Tom Ricketts Speaks: Payroll and the Luxury Tax, Avoiding the Boom-and-Bust, Why Swanson, Extensions, Marquee, Sportsbook, More

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Tom Ricketts Speaks: Payroll and the Luxury Tax, Avoiding the Boom-and-Bust, Why Swanson, Extensions, Marquee, Sportsbook, More

Chicago Cubs

Chicago Cubs owner and chairman Tom Ricketts does not speak with the media too often about the team, generally deferring those conversations to his presidents of business and baseball operations, Crane Kenney and Jed Hoyer, respectively.

So, when he makes the rounds at Spring Training, it’s worth cataloguing whatever Ricketts had to say. You can read about that here, here, here, here, here, and here, among other places, and I’ll summarize some of the high points below (with thoughts of my own).

Adding More to Payroll and Exceeding the Luxury Tax

I know this is where everyone’s greatest concerns and questions lie when it comes to an organization’s ownership. The Cubs are no different, so I want to hear everything Ricketts says about payroll and the luxury tax and overall spending. You can’t just take it all at face value, but it’s better to have this context than nothing at all. It can create baselines of expectation and, at some minuscule level, accountability down the road.

The latest comments from Ricketts feel like a good news, bad news situation. On the one hand, he’s not ruling out going over the luxury tax, even as soon as this year if the Cubs are in it at the deadline and need to add (the Cubs are currently around $8 million below the first luxury tax tier, give or take a few bucks). On the other hand, it’s not like Ricketts is going to promise a top-five payroll every year, no matter what we think of the Cubs’ market size or its revenues.

“If we see an opportunity or it’s the right time to go over for a year or two, we’ll have the ability to do that,” Ricketts said. “But we’ll manage (the luxury) year-to-year. I’m not going to promise top five or anything like that, but we will definitely put the resources we have on the field.”

I think the implications there are, (1) the Cubs don’t want to go over the luxury tax three years in a row (which was true under the last CBA, too, because the taxes escalated AND your revenue-sharing refund dropped – still unclear what’s what on that front in the new CBA); and (2) Ricketts is standing by his previous comments that whatever comes into the organization, after expenses, goes to baseball operations to spend as they see fit.

That second one remains fine in principle. But I think we saw this offseason that, with the length of some of these deals now, you could actually put your front office in a little bit of a competitive disadvantage, since they can’t know for sure what revenues are going to be in 7, 8 years. Just sayin’.

The Preference for Dansby Swanson

I’m sure some of that stuff factored into why the Cubs wound up going most aggressively after Swanson rather than the other shortstops who signed for much longer terms (well, Carlos Correa wound up shorter, but only after failing two physicals).

That is to say, even as Ricketts mentioned that he knows teams have to make a calculus about the value they’re going to get from a guy in the front half of his monster deal (more) versus the value they’re going to get in the second half (much less), he also seems to be hoping that Swanson is still providing meaningful value by the end of his deal:

“Jed had conversations with a handful of the different shortstops,” Ricketts said. “But with Dansby, in addition to his great makeup — a great teammate and someone that everyone, to a man, says he’s a good guy to have on your squad — we looked at him as someone who is a great defender and a pretty good offensive player, but likely to stay at shortstop for as long as the contract.

“Whereas, there were some other guys where you weren’t certain that [staying at shortstop long-term] was the case. So he was the best fit for us all along and, really, the player that Jed wanted the most in this offseason. And we’re very fortunate that it worked out.”

Competing in the NL Central This Year

Ricketts praised the offseason work by the front office, and summed it up this way: “I mean, just look at everything (manager David Ross) has to work with this year, compared to last year, in Year 4.”

Certainly, I bet Ross would agree that he has far more optionality – usable talent – than he did in spring training last year. Whether it’s enough to compete is more of the question, though.

“This is a team that should compete for the division,” Ricketts said plainly. That should be the expectation. Not mere improvement. Not merely looking like some young guys are on the horizon. Actually competing in the Central.

