as well or better than intentioned, but even so, those were mostly in 2017.
So, it has still been awhile, and the Cubs had such obvious holes in their lineup preventing them from being championship contenders. I know they had a decent amount of money tied up, but the fact of the matter is that teams like the Cubs always look to improve good teams in an attempt to make them great, or compliment a strong core, during a competitive window. The Cubs never did that. The Ricketts consistently “cried poor”, and said that they had so much money tied into Wrigley renovations, property purchases in Wrigleyville, and the Marquee Network, but once those were all established we would see much more money being invested into the team. During this time the Cubs payroll was on the upper end of the league so it is fair to make that point, but at the same time, it is also fair to point out that the Ricketts put the Cubs and it’s fans through a full five year rebuild from 2011-2015 where their payroll was among the lowest in the league. Big market teams don’t usually do that, and it’s also important to note that ticket prices did not reduce during those years, in fact, they increased every single year. The Cubs have had the highest ticket prices in baseball for the better part of the last 15 years. They also led the league in merchandise sales for most of those years as well. So, it’s fair to say that the fans overpaid their fair share for the betterment of the team, right? So why weren’t the Ricketts able to return the favor from 2017-2020?
The simple fact of the matter is that big market teams don’t go through full rebuilds. They shouldn’t have to. The Cubs should not have to. Fans seemed to be on board in 2011 only because it was the great Theo Epstein leading the way, and the team hadn’t won a World Series in over 100 years. Even then, it was a tough sell to agree to go through multiple season where the intention was to lose. Some small market teams don’t go through that long of a rebuild. Now, the trade of Darvish signals that the Cubs want to put their fans through their second rebuild in the last 9 years? That is flat out embarrassing.
Many with inside knowledge of the teams finances, such as tv and radio personality David Kaplan, have pointed out how much debt the Ricketts have in relation to their ventures mentioned above with the renovations, property purchases, and Marquee network start up, but why should the Ricketts poor business handlings effect the team? These are separate entities. The fans did make them purchase all that, or even want it. Last year at the Cubs Convention in Chicago, the announcement of Marquee Network was booed. Tom Ricketts promised the fans that they “won’t be booing next year”, but I can say with complete certainty, that if there was a Cubs Convention this year, Marquee Network would be booed even louder. They have failed to make steady deals with any streaming service, which is what most of people around the country use now, and didn’t even get a deal done with Comcast, the most used cable network in Chicago, until we were a couple days into the season, and remember, the season didn’t start until July this year. Couple that with some obvious on-air struggles, it’s easy to see why the network has struggled so far.
The Ricketts ownership group have had, so far, some struggling business investments, but that should absolutely not affect the Cubs. The pandemic has compounded the negative affects on these investments, but whenever things are able to get back to “normal”, these are all cash cow investments. It’s easy to see that the money will be realized eventually, and they still have time to correct the mistakes of Marquee Network. The Ricketts family, as reported, clearly has a large amount of debt on their balance sheet, but that is their own ventures. Those are not the ventures of the Chicago Cubs. They should not affect the money put into the team. The Ricketts still have more than enough money. The lack of spending by the team has been a widely criticized act over the past 4-5 years, and the Ricketts response was constantly to wait for the renovations to be completed and the Marquee Network to be up and running, and the money will start flowing into the team in abundance. Well here we are, with both ventures up and running, and the team just traded away their best player for a high risk group of teenagers who won’t be seen at Wrigley Field, if they even make it to that level, until 2024 at the very earliest. Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras look to be on the trade block next, and that will assuredly light another fire in the fan base and further grow the disdain for the Rickett’s family. These are not the moves of a big market team that wants to get on the brand level of the Dodgers. The Cubs must decide who they want to be. The back and forth is embarrassing for the club. You can’t just look the part in good times, you must do so in the bad times as well.
Picture Source: Sports Illustrated
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