(page 4 of 5)
Buying the Cubs was the brainchild of Tom Ricketts. “In one sense, it all seems an extraordinary coincidence,” he says. “On the other, that it was almost fated.”
Shortly after Sam Zell’s 2006 takeover of Tribune, which then owned the team (and owns this magazine), Tom foresaw a chance to pull off the most audacious business play for the family since Papa Joe pushed all his chips in with the Internet. “There was one asset that wouldn’t fit with a private equity firm,” he says. The Cubs.
Though the Ricketts siblings loved the team, not one had expressed the slightest interest in getting involved with pro sports. They all had plenty on their plates. Tom himself, who had settled in Wilmette, was in the midst of building his own investment banking and securities firm, Incapital.
Tom’s reasoning ran deeper than his passion for the atmosphere, the tradition, and the magic of Wrigley. It ran all the way back to Omaha. In the Cubs, Tom saw an opportunity to reclaim something that his father and his family had lost: a business that belonged to them. Ameritrade had been that thing—until it grew so big that it no longer had room. “I thought: This could be the [venture] that stays a family business for a long time,” says Tom, “and becomes a central kind of thing that holds the family together.”
On a practical level, Tom thought that he could run the team better than Tribune, which had spent years saddling the roster with free-agent megacontracts while kicking ballpark upgrades down the road. That short-term mentality, he believed, was not the way to build a winning organization. (He would put that belief into practice by hiring Theo Epstein, the nation’s top baseball exec, known for taking the long view.)
On a gut level, he saw a chance to burnish the Ricketts name in a way that even Papa Joe’s billions could not. “To be a part of a family that brings a World Series champion to these fans,” Tom says, “would be one of the greatest legacies you could imagine.”
The first order of business was persuading the paterfamilias. Joe couldn’t have cared less about Wrigley. He was a businessman with a raft of new ventures in the works (including an online hyperlocal media concern called DNA info), and he was growing increasingly involved in funding conservative causes.
It was to Joe’s bottom-line ethos that Tom appealed. Their initial conversation was not promising. “ ‘Aw, that doesn’t sound like a very good idea,’ ” Tom recalls his dad saying, affecting a gruff voice. “I was like, ‘Don’t say no. Think about it.’ ”
Tom knew he needed a clincher. His solution was ingenious and, in retrospect, ironic. He took his father to one of the very same rooftops whose owners now stand in the way of Wrigley’s renovations. Tom said, “Look at this.”
Joe replied, “Yeah, that’s pretty beautiful.”
“They sell three million tickets a year, win or lose,” Tom told him.
Joe said, “Oh, this is a business.”
With his father onboard, Tom turned to his siblings. They were skeptical. “Major-league baseball is a bit of a good ol’ boys club,” Todd says. “We thought, Well, we’re not connected. We don’t know if we have enough money. It seemed like a one-in-a-million shot.”
Again, the rooftops served as a convincer. “It was a beautiful day, and the place was full, and we just looked out over all of Wrigleyville,” Tom recalls. “And that’s when everybody was like, Yeah, let’s at least try for this.”
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Tom had been right: Soon after buying Tribune, Zell announced that he was putting the Cubs on the block. By this time, unbeknown to other interested bidders, Tom had spent months lining up financing, meeting with other major-league baseball owners, and getting the league comfortable with him.
While flamboyant players such as Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, issued bold pronouncements of their intentions, Tom made sure his family kept a low profile. “You want to be below the radar screen,” says Sal Galatioto, a high-powered sports finance adviser who worked with the family.
When the Rickettses officially entered the fray in 2007, they seemed like dark horses. But the groundwork Tom had laid paid off. From seemingly out of nowhere, the family became the front-runners, then the winners.
It took two years of agonizing negotiations with Tribune to seal the deal. (To fund the purchase, which totaled $845 million, the Rickettses dipped into a family trust that Joe and Marlene had set aside.) First came the credit freeze that followed the 2008 stock market crash; then Tribune filed for bankruptcy. “Lesser men would have thrown up their hands and said, ‘You know what? This is bullshit. I can’t do it,’ ” says Galatioto. “Tom’s style was to grind it out, and he can grind it out with the best of them.”
The Ricketts siblings promptly installed themselves as four of the Cubs organization’s five board members (the fifth is a representative from Tribune, which still owns 5 percent of the shares). As chairman, Tom was on the hot seat. “He has to report to the board just as any executive [does],” says Todd. “Obviously, as a family member, we’re going to cut him a little slack for the first few years. But there have to be results on the field and in the business.”
Results, of course, are what can help keep the Rickettses in control for generations to come. (The siblings have a dozen kids among them; see the family tree on page 2.) “When we bought the Cubs, our time horizon was 80 to 100 years,” says Pete. “I expect that the family will own the team long after I’m dead.”
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