SBJ/September 24 - 30, 2001/Opinion

Cubs selling out source of success

The question of what a winning team is worth at the box office often is raised in sports-business circles, and the usual brief answer is “plenty.” Now come the Chicago Cubs with evidence that will skew that comfortable conclusion.

To just about everyone’s surprise, probably including their own, baseball’s longtime losers put on a good show this season, leading their division through the “J” months and contending for the lead into September before fading. Their fans have responded positively, filling 39,000-seat Wrigley Field to about 90 percent of its capacity to date. If they keep it up the rest of the way, the team might break the full-season home attendance record it set in 1999 ... when it finished last.

That a winner would need a finishing kick to narrowly outdraw a cellar dweller would be unthinkable in most places, but not in or around the Cubs’ 87-year-old home. Paeans have been written to the old place’s intimacy, ivied walls and urban-village feel, but its value as an economic engine is less appreciated. Combined with the team’s historic contrarian management pose, it has upset more than a few of sports’ supposedly iron laws.

People under 30 assume that Chicago always has been a Cubs town and that all the team ever needed do to draw a crowd was open Wrigley Field’s gates, but such is not the case. For most of the post-World War II years, the cross-town White Sox were the city’s big club, both on the field and in the ledgers.

The White Sox have played the game the way most teams have, installing lights early on (in 1939) in their old Comiskey Park home, moving many games from “free” to cable television as soon as the opportunity arose and getting local taxpayers to build them a new stadium when that became the rage.

The Cubs, on the other hand, were devoted sticks-in-the-mud, a stance that traces to their longtime owner, Philip Wrigley. He didn’t want to disturb the neighbors around his team’s residential North Side digs, so he stood alone among major league magnates in eschewing night games. Further, reasoning that a pleasant environment was easier to achieve than a winning team, he put much of whatever profits the Cubs made into ballpark maintenance and improvements, at one point reducing Wrigley Field’s seating capacity by about 7,000 in the name of fan comfort.

His devotion to day ball and free TV (his gum company was an advertiser) paid off, albeit mostly after his family had sold the team to the news-media conglomerate Tribune Co. in 1981. The White Sox moved to cable TV in the early ’80s, before most Chicagoans had cable, so kids coming home from school or on summer vacation tuned in to the Cubs and grew up rooting for them and their quaint ways.

Many people squawked when Tribune Co. finally outfitted Wrigley Field with lights in 1988 (God objected, too: a thunderstorm canceled the first Cubs night game) but the team’s limited, 18-game night schedule has satisfied most. If losers don’t turn ’em off, a few night games won’t, either.

But like most team owners, Tribune Co. wants to increase its revenues, and, alas, it’s trying to do this by becoming more like its competitors. It’s turned more toward cable TV in recent seasons and has proposed adding night games and some 2,000 Wrigley Field seats. Most of the latter would be in a new bleacher tier that would screen out some of the cityscape that helps give the park its charm.

If the team follows that path, it would go against the lessons of its own history and cease to be such a nifty example for other sports entrepreneurs. Eighty-seven-year stadiums in good condition are hard to find, but it’s always possible to zig when others zag.

Frederick C. Klein is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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