This week in “Last Week in BizBall”, renovating Wrigley Field, MLB attempts to curb identity fraud amongst Latin American prospects and brief tidbits.
LWIB the new owners of the Chicago Cubs announced the particulars of the initial phase of what are expected to be extensive renovations to historic Wrigley Field. Speculation has long been that the entire Wrigley Field renovation would be completed in 2014, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the ballpark. The anniversary and completion of the renovations have been expected to culminate in the Cubs hosting the All Star Game in 2014. Increasing revenues from Wrigley Field is obviously essential to the Cubs new ownership as they service the debt on their approximately $850 million purchase comprised of the franchise, Wrigley Field and a 25% stake in CSN Chicago. Judged in the broader context of the entirety of the planned Wrigley renovations (aka “the 2014 plan”) some viewed last week’s announcement as relatively minor and a bit disappointing. Some are questioning if the Ricketts family debt burden associated with the purchase of the franchise will prevent them from completing the “2014 plan” within the original timeframe.
Don Muret reported last week in the SportsBusiness Journal that the first major change the Ricketts family will make to Wrigley Field is the introduction of a high end, all-inclusive “Executive Club” that will accommodate 71 season-ticket holders. The packages will sell for $24,300 per seat. Mr. Muret points out that this type of seating is part of a larger trend in high end stadium seating. Businesses are less inclined to lease entire suites and franchises across the “big 4” are reacting by introducing larger high end spaces which are “shared” by diverse groups of ticket holders .
The “Executive Club” (the Cubs are expected to announce a naming-rights partner for the space) wasn’t the only news LWIB surrounding plans to generate more revenues from Wrigley Field in 2010. Paul Sullivan reported for the Chicago Tribune on the Cubs plans for presently unused space under the right field bleachers:
The Cubs are following the lead of the Red Sox, opening up the space underneath the right-field bleachers for corporate pregame events and for bleacher fans who may want to come down during the game to watch the action on flat-screen TVs.
A pane of one-way glass will separate fans from the right-field batting cage, allowing them to watch batting practice in the area.
A few years ago, the Red Sox added TVs and food stands to the unused area underneath the right-field bleachers at Fenway Park, and it proved to be a big success.
LWIB, Ed Sherman blogged for Crain’s Chicago Business that the new owners are still considering the previously floated idea of erecting advertising signage in the left field bleachers. As Mr. Sherman points out, increasing revenues at the ballpark while not alienating the Wrigley faithful is a fine line that the new owners will continually walk as the process of renovating the ballpark plays out:
The Cubs say any proposed signs wouldn't conflict with their agreements with rooftop owners. The signs, though, would block out TV camera angles that show an ad for Horseshoe Casino in a building across the street. The Cubs aren't happy with that ad.
However, the first signs to appear in the bleachers definitely would cause quite a reaction. I told Mr. Hayward I (and I suspect many others) think they would change the look of the ballpark. (Note: Hayward is Wally Hawyard, the Cubs senior marketing executive)
It'll be fascinating to watch the new owners and their dance between maximizing revenue opportunities and maintaining the tradition and charm of their new playground. Stay tuned for their decision on this one.
Media reports LWIB pegged the cost of the initial round of Wrigley Field renovations in the range of $10 million. However the timeline of the much more ambitious and expensive “2014 plan” ( cost estimates range from $200 - $250 million) featuring the construction of the “Triangle Building”, appears less clear. Last month, Cubs president Crane Kenney reaffirmed the Ricketts family’s commitment to the 2014 plan during an address at the “Cubs Convention“. More recently, some pundits have mused that the Cubs new ownership will be less active in the near future than originally envisioned. LWIB, Ballpark Digest reported that, “New Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts and crew are bypassing the ambitious Wrigley 2014 renovation plan for now and will instead work on a series of cosmetic changes to Wrigley Field costing far less….” Earlier this month, Mike Ozanian of Forbes reported that MLB bent their rules governing acceptable debt levels to facilitate the sale of the Cubs to the Ricketts family. According to Mr. Ozanian, “…Major League Baseball winked at some $200 million the Ricketts family loaned the team for working capital and ballpark improvements.” Mr. Ozanian went on to express concern over the amount of debt the new owners must service and if it is already restricting management’s options in operating the franchise. Speculation around the Ricketts family’s ability to complete the “2014 plan” on schedule is not new. Last summer Fran Spielman wrote about the prospects for the “2014 plan” for the Chicago Sun-Times:
Known as Wrigley 2014, the plan calls for new concourses, washrooms, concessions, skyboxes and a club seating lounge.
