"Well, the fact is, if we don't have the ability to generate revenue in our own outfield, then we'll have to take a look at moving, no question." That's what Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts told the media Wednesday morning at an event held by the City Club of Chicago referencing the team's plans to renovate Wrigley Field adding advertising signs and a 6,000 square foot video board to the ballpark's iconic outfield.
He was bluffing.
Of course he was bluffing. Moving the Cubs out of Wrigley Field because he can't have a jumbotron would make Ricketts one of baseball history's greatest monsters. What's more, the Cubs were the most profitable organization in baseball last year according to Forbes, and Wrigley Field is an asset to the team, even though Ricketts likes to cry poor about the lack of ad placement in the ballpark and about the revenue generated by the exterior rooftop seating that they can't get their hands on (though Ricketts admitted the Cubs are a minority owner in one Sheffield Avenue rooftop and Forbes reported that the team brings in $4 million a year from rooftop attendance). Last year, the Cubs lost 101 games and were still 10th in the majors in home attendance. This year, their on-field outlook is no better and their average home attendance is 11th in the majors.
Of course, ticket sales are just a small piece of the revenue pie for major league teams these days. Television money is the big slice, but the Cubs face some uncertainty with regard to their ability to cash in on that front. Their deal with longtime broadcast partner WGN expires after the 2014 season, but WGN broadcasts less than half of the Cubs games. The larger chunk of the Cubs' TV rights belong to Comcast SportsNet Chicago via a contract that lasts through 2019 and will keep the Cubs from hitting the kind of TV money paydirt the Dodgers and Rangers have in the past few years.
Then again, the proposed renovations to Wrigley Field are expected to occur over a five-year span, which means they're unlikely to be completed long before the Cubs' CSN Chicago contract expires, particularly given that the former have yet to be approved.
That approval is what prompted Ricketts' comments Wednesday morning. The mayor, alderman, neighborhood, two city commissions and the city council have to approve the renovations and there has already been blowback about the changes to the outfield, particularly the video board that would dwarf Wrigley Field's iconic manual scoreboard and block the view of some rooftops on Waveland Avenue. The owners of those rooftops have threatened the Cubs with a lawsuit, and now that the official renovation mock-ups have been released there's sure to be some outrage, which could influence the city, over the image at the top of this post.
Ultimately, all of this stems from the fact that the Ricketts family remains deeply in dept from their purchase of the team in January 2009, with Forbes estimating their remaining debt at $600 million. The Cubs are doing fine, but their owners need money, and they're willing to deface their iconic ballpark to get it. There's no argument that the guts of Wrigley Field, a ballpark that will be 100 years old next year, need to be brought up to date. The point of friction remains the iconic outfield.
Of course, Wrigley Field's outfield hasn't always looked the same. Here, for example, is a photo of centerfield from the 1935 World Series, two years before the ivy and six years before the clock. Still, a big, loud, busy video board would radically alter the feel of the ballpark, the last in the majors to give fans that lost-in-time feeling that is so valuable to baseball's' myth-making. Ultimately, Ricketts will likely get his videoboard, because time marches forward and money talks, but his absurdly empty threat to move the Cubs out of Wrigley Field on its own seems unlikely to accomplish anything other than to further inflame those who were already determined to prevent it.