So Was It a Rebuild After All?

I am necessarily extrapolating here, because I don’t know that Ricketts will ever regularly use the word “rebuild” again, just like Hoyer won’t. But I feel like Ricketts gave the best answer yet on how and why the last few years sure have felt like a rebuild, even if by another name:

“It was a goal that we laid out a few years ago — try to be more consistent,” Ricketts said. “The boom-and-bust cycle that has been with so many clubs in baseball, we want to kind of get out of that, out of that routine. It didn’t work out, coming out of the great teams we had in ’16, ’17, ’18. It just didn’t work out to be able to make the personnel moves that could maintain a more consistent winner on the field.

“So we had to adapt to that situation, and I think Jed did a great job with that. Going forward, we’d very much like to be a team that’s known for the consistency of competing for the division every year. And ultimately, that’s how we’re going to get back to the World Series, is just make the playoffs as many times as you can.”

I read that as Ricketts saying they did not want to rebuild after 2018/19, and it wasn’t in the plans to go boom-bust-boom again. But he hints that circumstances led to a pivot, and then, yeah, it became a rebuild again. Blame it on the pandemic, on the lack of early extensions, on the EXTREME lack of pitching development, on some players stagnating, on overall complacency (and I would add a pretty terrible stretch in international free agency, relative to peers), whatever. That was how the Cubs saw the lay of the land back in late 2020, so another rebuild began.

Player Extensions

Not much to get into here, as Ricketts said that it’s ultimately up to Jed Hoyer. Ricketts did say that there are “a couple” guys that it’d be great to extend, not only because they’re good players but also because they’re great people to have around in the clubhouse. (Fair, I think, to speculate he’s talking about the two guys who’ve been most discussed this offseason, Ian Happ and Nico Hoerner.)

Marquee Operations and Direct-to-Consumer Streaming

Ricketts confirmed that what is happening with the Diamond Holdings (possible) bankruptcy and the Bally RSNs does not directly impact Marquee (which is co-owned by the Cubs and Sinclair, which is Diamond’s parent). But at a league-wide level, of course Ricketts is interested to see how things play out and concerned about the health of RSNs generally.

As for a direct-to-consumer streaming option (i.e., in-market folks can just pay to get a Marquee app to stream Cubs games, no satellite or cable provider required), it may not be available for Opening Day as we’d heard was previously the hope.

“The most important thing with our direct-to-consumer, we just want to do it right the first time,” Ricketts said. “We want to make sure when we do have it out there it’s of good value to the fans. We realize that the way people consume the game is changing and we want to make sure we accommodate that. But it’s kind of like a measure twice and cut once thing for us. We want to make sure we do it right. That may mean it’s not 100 percent ready to go Opening Day, but we’ll see where it goes.”

One of the biggest challenges is going to be the pricing. You want to make sure the monthly ask is low enough that you can get a lot of subscribers, but you have to make sure the monthly ask is HIGH enough that cable providers don’t decide they no longer want to pay big carriage fees, since you just helped a buncha their customers cut the cord.

Sponsorship Patches on Cubs Jerseys

Teams are now permitted to have a jersey sponsor, but the Cubs do not yet have a deal lined up. They’ve had conversations, Ricketts said, but the right sponsor has to come along at the right time.

My guess is the Cubs want the highest price possible, yes, but they would also probably love to coordinate the sponsor patch with OTHER sponsorship opportunities at Wrigley, on Marquee, etc. Sell a big ‘ole package deal.

It also, of course, better look decent …

No Sportsbook for Opening Day

There is no hard date set for the opening of the new DraftKings Sportsbook at the southeast corner of Wrigley Field, but Ricketts said it could be maybe late-spring, early-summer. Not Opening Day.

Ricketts also mentioned that the Cubs don’t get anything from the actual betting that will take place at the book – it’s really just about the sponsorship revenue, which is reportedly $10 million annually for the next decade. More for baseball operations, right?

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Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.