Adjacent to the ballpark, the team would finally develop the so-called triangle building and turn the street in between into a Fenway Park-style pedestrian promenade bustling with shops and restaurants.
The five-story triangle building promised to Wrigleyville residents in exchange for a bleacher expansion was supposed to house a 400-space garage, upscale restaurants, retail stores and rooftop garden and below-ground batting cages, pitching mounds and player workout facilities.
The $100 million building has since been redesigned to include more retail and office space at the expense of parking, with a stadium club replacing the rooftop garden. A smaller garage could be built on less valuable land away from Wrigley.
But after paying nearly $900 million for the Cubs and struggling to secure debt in a worldwide credit crunch, how extensive of a renovation would the Ricketts family be able to afford or be willing to bankroll?
There has been no renewed public discussion amongst Chicago pols of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority investing in Wrigley Field since the departure of the disgraced Rod Blagojevich but that has not quelled the speculation. In reporting on the then pending sale of the Cubs, Josh Peters wrote for Yahoo! Sports in September:
Taxpayers kicked in $400 million for the Chicago Bears’ revamped stadium that re-opened in 2003, and the new Cubs owner could seek public help for a vast renovation that those involved in the deal say would cost between $200 million and $400 million.
Nobody is claiming that the “2014 plan” is dead or that the Ricketts family ownership of the Cubs is destined to fail. However the events of last week might indicate that “2014” is off to an inauspicious start.
SELECT READ MORE TO SEE DETAILS ON MLB'S ATTEMPTS TO CURB IDENTITY FRAUD IN LATIN AMERICA AND OTHER TIDBITS
MLB ATTEMPTS TO CURB IDENTITY FRAUD IN LATIN AMERICA
This off season Baseball America ranked OF Jose Tabata as the #2 prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system. According to BA, “He has the potential to be an all-star right fielder if his power develops.” BA lists Tabata’s birth date as August 1988. LWIB brought reports that Tabata might in fact be in his mid 20’s. Rob Neyer wrote for ESPN about the problem this poses for the Pirates:
According to his passport, Tabata turned 21 last August. At the time, he was playing for Triple-A Indianapolis. He wasn't playing particularly well, but well enough for a newly minted 21-year-old. If he turned 23 or 24, though? Well then he's just another prospect who might or might not wind up with an everyday job someday.
The uncertainty around the Venezuela native’s age is only one recent example of the difficulty that MLB scouting departments confront in accurately verifying the identities and ages of prospects in Latin America. As an increasing number of professional baseball players are recruited from Latin America (principally the Dominican Republic) and clubs increase spending on both signing bonuses and training academies, there is greater emphasis on limiting age/identity fraud. LWIB Michael S. Schmidt reported for the New York Times that MLB hopes to start fingerprinting Dominican boys “perhaps as young as 11 or 12” as part of their efforts to curb age/identity fraud:
Major League Baseball is studying a series of initiatives, including the fingerprinting of youths under the age of 16, as it attempts to gain control of the age and identity problems it has encountered in signing players in the Dominican Republic, according to several people with knowledge of the situation.
Those same people said Major League Baseball also planned to establish its own youth baseball leagues in the Dominican Republic to serve as an alternative to the current unregulated system for young players that is dominated by talent-finders known as buscones.
Last year MLB made investigations of the ages/identities of unsigned Latin prospects the responsibility of their department of investigations. The department is a branch of the commissioners office and was formed after the Mitchell Report recommended that such a unit would be beneficial in policing steroid use in MLB. Last July, Ben Badler reported for Baseball America on the unit’s efforts to accurately verify the ages and identities of Latin American prospects:
Several international scouting directors concede that while MLB's investigations have been flawed in the past, part of the problem has to do with the countries in Latin America themselves. Identifying papers in the Dominican Republic are not warehoused and authenticated as well as they are in the United States. While record-keeping in Venezuela is more modernized, the government there isn't quite as welcoming to foreign investigators.
