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Move Cubs? No. Upgrade Wrigley? Yes
What are the odds the Chicago Cubs will move from Wrigley Field? Let’s put it this way: It’s about as likely as Rod Blagojevich and Steve Bartman sharing ceremonial first-pitch honors before Game 1 of this year’s World Series at the Friendly Confines.
OK, it’s probably more likely than that. But not by much. Take the Cubs out of Wrigley, and they would be the White Sox — only without a world championship in the past 100 years.
The suburb of Rosemont, Ill., has made a public display of its desire to be the site of Wrigley Junior. Yeah. OK. Rosemont is adjacent to O’Hare International Airport. And Chicago office buildings are teeming with twentysomethings who, upon leaving work at 6 o’clock, turn to their coworkers and say, ‘It’s a beautiful summer night. Let’s drive to O’Hare.' "
But the mere possibility of moving trucks at 1060 W. Addison has become a topic of discussion — and assuredly will remain a topic of discussion — after Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts told an audience Wednesday at the City Club of Chicago that he would need to “take a look at moving” if the team’s renovation plan isn’t approved by various neighborhood and city entities.
Why are “various neighborhood and city entities” involved? Because this is Chicago, that’s why.
We know Ricketts doesn’t want to move the team. He once lived in an apartment on Addison, steps from the ballpark. He met his wife in Wrigley’s famous bleachers. He bought the Cubs with the idea that the team would stay in his family for generations. He doesn’t want to be remembered as The Guy Who Blighted Wrigleyville (or at least The Guy Who Ended Our Drunken Fun).
Still, he said what he said. And he was right to do so, even if his words were a hollow leverage play.
To critics, the third rail of Ricketts’ proposal is the addition of a scoreboard and advertising to the iconic outfield panorama. Even as the traditionalist in me wants ivy-gazing to remain the primary structural distraction, I recognize that Ricketts’ plan must succeed if the Cubs are to do the same.
The most strident objectors will be owners of the rooftop decks that offer (unobstructed, for now) views of the playing field. Businesses comprising the Wrigleyville Rooftops Association can generate a combined $25 million each year. And the new scoreboard could — emphasis on could — impact the views of two such buildings on Waveland Avenue, Wrigleyville Rooftops and Beyond the Ivy.
So, nostalgia isn’t the obstacle here. It’s economics. I’m sure you’re shocked.
Money explained why the Cubs installed lights in the 1980s. Money explained why the Cubs erected a Toyota advertisement in left field. And money — to pay for needed renovations — explains why Ricketts is making his case to the public this week.
Anyone who has visited Wrigley lately would tell you that, while the ambience persists quite powerfully, the structure is in decay. The concourses are dingy. The clubhouses are tiny. The old gal turns 100 years old next year, and she needs surgery. Fenway Park is 101 but could host the Red Sox for another 30 years — or more — because of extensive renovations. In its current state, Wrigley would crumble by then.
Although a recent Forbes study said the Cubs have the largest operating income in baseball — $32.1 million last year — Ricketts must use a substantial portion of those proceeds to service the debt on his purchase of the franchise. The renovation’s estimated price tag is roughly $500 million, when including a nearby hotel and plaza. Ricketts has said he would like to complete the project without taking public funds — something of a rarity in U.S. professional sports.
To do that, the team says it needs revenue sources that don’t exist now. That is where the scoreboard, advertising and associated moneymakers enter into play. They’re also counting on a boost from television revenues when their agreement with WGN expires at the end of next season. Over time, the Cubs say, the new income would help them raise their payroll to a figure more commensurate with Chicago’s market size. (The Cubs’ Opening Day payroll has dropped from a franchise record $144.4 million in 2010 to $106.8 million this year, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.)
On the field, the Cubs are last in the National League Central with an 11-16 record. Their rebuilding has been stunted somewhat by the new collective bargaining agreement, which limits spending on amateur talent.
“There have been some challenges we didn’t foresee,” said Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations since October 2011. “I don’t think we quite understood the scope of how the CBA changes would affect our team’s ability to allocate resources toward player acquisition.
“It’s been a lot more challenging than I anticipated to leverage our market size in terms of revenue. We’re getting penalized for being a big market, because every other team in our division has competitive-balance draft picks we don’t have. Yet we’re not able to have a big-market payroll right now. That’s a box. We need to get ourselves out of that box.”
As long as Ricketts pushes any new revenues into player payroll, this is a concept Cubs fans can get behind. If the Cubs reach the World Series — or even resume their former routine of October heartbreak — will any fan curse the fancy technology that helped them do it?
“I have no problem with a new scoreboard – as long as it helps them put a better product on the field,” said Carl Day, a 41-year-old Chicago resident, as he sat in the grandstand Wednesday night. “I want them to win.”
While undoubtedly sympathetic to that plight, the rooftop association is primarily concerned with its bottom line. To that end, the rooftop owners released a statement saying their attorneys will review the Cubs’ plans to see if they comply with an agreement between the association and team that doesn’t expire until after the 2023 season. (Of note, the Cubs receive 17 percent of the rooftops’ revenues.)
Not surprisingly, the parties appear to have different interpretations of the document’s fine print. The Cubs believe they are entitled to put up signage in the outfield as they choose — subject to approval from neighborhood and city boards — as long as that’s not done for the deliberate purpose of blocking the rooftops’ views. The rooftop association is more likely to resist any obstruction.
The worst-case scenario involves many billable hours and people in black robes deciding which side is correct. In that event, the billionaire owners would be expected to have a decided litigious advantage over the neighborhood collective. But jurisprudence can be harder to predict than a knuckleball — if it comes to that. (Judging by the recent pro sports lockouts, sadly, it often does.)
Just how much would the left-field scoreboard impact the rooftops’ sightlines? I don’t know. I endeavored to learn that during Wednesday’s game against San Diego. When I identified myself as a reporter upon walking up to Wrigleyville Rooftops and Beyond the Ivy, I was politely told that I wasn’t welcome to head upstairs and see for myself. But after looking at those buildings from behind home plate, I’m confident fans there would be able to see the infield and most of the outfield, too.
On a pristine, 71-degree night — the season’s best weather so far — I counted no more than 40 fans between the two roof decks in question. Could such a small number of people really bring about the demise of a century-old, 40,000-seat civic treasure? If the mayor and ward alderman are on board with the plan — and they have approved the framework, if not yet the specifics — then it’s hard to believe that Ricketts can fail.
But these are the Cubs. They specialize in hard-to-believe. Back in 1908, the predecessors of Ricketts and Epstein probably figured they’d have another World Series title by now.
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