The Chicago Cubs are no longer affiliated with the suburban Chicago Kane County Cougars, announcing yesterday that they are instead headed to South Bend. The franchise there – formerly the Silver Hawks – will be announcing a number of changes next week (including name and logo), I’ll save the “Getting to Know South Bend” post for after those things are revealed. Instead, for today, let’s look at a little more on the decision to leave Kane County after just two years, and what the move will mean for the Cubs and South Bend.
Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein is not tone deaf, and he knows that the move will be difficult for some to understand.
“It’s tough to disappoint those people [in Kane County] and leave, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if we weren’t doing the right thing for our players,” Epstein said, per Cubs.com. “One area we don’t mess around with is player development.” Epstein added that it’s hard not to look like the “bad guy” at times, and, although he wasn’t going to say anything negative about Kane County, the organization felt like this was the right move.
Why exactly, though? After Kane County had promised facilities upgrades per the Cubs’ specifications?
Bruce Miles has a great read on just that, among other things. South Bend is already in the midst of significant facilities upgrades, including locker rooms, weight rooms, offices, batting cages, and a new natural grass surface. The biggy, though, might be a performance and fitness center that Miles describes as a “scaled down” version of the pristine, top-of-the-line fitness center the Cubs just constructed at their Spring Training complex in Mesa, Arizona. The implication is that, whatever Kane County was going to do was not going to match what South Bend had started working on.
(Oh, and Miles hints that the “Silver Hawks” could become, simply, the “Cubs.” Generally, I’m in favor of minor league teams having their own identity just for the fun of it, but I can understand why South Bend might want to be the Cubs for branding and sales purposes.)
The player development contract the two sides signed is for four years – longer than the more typical two-year PDC – which tells me the Cubs are very confident in what South Bend is doing, in terms of its facilities, and maybe that the Cubs had to commit to four years to really get South Bend to commit to doing everything to the nines. For their part, the South Bend franchise – and the folks running the city – are extremely excited to have landed the Cubs.
With vastly improved facilities – that fitness center, in particular, sounds impressive – the only question, then, is the geography. We know that having an affiliate close to Chicago has benefits for players rehabbing, executives and scouts going to see the games, and prospects acclimating to the environment. And, although Geneva (Kane County) is much closer to Chicago as the crow flies, the difference between Geneva and South Bend, in terms of drive time, isn’t quite as pronounced. Depending on traffic, getting to Geneva from Wrigley Field can be an hour to an hour and a half ordeal. Getting to South Bend, again, depending on traffic, is about two hours.
Throw in the fact that South Bend has an airport, whereas getting from O’Hare or Midway to Geneva takes about an hour, and the geographic considerations shift a little bit more.
On the balance, I’m sure Kane County is still the preferable location – but not so much so that it outweighed the player development and facilities considerations.
As for fans, I do feel for hardcore Cubs fans in the western suburbs who had really gotten into the Cougars. The tricky part there, though, is that the Cubs already have a stronghold in fandom out that way (about 50% of baseball fans in the general area are already Cubs fans), so, viewing this from a pure “fan base” standpoint, there could be more to gain by getting more traction in northern Indiana and southern Michigan, where only about 40% of baseball fans identify as Cubs fans. The more fans the Cubs can link into the team, the greater their reach not only for attendance, but also possible TV markets.
I’m not sure that all plays a significant role in the decision, though. When it comes to minor league affiliations and this organization, I think player development considerations really do trump all. It sounds like, to that end, Kane County might have been good. But South Bend projects to be even better.