Wittenmyer: Cubs among trendsetters in openly bilking sports fans

Wittenmyer: Cubs help create ugly new normal in pro sports originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein finally did it.

More accurately, Tom Ricketts and Rob Manfred did it. Along with the McCaskeys and the NFL. And most owners in every major professional league in America.

They’ve finally closed the deal on the bill of goods they’ve been peddling to American sports fans for years.

Tanking? Not terrible. Multiyear rebuilding for markets of all sizes? Sure. Everybody does it.

Winning? Not required.

Trying to win? Also not required, at least not every year. Not if you’re smart.

Not if you’re articulate enough, talk fast enough, and sell the message well enough to sell enough tickets to some of the people some of the time.

If you don’t believe this is where we’ve landed as consumers of big-league pro sports in this nation, rewind to the morning radio sports talk shows Monday, when the overriding theme at both ends of the dial was the utter acceptance of what should have been a gut-wrenching loss for the Bears — because the young quarterback looked better. And, dammit, we all know how important that is to the vision of creating the next Aaron Rodgers Packers, Russell Wilson Seahawks, Brett Favre Packers, Peyton Manning Colts or Dan Marino Dolphins.

OK, maybe not the Marino Dolphins.

And never mind that none of those other guys won multiple Super Bowls with those teams (Manning won a second with the Broncos).

Also never mind that the pot of gold promised at the end of these rainbow and lollipop dreams being sold to paying customers is anything but assured.

This new normal in the age of post-Moneyball, smart-guy front offices is the antithesis of professional sports, the selling of it to the masses the ultimate disinformation campaign — the primary part of the disinformation being that it’s necessary and that if you don’t get it you’re somehow not smart enough.

The bigger the market, the more egregious that process, the bigger that lie, the lazier the methodology.

The fact that this age of ultra quantification of everything from in-game trends to player markets has largely created this new world order of tolerating — often encouraging — trading bad seasons now for the promise of good later does not excuse it.

It doesn’t make it any more appetizing for fan bases like those in Chicago that deserve much more for the top dollars they spend — maybe none more than Cubs fans, who have endured this twice now in a decade.

Other upper-tier revenue teams in baseball, in New York and Los Angeles (and even Boston), give a much higher return — and year-to-year competitive effort — to their fans.

The fact that this new normal is driven from the top down as part of salary-containment efforts that prioritize investment in ballpark villages over starting nines — and the slick messaging that says the new revenues will eventually pay for better teams in salary-capped leagues — only makes it worse.

And that brings us to Wrigley Field, where Hoyer, the team president, settled in to an hourlong end-of-season media conference, roughly a half-hour after those early sports-radio head-shakers handed off to the day’s next shows — and promptly delivered yet another master’s-level course in public messaging that was characteristically long on hope and optimism while short on specifics.

To wit:

“We absolutely want to compete next year,” Hoyer said. “We also want to build something really special for the fans. We want to build something stable, something lasting. And that’s the lens that we’re going to view our transactions this winter.”

Maybe that means they’ll try to sign one of the big-name shortstops on the market. It probably doesn’t mean a dive into the deep end of the free agent pitching market.

What it certainly represents is a version of the same message he delivered this time last year, before another losing, third-place season (also the same message as the year before).

The Cubs showed promise in several areas this season and finished the season stronger than they started. They have a handful of promising young players who broke in, and last year’s big free agents — Marcus Stroman and Seiya Suzuki — look a year later like good signings.

With profits back up — industry revenues are back over $10 billion after weathering a pandemic dip — that should dictate a robust, big-market response to this free agent market by the Cubs and a significant push to chase down the Cardinals and Brewers next year.

It should make this a crossroads offseason for Hoyer’s rebuild.

But that’s not how the business of baseball works these days. Certainly not in Chicago.

Because as we all know by now, you “can’t buy a championship,” you have to “spend intelligently,” and “it’s important to keep one eye on the future” to “build something stable and lasting,” even though “we absolutely want to compete next year” and you wouldn’t believe “how much it hurts” not being in the playoffs this year.

As Hoyer said Monday, “You can get caught up in our game in transactions that feel really good in the short term and don’t make long-term sense. Those are the ones we’ll avoid.”

Easy for him to say.

No, really. It’s easy for him and others in his position to say.

Because as long as ownership is on board with careful, prudent, incremental spending that assures avoiding long-term risk, you’ll never have to make a truly tough risk-rewards decision.

Because nobody’s saying what the competitive timeline is anyway.

And if you keep the bar to every next step low, you necessarily increase the chance to exceed it (playoffs or not) and increase your longevity in your job.

“But we do want to be aggressive to capture that momentum,” Hoyer added of the Cubs’ 39-31 second half, “to fill the holes on the team that we know we have. As a staff we put a lot of pressure on having a really successful offseason.”

But what about an urgent — even “crossroads” — offseason?

“I wouldn’t label it anything other than it’s a really important offseason to continue to build towards our goal,” Hoyer said.

Of course not.

Who knows? Maybe Hoyer will sign Carlos Rodón or Jacob deGrom, and then go get All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa or Trea Turner or Xander Bogaerts. And a few more veteran starters and a bucketful of reliable relievers.

But nothing he said Monday suggests anything that big.

In fact, he hasn’t made any effort to keep his own three-time All-Star catcher beyond saying he’ll offer Willson Contreras a qualifying offer ahead of free agency (which, sources say, Contreras will reject).

It wouldn’t make Hoyer or the Cubs any different from most teams. Which could be considered a major part of the problem, considering their market size.

Either way, it’s a tough pill to ask fans to swallow, especially when they’re paying the prices the Cubs ask.

It used to be the “cost of doing business” was borne by the business owner, even in sports, whether that involved the risk-reward decisions on free agent contracts, trades or scouting and player development. All of which was done within the means afforded by fan-based revenues.

Now the cost of doing business has been passed on to fans at levels not seen before — especially in Chicago — in the form of the cost of tickets, network fees and ancillary goods and services without so much as the pretense of the insinuated obligation to try to win any given game, every game, every season.

It’s so pervasive and accepted that some top executives have even begun saying the quiet part out loud.

That was the case with Mariners general manager Jerry DiPoto before the 2018 season, when he said, “You could argue that you are going to compete with more clubs to try to get the first pick in the draft than you are to try and win the World Series.”

And it was case again before this season when Reds president Phil Castellini, son of the team owner, answered a question about fans’ frustration over the state of their team with, “Where you gonna go?

Nobody’s quite sure where they went after that, but apparently it wasn’t to Great American Ball Park. The Reds endured their lowest season attendance since 1984 — when GABP predecessor Riverfront Stadium and Castellini were both 14 years old.

The Cubs aren’t saying things like that.

They’re not saying much of anything at all when it comes to competitive expectations — even when Hoyer was asked specifically about how important it is to consider in his decision making this winter what fans want or even “deserve”?

“I do think the journey is a big part of it,” he said to that question, “building up a group of young players, bringing them along. You can’t win in today’s game without having that stable of young players. It is a process for sure. I think we’ve made real progress on that note.”

And if fans don’t like the journey, maybe they’ll enjoy the ivy.

Besides, where they gonna go?

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