Daily Archives: March 18, 2010

Signs

Nope, this is not going to be about the Mel Gibson movie, or even the song by The Five Man Electrical Band, although I may need to throw in a reference to the Tesla cover some where along the way.  This is about a very specific sign, and all the fuss that is has caused the city of Chicago before it has even been put up or approved. 

As anyone in Chicago knows, that is unless you have been living under on very big serious rock, the Cubs have changed ownership over the past winter.  Formerly owned by the mega media franchise of The Tribune Company, the new owners are the Ricketts family led by oldest brother Tom Ricketts.  The Ricketts family amassed a large fortune through stock trading and the formation of Ameritrade by father J. Joseph Ricketts.  Their family fortune exceeds $1 billion and they ranked at #371 on the  current Forbes 400 list.  They are also self-proclaimed Cubs fans.

When the new ownership took over, there was a lot of hope from the Cubs fans who have watched their team flounder for too many years.  They took this as a sign that change was coming, and that once out of the control of a corporation, the family aspect of the new owners would push them to achieve the long missing World Series Championship.  The new owners even seem to embraced this concept in their early advertising campaign.  In a vague reference to the more than 100 year “Cubs Curse”, they unveiled billboard signs and newspaper adds that declared 2010 as Cubs Year 1.  A bold move that almost seems to promise those long time suffering fans the change they expect.  But this is still not the sign I am talking about.

Although the Ricketts seem to present themselves as a “Family” organization, this does not mean they are not just as corporate minded as the Tribune Company.  These people are very smart, and very good at making money.  They did not drop $900 million on the team and Wrigley Field on a whim.  They expect to make money from their investment.  And that brings us up to the topic of this entry.  The Ricketts intend to sell a red illuminated sign behind the bleachers in Wrigley Field.  The signage is being sold to the beleaguered Toyota Car Company, and some estimations have the selling price for this sign at about two or three million dollars a year.  This type of advertising is standard at most ballparks, and the marketing dollars they produce add millions to a teams bottom line.  Part of the controversy comes from Wrigley Fields status as a “landmark” in Chicago, and the sign must be approved by the Landmark Commission before it can be erected.  44th Ward Alderman Tom Tunney has already spoken out against the sign. 

Cubs fans seem to be split on the idea, much as they were back in 1988 when lights were put up at the field that previously only played day games.  But the almighty dollar won out back then, although night games are still limited at Wrigley as part of a lights compromise.  The Cubs are only scheduled to play 26 of their 81 home games this season in the evening hours, compared to 59 evening games being played by their crosstown rivals the Chicago White Sox.  More money can be made on national broadcast of evening games, and with less of these games available, there is less revenue available for the new owners.

If the Ricketts family intends to see this franchise through to a championship, eventually they will have to address the aging Wrigley Field.  It has been reported that millions has already been spent on much needed renovations to the concourse and restrooms of the 95 year-old structure, but how much longer can this type of money be sunk into this dinosaur if additional revenue cannot be found.  Yankee Stadium was torn down in 2008, and the Red Sox ownership has been courting the idea of a new stadium on and off for years.  Fenway Park houses several illuminated signs much bigger than the proposed Toyota sign to help with their advertising dollars, but still they have had to consider ways to improve revenue in a limited space, including the possibility of a New Fenway Park.  But both New York and Boston had plans to rebuild there stadiums near the original parks.  That is an option that does not exist for the Cubs.  The neighborhood structure that is so much a part of the draw at Wrigley Field would also prevent building a new park in the same area.  And the landmark status of the field prevents any major renovation of the existing park.

Before their first season has even begun, the Ricketts are trying to flex their new muscles.  If they are successful in getting their new sign approved, you can be sure others will follow to block out the scenery there at Wrigley Field.  Some will protest and say it destroys the feel of the ballpark.  But then those same people better bite their tongues when the lost revenue results in another lost season.  The armchair owners are the first to criticize the tough decisions that actually go into the day-to-day operations of a professional sports franchise, but now that there is an actual fan owner in place at the top of the Cubs organization, lets see how quickly those same fans turn on them if the team doesn’t produce on the field.  If the Ricketts get their sign, they better be ready to take the team all the way.

This may only be Year 1 of the Ricketts reign over the Cubs, but they will not be given another 100 years to finally pull off a championship.