A loser's winning formula
July 20, 2001: 1:08 p.m. ET

It's doubtful Tribune's plans for Wrigley Field will benefit Cubs' chances
By Staff Writer Chris Isidore
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - It is the good fortune, and bad luck, of the Tribune Co. to own the nation's most cherished sporting stadium.

Wrigley Field is such a jewel of a park that the Tribune (TRB: up $1.24 to $42.36, Research, Estimates), which purchased the Chicago Cubs in 1981, can virtually sell out every seat even when putting the worst team in the league on the field.

The Cubs sold nearly 90 percent of their available seats last year, the fifth-highest percentage of seats sold in the majors, and they easily outdrew their cross-town rivals White Sox, even though the Sox had the best record in the American League, while the Cubs tied for the worst record in the National League.

Chris Isidore covers the business of sports for
"What seems to be selling out the park is the park," said Charlotte Newfeld, a community activist and lifelong Cubs fan who is a neighbor of the park. "The game doesn't seem to matter much."

The company has found a successful business model putting a low-cost, traditionally mediocre or worse team into a venerated site. But let the company propose making changes in the park, and it will generate more heat than a Kerry Wood fastball.

It took until 1988 for the team to start having night games, and it is still limited to 18 night games a year, about a quarter of the night games held at most other baseball stadiums.

Fans may expect to have the Cubs disappoint them in the end, but they also expect to see their games at Wrigley during the day, and sometimes from the roofs of apartment houses across the street from the outfield bleachers.

The Cubs are playing better on the field this year, but there's little room to increase attendance from last season's last-place finish. The team is planning a renovation that would block the view from some of the rooftops across the field.
Team officials argue that can't continue if the fans want the team to be competitive.

They've requested permission to have up to 30 night games a year, saying they need to be able to have more midweek night games early and late in the season to not conflict with school. And they want to expand the bleachers in a way that could block the view of the field from the neighboring buildings.

"These projects will greatly improve amenities for our fans, while improving our ability to compete with the increasing number of teams playing in modern facilities," said a statement from Mark McGuire, the team's executive vice president of business operations.

While the Cubs are in first place this season, they are on pace for only their fourth winning season since the Tribune took ownership, and only their twelfth winning season since their last trip to the World Series in 1945. The team last won the championship in 1908.

Little revenue gain from renovation

While the Cubs say they need the additional revenue of these projects to be competitive, the numbers suggest the company's plans won't make much difference to its fortunes.

Even if they sell each of the new seats to every game, and get the expected bump from each additional night game, that's only a bit more than a quarter million additional fans during the course of a year.

Using the fan cost index for the team compiled by Team Marketing Report, a sports business newsletter, that would bring in about $10.6 million additional in revenue a year, or less than the cost of a major free-agent player in today's market. And that doesn't estimate the expense of building the addition or the cost of the hot dogs, beer and souvenirs that would go towards the collecting about $40 per additional fan.

"That's chump change in today's market," said Newfeld, the chairperson of Citizens United for Baseball in Sunshine, a neighborhood group which has fought the night games.

There is also a strong suspicion among fans of the team that any additional money will go to the Tribune, not to improving the team. Of course, it can be argued that mediocrity makes good sense for the Cubs' and the Tribune's bottom line.

Their current team payroll of $64 million is fourteenth in the 30-team league. If they were to add better, more expensive players in an effort to compete, their established success selling the Wrigley Field experience leaves them little chance to add to team revenue.

Even selling every current seat not sold in 2000 would only generate an estimated $14.7 million in revenue, although increased ratings would help its WGN Superstation unit, which broadcast most Cubs games to markets across the nation.

View from neighborhood at risk

Details of how much of the view from the rooftops will be blocked were not available, even to building owners, although the team executives have said they don't plan to "obliterate" the view from the rooftops.

There was a time when the rooftops were casual venues where building tenants would go with friends to grill food, drink beer, and watch a game. Today the rooftops have become decent size businesses, with annual revenue of about $4 million, bleachers for about 80-to-100 fans each, and ticket packages that cost about $100 a game, including food.

The owners of the 13 buildings with views inside the stadium are banding together to protect their views, and their average investments of $500,000 each.

"This is a huge investment on my part, and it culminates a lifelong dream," said Michael Kaufman, a 41-year old lifelong Cubs fan who owns the building down the left field line.

He spent $654,000 for an old house across the street from the park in 1998, which he estimates is nearly double the market value of the property if it had not had the view of Wrigley.

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Kaufman and the other rooftop owners say they're convinced a bleacher expansion can be designed to keep their views of the field from the third floor windows. They argue that it is as important for the Cubs to keep the neighborhood feeling inside the stadium by letting fans see the buildings across the street as it is to allow them to be able to look in.

And while McGuire has been quoted as saying the expansion plans are important to the team's prospects of staying at Wrigley, the neighbors, and the attendance success, suggest that is an empty bluff by the owners.

"I think that if they move, in franchise with a history of dumb decisions, that would be the dumbest decision of all," said Ken Jakubowski, consultant to Wrigleyville Rooftop Owners Association. graphic


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