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Cubs should think twice before leaving Wrigley Field

(MCT)— Long marketed by the Chicago Cubs as the Friendly Confines, Wrigley Field no doubt feels more confining than ever to the ballclub's owners these days.


It's an expensive, almost century-old fixer-upper hemmed in by stubborn neighbors, political resistance and landmark restrictions. There's also the fear of alienating customers who have come to embrace the authenticity of the familiar relic ever tighter in the absence of World Series trophies.


The history and aesthetics of a bygone era give Wrigley its value and make it worth preserving. They bind it to the team, its resolutely loyal fans and its neighborhood. But the attachment comes at a hefty price -- both economic and emotional -- the Ricketts family could not have ignored when the family trust paid about $800 million for the team and ballpark in 2009.


Which is why it makes no sense for the Cubs to leave Wrigleyville for suburban Rosemont or anywhere else.

"Their greatest asset is their fans, but Wrigley is as great an asset as the team itself, and that's because of the value placed on it by the fans," said Jim Grinstead, publisher of Revenues from Sports Ventures, a well-regarded newsletter on the economics of sports teams.


"Cubs fans have put up with a lot of losing for a lot of years. They're loyal to their team, and that loyalty extends to the ballpark as well. If you move from Wrigley, you risk breaching the trust of your fans."


The threat of abandoning that equity and investment for a new ballpark in Rosemont, as has been floated of late, is undercut by aversion to that risk. Even if the resulting edifice proved an adequate replica, the roar of O'Hare arrivals and departures drowning out organ music notwithstanding, it couldn't be the same.


Part of Wrigley Field's appeal, nestled in a real community of bars, restaurants and apartments, is that it is real.


In that sense, the Cubs are the victims of their own hype. All those years of touting Wrigley as a baseball cathedral -- and a more reliable attraction than the also-ran teams sent out of the third-base dugout to play in it for decades -- have masked its deterioration and lack of modern amenities.


The Rosemont feint, dangerous as it might be, would have more credibility if the Ricketts family was openly exploring a variety of alternative sites. But they aren't actively floating ideas such as a development on Chicago's West Side that could also include commercial and residential opportunities.


An investment of a few million dollars on new stadium designs, site feasibility and the rest would give the Rickettses some idea of how strong a hand they have in negotiations with the city on relaxing limitations on what can be altered at Wrigley. It would also help those arguing on behalf of the neighboring rooftop-club owners desperate to keep alive their cash cows through continued unobstructed views of the playing field.


The rooftop owners, who already share ticket revenue with the team, are the most formidable opposition to what the Ricketts family wants to do with Wrigley. The family wants to ring Wrigley with advertising signage, but that would block the view from those rooftops. The rooftop owners propose putting the advertising on their buildings and handing revenue to the Cubs, an offer that has been rejected. Complicating matters are landmark restrictions that would need to be relaxed by the city.


"One reason the Cubs want the advertising signage and luxury suites is because those are all contract-based revenue, so you can borrow against those contracts to make other improvements," Grinstead explained.


"Otherwise you're borrowing money at more expensive rates because it's less predictable revenue. So it not only costs them money in terms of revenues not realized, it costs them money in terms of what they have to pay to do the work they need to do."


Staying put makes much more economic sense than spending up to $1 billion on a new stadium, and the family has shown no signs they wish to move. Between the benefits of the proposed rehab and the prospects for a new local broadcast TV deal, I'm told there's $50 million to $75 million a year the franchise stands to gain.


"The focus up until this minute, and through (next week's) opening day, is to achieve a deal with the city of Chicago," said Dennis Culloton, spokesman for the Ricketts family, when asked Tuesday how seriously the Cubs have explored options apart from a Wrigley rehab.

The reason for the deadline: "We're staring at the face of losing another construction season," Culloton said. "Our people wanted to order steel and equipment in February."


When the Boston Red Sox were trying to get the improvements they wanted to Fenway Park a few years back, they made a very real threat to leave for Foxborough, Mass. They commissioned a functional design of a replica Fenway, complete with a replica Green Monster in left field. In the end, however, the team was able to preserve its link to its history -- a far preferable outcome.


"To abandon Wrigley and somehow lessen its value would be, I think, not only a crime to the fans but bad business," Grinstead said. "In the end, they'll make the investment they need to make in the ballpark to be successful, but it's not an easy task. Options may not be available to them because of the way the ballpark was built and what its infrastructure can hold, plus there are the political realities."


None of this is new. Variations of this argument have been going on for more than 30 years.


"Somewhere, someone's going to have to make a decision on whether this place is going to be a museum or a viable ballpark," warned Andy MacPhail, then-president of the Tribune Co.-owned Cubs, in 2001.


Yet here we are, 11 1/2 years later, at least pretending to remain unsure.


The Cubs belong at Wrigley Field. Wrigley Field belongs in Wrigleyville. Until the Cubs contract with the rooftop owners expires in 2024, they aren't going anywhere either. So it's time to play ball and negotiate.


Less than a week from another opening day, and the team of Tinkers to Evers to Chance is leaving too much to chance.

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