Local Interests Stymie Cubs’ Wrigley Restoration Plans

Wrigley Field is falling apart. The Ricketts family, which bought the Cubs for $845 million in 2009, has a plan to spend $300 million of their money to renovate the 98-year-old ballpark. There will be structural upgrades, improved clubhouses, new underground batting cages, upgraded luxury suites and club facilities, more and better concessions and restrooms, and a new patio area in left field to serve the new upper deck. The Cubs also want to add new LED signage and billboards in the outfield. The classic Wrigley look will remain the same: the brick, the marquee outside the ballpark, the ivy and the old scoreboard. Cubs blog Bleacher Nation has conceptual drawings, which you can view here.

The Rickettses are prepared to spend an additional $200 million to develop a hotel across the street from Wrigley, an office building and an open-air plaza to be used for neighborhood and family activities. The open-air plaza will be developed in a triangular-shaped plot just west of Wrigley on Waveland and Clark avenues.

Neither the Cubs nor the Ricketts family are asking for a dime of public money. Instead, they expect the renovation plan to add significantly to public coffers. Julian Green, the Cubs’ vice president of communications, has said 800 new construction jobs will be created to complete the project and 1,300 new permanent jobs will be created with the new hotel, the office building and the open-air plaza. Green also estimates that, once completed, the new Wrigley complex will generate an additional $12 million in sales and property taxes for Chicago — plus an additional $3 million in sales tax for Cook County and an additional $4 million in sales tax for the Illinois. Overall, Green said the renovation will result in an additional $1.2 billion in economic activity and taxes during a 30-year period.

Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? A privately-funded stadium project that will benefit the city, county and state in the short and long term?

Not so fast.

The Rickettses need city approval for the project, and the approval process is gridlocked by Alderman Tom Tunney. Who’s Tunney? He’s the man who represents the neighborhood surrounding the ballpark, known as Wrigleyville. More specifically, he represents the Wrigley rooftop owners who oppose the renovation plan. In the past 10 years, the rooftop owners have given $140,000 in political contributions to Tunney.

Many of you have seen a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. You’ve experienced the neighborhood. And you know about the rooftops on Sheffield and Waveland Avenues — 17 buildings that sit so close to Wrigley Field that you can watch a Cubs game from the roof. But you may not know that the rooftops are big, big business. The 17 buildings once housed apartments but have been completely renovated into state-of-the-art, luxury clubs with names like Sheffield Baseball Club, Ivy League Baseball Club,  Wrigley View and Wrigley Field Rooftop Club. Here’s a promotional video for the Skybox on Sheffield:

In 2002, the Cubs sued the rooftop owners for copyright infringement. The Cubs argued the rooftop owners were violating the Cubs’ copyright in the game action by charging guests to watch the game. Two years later, the Cubs and the owners signed a 20-year agreement under which the owners pay the Cubs 17% of gross revenue in exchange for the Cubs’ official endorsement of the rooftops. Green, the Cubs’ spokesman, estimates the team receive between $3 million and $4 million per year from the rooftops. That puts the rooftops’ collective gross revenue between $17.6 million and $23.5 million each season. To put that in perspective, the Oakland A’s made only $28 million in ticket sales in 2011, according to Forbes.

Part of the Wrigley renovation plan includes new billboards and other signage that would obstruct the views from the rooftops. The Cubs say they need new and better advertising space inside the ballpark that TV audiences can clearly see. The Rickettses have conditioned their private financing of the Wrigley renovation on the ability to add revenue streams from the new billboards and signage.

The rooftops owners claim any new signage would violate the 20-year agreement and Wrigley’s landmark status. Instead of new signage inside ballpark, the rooftop owners propose adding new LED billboards to the rooftop clubs themselves, with all of the advertising revenue going to the Cubs. They even produced a video promoting their plan and shared it with the press back in January. You can see the video here. The Cubs responded by urging the rooftop owners to engage in direct talks with the team — and not in the press. The two sides appear to be at a stalemate.

And what of Wrigley’s landmark status? In 2004 — the same year the rooftop owners and the Cubs inked their 20-year deal —  Chicago added Wrigley to its list of city landmarks. The landmark ordinance “grants landmark protection to the ballpark’s essential contours: The exposed steel columns and beams that frame its exterior walls, its exterior roofs and roof lines, the portion of the upper-deck roof facing the playing field and the uninterrupted ‘sweep’ of the grandstand and bleachers inside.”  What exactly “uninterrupted sweep” means is anyone’s guess. The Cubs understand it’s broad enough to preclude their proposed billboards and other signage inside the ballpark. Hence the need for city approval, and the muscle-flexing by Alderman Tunney.

There’s another piece to the puzzle. The Cubs want to increase the number of night games at Wrigley to 41 per season. Under another city ordinance, the Cubs are currently limited to more than 30 night games. Night games typically generate more revenue than day games because fans arrive earlier  and spend more money on ballpark concessions. As with the proposed new billboards, the additional night games are key to the Ricketts family’s decision to privately finance the renovation.

But the addition of more night games raises the ire of the neighborhood bars: They benefit from day games because fans leave Wrigley when the game is over and head to the bars for more merriment. And Tunney claims more night games would erode the “quality of life” for neighborhood residents. It may also erode the pocketbooks of his political contributors.

The decision-maker is Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. The Cubs reportedly vetted details of their plan with the mayor’s top aides before releasing it to the public in January. According to a Cubs source, Emanuel favors the Cubs’ plan and is working behind the scenes to get Alderman Tunny’s agreement. When and if Tunney’s agreement can be had — and under what conditions — remains to be seen.

There’s been a great hue and cry over the shenanigans leading to the Miami Marlins’ new publicly financed ballpark. The backlash grew stronger after the team’s most recent fire sale, which left Giancarlo Stanton as the only marquee player in Miami. And yet little national attention has been paid to the Cubs and the Rickettses’ plan to use $300 million of their own money to complete a top-to-bottom modernization of Wrigley — on top of the $200 million the family will spend on the other upgrades. All the Rickettses want in exchange for the $500 million investment is to be able to use Wrigley Field in a way that maximizes revenue for the team. Like nearly every other franchise in the majors.

At this point, there doesn’t appear to be much MLB can do to help the Cubs. The local interests opposing the plan have the ear of the neighborhood politician. For now, the Ricketts family has taken the threat of leaving Wrigley off the table. But if this saga continues to drag on, the threat may be put back on the table. At that point, the rooftop owners, the alderman and the mayor will be left holding the bag.

Author Note: I’ve received information suggesting that the Cubs may seek city and federal tax credits, at least for the hotel development. I’m investigating and will report further. — 3/5/2013, 3:oo p.m. PST

Author Note: I’ve confirmed with the Cubs that the current proposal does NOT seek any tax credits. — 3/5/2013 10:15 p.m. PST

We hoped you liked reading Local Interests Stymie Cubs’ Wrigley Restoration Plans by Wendy Thurm!

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Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and NewYorker.com. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.

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Mr Punch
Mr Punch

Can billboards really generate enough money to offset $20 million in rooftop rights? Doesn’t sound right.


The Cubs only need to replace $3-4M in revenue from the billboards.