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Cubs' new company line cause for concern

5/8/2014
AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato

General manager Jed Hoyer didn't exactly assuage the frayed nerves of Chicago Cubs fans with his radio appearance on ESPN Chicago 1000's "Waddle & Silvy Show" on Tuesday.

Speaking before the second game of the lightly regarded crosstown series with the Chicago White Sox, Hoyer called it "an oversimplification" when host Tom Waddle asked whether the baseball front office hasn't gotten resources it was promised when it was brought in before the 2012 season. But he also blamed low ticket revenues for a small-market Opening Day payroll of around $75 million (not including money paid to the Yankees in the Alfonso Soriano trade).

"Certainly, part of our payroll going down a little bit is right now our ticket revenue isn't where it has been," Hoyer said. "And we're largely responsible for that. Because we're not filling the crowd with 3-plus million, because we're not winning as much. So some of that is based on ticket revenue and some of it is based on renovations and things like that have been much slower than anticipated. We're going to have all the revenues we need to be really good for a long time. It's not something we're concerned about."

The Cubs still draw better than most teams, but Hoyer admitting that the annual declines in attendance are hurting his budget was an eye opener. It's a Catch-22 for a rebuilding big-market team.

So if you're mad that the Cubs stink again, blame chairman Tom Ricketts. You can shake your head at Edwin Jackson's contract, but it's clear that president Theo Epstein and Hoyer just haven't gotten the money to field a legitimate team in the third year of a big-market rebuild.

It's not just a matter of spending, though. Hoyer said there are "strategic" reasons the Cubs haven't spent. They've been outbid on international free agents and sidetracked by changes in the labor agreement that nullified the advantage of acquiring future free agents. The market for free agents has thinned considerably with teams opting to extend players earlier and earlier.

Ricketts' new company line is that the baseball budget will go up when the business side improves, meaning the stalled renovations, which include a video board, and the much-anticipated cable deal. Part of their TV deal comes up after this season, while the rest goes through the 2019 season. Asked if the Cubs could start spending TV money this offseason, Ricketts wasn't sure.

"We'll see," Ricketts said at the home opener. "We'll know more about what our media-rights options are as the year goes forward. So I'm not really sure."

While Epstein and Hoyer were brought in to rebuild the Cubs organization, focusing on the minor leagues, one of their early talking points was a "parallel front" approach.

Take this quote from Epstein's introduction as Cubs president:

"I didn't use the word 'rebuilding,' and I wouldn't. I think that is just a buzzword in baseball that leads people down the wrong path," Epstein said. "The best way I can describe it is there are parallel fronts -- the job of building the scouting and player-development foundation that is going to serve well for the long haul and treating every opportunity to win as sacred."

Instead, we've seen a total teardown that resulted in a club-record 197 losses over the previous two seasons. Expect the Cubs (11-20), who have the fewest wins in the National League, to flirt with 100 losses again this season, especially if they trade Jeff Samardzija.

Rebuilding was the way to go, and Epstein forewarned that this would be a painful process. One positive to the losing is the Cubs are getting better draft picks necessary for a rebuild. They drafted power hitter Kris Bryant with the No. 2 pick last year and will pick fourth in this year's amateur draft. Another top-five pick is on the horizon.

But fans are rightly getting impatient, or maybe just annoyed, with the poor product at the major league level. And they're not showing up, which leads to a cheaper product.

I know a slew of season-ticket holders who are angry at their wasted investment and that the Cubs have even made it more difficult for them to unload their tickets on StubHub.

The Cubs have found it difficult to market the team, which is full of roster fillers and trade bait, and they've found that fans are voicing their displeasure with no-shows.

Last year, the Cubs drew 2,642,682 in paid attendance, their worst total since 2,623,194 in 1998. Of course, that doesn't include thousands of no-shows a game.

After 18 home games, the Cubs are averaging 31,216 fans, which is down about 600 fans from this point last season. The Cubs have drawn fewer than 30,000 fans seven times. Their high-water mark was 38,283 for the home opener, and the low was 25,502 on Thursday, April 10.

In 2010, the first year of the Ricketts family ownership, the Cubs drew 3,062,973 fans. In April 2010, the Cubs drew 41,406 for the home opener, and their worst-attended game was 36,660.

So the Cubs drew about 400,000 fewer fans last season, compared to 2010, while ticket prices have stayed nearly flat.

Including the "premium" seats in the lower bowl, the Cubs average ticket price is around $50, although there are probably more unsold tickets rather than unused ones in the upper deck.

I've heard from know-it-all fans that attendance is overrated, given the big money in TV. That's not quite true, though.

Just ask Hoyer.