The Tribune Co. of Chicago reportedly is close to finalizing an agreement to sell the Chicago Cubs - a move that could have implications for Mesa’s effort to keep the team in the city for its annual spring training.
Initial reports in the Chicago Tribune this week said a deal was reached to sell the team to the Ricketts family, which has been in talks with the company for months.
However, reports also surfaced Tuesday in the Chicago Tribune and rival Chicago Sun-Times that a second bidder, led by New York investor Marc Utay, may also be a contender. The Sun-Times story suggested the Ricketts were the most likely buyer.
Prior to word of the second bidder, Mesa officials said finalizing a deal with the Ricketts would give them more certainty while negotiating over upgrades to the team’s spring training facility.
That deal worth about $900 million is expected to close in August, according to wire reports. Mesa City Manager Chris Brady told the Tribune Monday the deal means negotiations will likely be more fruitful.
“I think it’s good news for us. There was certainly a little bit of uncertainty all these months. But this gives us more certainty, and we can look more seriously into a lot more detail about the specifics of their future in Mesa,” Brady said.
Earlier this year, Cubs chairman Crane Kenney told city officials the team would like improvements to its training facilities. Without the upgrades, the team, a popular Mesa and Cactus League attraction for decades, could possibly move elsewhere following the 2012 season.
Specifically, the Cubs would like improvements to the aging Fitch Park facility, where the team’s major and minor league teams do regular training.
Brady said he’s been in frequent talks with the current management, which has also regularly taken feedback from the Ricketts family about the spring training discussions. Brady expects these discussions to continue once the sale is done.
“Even until now, we’ve felt like at least everyone we were talking to was in sync with what the Ricketts family expects,” Brady said.
The Tribune Co. and the Chicago Cubs declined comment on the team’s spring training plans after 2012. The Tribune Co. sent this statement via e-mail: “We continue an active dialogue with the Ricketts family with an eye toward reaching a definitive agreement. We don’t intend to comment on the specifics of any potential transaction.”
Meanwhile, Mesa has commissioned a study to look at the Cubs’ value to Mesa and the Cactus League.
Brady said the study includes how much of a difference the team makes in attendance numbers when it goes to other Cactus League stadiums to play.
Of all the teams, the “lovable loser” Cubs draw the highest spring training crowds, giving a major economic boost to local businesses when they’re in town.
“They’re vitally important for the Cactus League and that means for Arizona,” said Brady, adding that means the city will do what it can. It is also looking to the league to help ensure the Cubs stay.
Both Brady and Mesa Mayor Scott Smith say they’re exploring all possibilities to make sure the Cubs don’t venture to Florida or elsewhere. That, said Brady, could mean expanding the current training facilities at Fitch or at least taking care of critical items first.
But given there’s not a whole lot more room to expand, especially for additional fields, the city has also explored the option of moving the facilities elsewhere.
“But that would mean more land and new facilities, and we don’t want to do that unless we knew we could backfill the existing space,” Brady said.
Without specifics on exactly what changes would be made and over how long, there’s no price tag for improvements yet.
The Cubs can exercise their $4.2 million opt-out clause in their 20-year agreement with Mesa next year to leave the city in 2012.
Tribune, a media conglomerate that owns the Chicago Tribune newspaper, filed for bankruptcy last year and has been negotiating with the Ricketts family over the details since January. That’s when the family won the bid to own the storied baseball team.
Smith said the city’s options would involve “primarily private money.” He added that the role of the Arizona Sports & Tourism Authority is still not clear. The organization is slated to hand Mesa $8.2 million for renovations in 2020. Smith said the city was hoping to accelerate that, but whether that’s possible is still unknown.