October 20, 2013


When Tom Ricketts and his family bought the Cubs, he had the grand assumption that the Cubs drew 3 million fans whether the team won or lost. The place was always packed with a diverse fan base. First, there were the older traditional baseball fans who brought friends and family to the park to pass on the game to the next generations. Second, there were the corporate suite companies who used season tickets to wine and dine customers or vendors. Third, there were the young North Avenue beach crowd who found that one could soak up the sun, beers and babes in the bleachers rather than ruining some cargo shorts on a lake beach.

There were two consistent factors for the Tribune's late era success: the marketing of the historic charm of Wrigley Field and the free flowing tavern atmosphere in the stands.

Win or lose, the people had a good time or good experience.

But then, the financial collapse threw the economy into a deep recession. Such an economic event changed the reasoning that people would come to Wrigley win or lose. Corporations immediately cut back on travel and entertainment budgets, including sporting events. The free spending young bleacher crowd suddenly found themselves laid off and back living with their parents, unable to afford the party lifestyle around Wrigley. The seniors on fixed income saw their investment returns dry up when interest rates were artificially dropped to zero return. Large out-of-town group bus sales dropped off with the spike in gasoline prices and the new cost of living with real inflation in the grocery aisles.

The average American and average business had to circle their wallets to really budget their resources. Luxury items such as sporting events had to take a back seat to paying mortgages, credit card bills, or school expenses. Many people found their nest eggs, their home equity, vanish. They topped out on the debt limits. They found themselves working paycheck to paycheck. Small business owners also felt the hit of late payments, slowing orders and bankruptcy.

Ricketts bought the Cubs at a premium price during the final stages of a inflated financial bubble. His highly leveraged purchase still continues to drain resources from Cub operations. The Cubs payroll has declined under his ownership because he said it was "unsustainable."

So in this current economic environment, Ricketts has an ambitious plan to renovate Wrigley Field. He says he needs to "save" the old 100 year old landmark as part of his $300-500 million project. The Tribune deferred most of the required maintenance at Wrigley for decades. The park does need serious attention. But the boa constrictor wrapped around the Save Wrigley marketing campaign is the Ricketts family's real estate develop in and around Wrigley Field.

If one goes back and reads a year's worth of Crain's Chicago Business, or the newspapers local business sections, you will find that various businesses continue to have a difficult time in the Chicago metro area. Long established restaurants and bars have closed. Downtown hotel construction came to a halt with the decline of convention tourism. Several hotels went into foreclosure/bankruptcy reorganization. Service businesses like fitness clubs have high overhead costs and transient clientele. The general consensus is now is not a great time to start a new business from scratch.

But the Ricketts redevelopment plan incorporates all of those risky ventures: new restaurants, new bars, a new hotel, a new fitness club, new retail stores. Does it make a lot of sense to flood the Lakeview neighborhood with so many new business operations?

The idea that the redevelopment tied to the charm of Wrigley Field will generate new revenue for everyone is a myth. The Ricketts and the existing businesses are all competing for the same fan dollar. With more than 600,000 fans not showing up for games in the last two season, there are actually less fan dollars coming into the neighborhood.

Another factor that is not discussed often is that the actual changes in Wrigley Field itself may in fact ruin the charm of the ball park. Traditionalists and landmark preservationists liked that Wrigley did not have an electronic jumbotrons or large advertising signs that modern parks have plastered in their outfields. If that part of the fan base dislikes what Wrigley will become, they will stay home. Those were the type of fans who came to the game, win or lose, just to be part of the Wrigley heritage.

Ricketts reason for spending hundreds of millions of dollars is to create new revenue sources. You have to spend money to make money. However, most of these new revenue sources will not help the baseball team. The Cubs franchise is merely a sideline observer to the family's business glasnost.

The same failed reasoning that the Cubs always sell out can be applied to the redevelopment tied to the old charm of Wrigley Field. If one dramatically changes Wrigley Field, for some there will be no reason to come to games.