Dream deal between Cubs & ASU turns out to be a mirage

It looks like it’s finally over.  The high-profile spat between Arizona State University and the Chicago Cubs has ended abruptly after months of silence.

At issue was an invitation last year by the Cubs to ASU, suggesting they share the new baseball stadium the Cubbies were building at Mesa’s Riverview Park along Dobson Road near Loop 202.

It appeared to be an answer to the university’s need for a new facility after school officials determined the team needed to get out of its current home in Packard Stadium, which was built in 1974 and well past its prime.  Replacing or renovating the aging stadium was estimated to cost $20-30 million.

By moving out of Packard, the site could be re-developed and used to bring in additional revenue that could help pay for the major renovation that has just begun on the football stadium.

The offer from the Cubs was to let the Sun Devil baseball team use the new stadium rent-free until tickets sales, parking, and concessions generated $1.1 million.  For its part, ASU would build its own practice facilities and locker room facilities, a project that was projected to cost about $2 million.

A sweet deal for the university.  “It was an incredibly great financial deal for ASU,” said Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, who has been acting as a mediator in the negotiations that bogged down in mid-summer.

Scott received an email from ASU President Michael Crow in early June, questioning the Cubs’ commitment to the partnership.  Crow was even quoted in a newspaper article as saying, “The Cubs are not people of their word.”

Relations between the two parties never quite recovered after that.  When the baseball club broke ground for the stadium in an official ceremony on July 11, it was obvious the talks had stalled.  There were no ASU representatives at the ceremony.

But there has been very little information coming out of either organization – and now ASU has taken the unexpected step of publicly bailing out of the deal.

“After many months of negotiations, ASU regrets that the effort to have the ASU baseball team play in the new Cubs stadium in Mesa has failed,” began an announcement posted on the school’s website.  “The university approached the talks enthusiastically and readily accepted the deal as originally outlined.  But as the new Cubs management changed the original deal points and added new restrictions to the negotiation, the terms became too costly to the university, imposed too many restrictions on the use of the facility, and exposed the university to too great a level of financial liability for the entire complex.”

The “new Cubs management’ probably refers to Theo Epstein, who has replaced Crane Kinney as the club’s director of baseball operations.

Understandably, the Cubs took exception to the explanation by ASU.  “We believe the remaining issues could have been resolved,” said Julian Green, the Cubs VP for community and communications affairs, “but to suggest the Cubs acted in bad faith is baseless.  We invited ASU to play in a rent-free stadium.  Unfortunately, this was not enough to meet the university’s needs.”

Actually, both sides lose something significant on this failed deal.

For Arizona State, it would have meant a powerful marketing tool for attracting new recruits to the program, providing a counter move to its rival, University of Arizona, which moved into Hi Corbett Field this season.  That gave the Wildcats a big-league facility that has been used for major league spring training and minor league games – an impressive new home for their national champions.  The school leased it from the City for 10 years.

For the Cubs, it was a way to get additional use for the facility, since the college baseball season would add months of additional revenue, and additional exposure to fans and teams around the country that would show up for ASU home games.

The fall-back plan for ASU appears to be getting involved in a checker-board set of moves by other MLB teams.  When the Cubs move into their new digs, the Oakland Athletics will likely move into the Cubs’ current home at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa, which then frees up the A’s home at Municipal Stadium in Phoenix.

A move to the ‘muni’ for ASU would still give them something better than what they have now.  But it wouldn’t be the “world-class” facility the Cubs are building.

Mesa’s mayor, Scott, who stepped away from his role as middle man in the chilled negotiations, left perhaps a slim ray of hope that the door may not be completely closed on what appeared to be a great deal for all three parties, including his city.

Said His Honor: “If somehow, both sides change their minds and continue talks, we’d be interested.”