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Cubs crash back to reality after Wrigley Field fete

Chicago CubsAs the Wrigley Field faithful gathered to celebrate the venue’s 100th anniversary yesterday, it was clear there are still storm clouds gathering on the North Side, with plenty of questions raised about the team’s financial future.

There were a surprising number of empty seats at the Friendly Confines yesterday for the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field: The announced crowd of 32,323 at the 41,159-capacity ballpark was already surprising, but the crowd looked even smaller, with vast swaths of green down each line and in the upper decks. Heck, there were even some open spots in the vaunted bleachers.

A decade ago, a game like this would have been an instant sellout. That was when the Cubs were at their peak, winning games and cramming fannies into every ballpark nook and cranny. But these are not the Cubs of a decade ago. While the Tribune Co. had some deficiencies as an owner, executives there did a great job of fostering interest in the team: you could count on a good crowd even on a cool day in April, and you could count on a competitive team.

But the on-field product is suffering, and the Cubs aren’t an automatic draw: so far this season the team is averaging 30,442 fans a game, playing to 74 percent of capacity. Now, those crowds will improve when the weather warms up, but attendance is definitely on a downward trend: last season was the first time this century that the Cubs weren’t in the top 10 for MLB attendance.

More importantly, the Ricketts family has been tone-deaf when it comes to public relations, and it’s no secret the team is financially strapped. The Cubs entered the season with an $89 million payroll, 23rd highest in Major League Baseball. Annual debt service of $35 million drags down operations. And there’s word the Ricketts are looking to sell equity to finance the planned Wrigley Field improvements, per the Chicago Tribune:

“There’s a lot of different ways to finance the renovations, but one of them we’re considering is bringing in a few outside investors who will be buying Cubs equity, and have them as minority partners and co-investors,” Ricketts said in an interview with the Tribune….

“Most teams have dozens of investors,” Ricketts said. “Our model would be something along the lines of fewer in number but maybe larger in investment.”

Ricketts did not specify a minimum amount the team would be looking for from investors, but said the family would retain full control over the Cubs.

Among those interested in buying a chunk of the team: Warren Buffett.

The issue came up before MLB Commissioner Bud Selig during the Wrigley Field festivities. That the Cubs ownership should be facing financial issues despite stealing the team at $700 million is a crime against the baseball gods: with $266 million in annual revenues and $27.5 million in operating income, the Cubs are one of the most profitable teams in MLB, and the team should see a huge bump in TV rights come 2016. Add to that the potential new revenues from Wrigley Field enhancements, and the future should be sunny. So why was Selig drilled by reporters about the financial future of the team, amid suggestions that the Cubs are fighting the rooftop owners not because of disagreements about the expansion, but because the team can’t afford the improvement? From the Chicago Sun-Times:

Selig also seems happy to have his Wrigley birthday cake and eat it, too — because the city has given the Cubs every major concession on construction plans within its power. And more than one source with knowledge of the Cubs’ side of the rooftop battle calls it a “red herring.”

One internal document obtained by the Sun-Times shows the Cubs have included projected litigation costs into spending plans for the Wrigley project for at least two years.

What’s become clear with every year of delays and baseball budget cuts under this ownership is that the finances are strained, in part by the leveraged purchase terms and in part by steep attendance declines since the family took control — and as evidenced by recent revelations that the Rickettses have interest in taking on minority investors to help pay for renovations.

The Chicago Cubs are a flagship franchise for Major League Baseball, and any financial issues faced by the ownership given the vast amount of cash flowing through team coffers should be a cause for concern. The good feeling engendered by yesterday’s anniversary activities aren’t enough to cover the concern raised by fan about the future of the team.

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