"Part of the problem there is you can review school records and birth records, but when a player produces those things, it's not like producing a birth certificate and school records here," Mullin said. (Note: Dan Mullin is MLB senior vice president of investigations) "They're not certified, they're not notarized—you really can't accept them at face value. What we've found is in a lot of cases, those things are forged. We've had cases where the cover-up has been so elaborate that you'll have forged birth documents, you'll have school records that are altered, hospital records that are altered, so really it takes a lot of field work. It takes someone to go to the hospital, to go to the schools, interview teachers, interview people in neighborhoods. It's a lot more than just accepting documents and reviewing documents: it's more work-intensive."
The tricks in Latin America range from basic Wite-Out over identifying documents to more sophisticated schemes, often orchestrated by a player's trainer and occasionally in conjunction with a team's scouts or higher-level officials looking for a cut of the player's signing bonus, several international sources have said over several months of reporting.
"We've had cases where players have changed their names, assumed the identity of someone else who is younger," Mullin said. "They have people play the roles of their parents, so you have a player who has assumed a different identity, has fictitious parents, fictitious relatives and in some cases has been living in the village for as long as two years so the people know them as that name when in fact they're someone older from a different village. So some things we do in a case like that, we selectively do DNA tests, and a DNA test will just tell us if the people that purport to be a player's parents are in fact his parents." (Note: the aforementioned NY Times piece reports that MLB has since discontinued DNA testing of prospects)
Whether or not it is legal for MLB to fingerprint children in the Dominican Republic remains to be seen. (The ethics of this practice we’ll leave aside) But the NY Times report is only the most recent indication that reforming player recruitment in Latin America (de facto the Dominican Republic) is a priority for MLB. Assuming that MLB reaches agreement with the Dominican government on introducing the amateur draft to their country, (the MLBPA appears amenable to the expansion of the amateur draft) the end of the “buscone” era appears imminent. Some argue that MLB will come to regret dismantling this system and that expanding the geographic boundaries of the amateur draft will result in fewer players produced in Latin America. These critics point to the diminished number of players recruited from Puerto Rico since the draft was introduced there in1989. Bonus skimming, age fraud, steroids, warts and all, these same people argue that the “buscone” system produces players more efficiently than the US model. (Setting aside the record bonuses for the likes of Miguel Sano and Michael Ynoa, most international free agents sign for relatively paltry amounts)
In fairness to MLB, they are in a difficult situation. It is unfair and unproductive that clubs make important investments in players whose backgrounds they know little to nothing about. Whether some combination of MLB supported youth leagues, academies, fingerprinting, investigating, bone grafting and drafting will result in a more productive, efficient and safer system of Latin player development won’t be known for many years.
- MLBAM President & CEO Bob Bowman filed papers allowing him to raise and spend money while he considers a run for Michigan’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination (EDITOR'S NOTE: As of Monday, Bowman had decided not to run). There were countless news reports, see Google News and choose your own.
- NY Times Co. president and CEO Janet Robinson reiterated her company’s plans to sell their 17.5% stake in the Boston Red Sox. From Boston.com:
“We continue to explore the possible sale of our interest in New England Sports Ventures,” Robinson said during a conference call about fourth quarter and end-of-the-year earnings. “The process is complicated and is taking longer than we anticipated."
Robinson said she is optimistic about a reaching a deal to sell the company's stake in the team, but added that, "It is more complicated, as you can well imagine, there's a lot of due diligence with prospective buyers that needs to be done. It is a multifaceted buy because it's not just the Red Sox ball club, it's also Fenway Park and real estate holdings and NESN, and certainly Major League Baseball plays a part in this as well and so it is quite complex. But we are certainly moving ahead in regard to selling this part of our portfolio."
- The Biz of Baseball reported that ESPN is rebranding its broadband channel. Come April 4 ESPN360.com will be known as ESPN3. The launch of ESPN3 will feature the Red Sox/Yankees opener. See the WSJ and Broadcasting and Cable reports.
- Assuming he is healthy, Roy Halladay should return to Toronto for a weekend Phillies/Jays series beginning June 25. Toronto will host the G20 summit that same weekend and last week Jays president Paul Beeston conceded that one of the baseball games might have to be rescheduled as a result. See here.
Pete Toms is an author for the Business of Sports Network, most notably, The Biz of Baseball. He looks forward to your comments and can be contacted through The Biz of Baseball.
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