There is a war raging in Wrigleyville, and the future of one of baseball's most iconic stadiums is at stake. On one side is the Chicago Cubs' ownership group, the Ricketts family, who bought the franchise in 2009. Opposing them is the neighborhood's rooftop owners, whose seats offer unobstructed views into Wrigley Field.
The latter believes their current contract, which pays 17% of rooftop ticket sales to the Cubs, is fair, and should not be broken. Team owners, however, wish to build a Jumbotron in left field and a massive billboard in right, structures that would increase advertising revenue and theoretically allow for a payroll boost, according to the Associated Press.
The problem is that if built, they'd likely block some vantage points from outside the ballpark, something that could ultimately destroy the rooftop business altogether. So, the questions are: Who will win the war? And what could it mean for the future of the Cubs?
What Bud Selig said
MLB commissioner Bud Selig took a side this week, and much to the delight of the Ricketts, it was in support of team ownership. While on a visit to Chicago for Wrigley Field's 100-year anniversary, Selig told the Chicago Sun-Times, "You can't tell them [team owners], stay in this setting, but you can't put this up, you can't put that up, you can't do that." He remarked, "You can't ask a team to be competitive ... and then tie their hands and their legs."
By that, Selig is directly attacking the contract the Cubs signed with rooftop owners in 2004. The deal, which runs through 2023, prohibits any stadium additions that block rooftop sight lines. As CSN Chicago's David Kaplan points out, the contract says the team "shall not erect windscreens or other barriers to obstruct the views of the rooftops," but adds, "any expansion of Wrigley Field approved by governmental authorities shall not be a violation of this agreement."
Reread that last line. According to an attorney Kaplan spoke with, that's something "an arbitrator might have to decide" in litigation. The attorney continues:
[T]he question that will have to be decided is whether or not the word 'expansion' will apply to a sign or Jumbotron.... Is a sign in right field or a Jumbotron in left field an expansion of Wrigley Field? Or is an expansion of Wrigley Field something that would have to include seating or making the ballpark bigger?
If the answer to the last question is 'no,' the team should win. Kaplan's source claims, "it is probably going to go the Cubs' way," so with support from the City Council and now Selig, it's clear which side has the advantage.
If the owners win
Assuming the team does erect the Jumbotron and extra signage, ad sales should improve. Forbes reports that despite having the fourth-best valuation in baseball -- $1.2 billion -- the Cubs typically finish outside of the top five in annual revenue. The rival St. Louis Cardinals, for example, are worth nearly $400 million less, but made $283 million in revenue last season. The Cubs booked just $266 million.
Unwavering fan support and the allure of Wrigley Field keep ticket prices elevated -- they're third highest in the league in 2014 -- but that can only do so much.
Bloomberg, which tracks sponsorship revenue, pegs the Cubs' figure at $18 million per year. That's a mere 19th in all of baseball, far behind teams like the New York Yankees ($84 million), Boston Red Sox ($40 million), and L.A. Dodgers ($39 million). Even the Houston Astros, who lost an MLB-worst 111 games last season, make more from sponsors.
Though neither Selig nor the Cubs have given an official estimate, it's reasonable to think that if the team has its way, more ads in Wrigley Field would boost annual sponsorship revenue by $20 million to $25 million. That's enough money to sign someone on par with Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols -- two power hitters the team has missed out on in the past.
If the rooftops win
Of course, there's also an outside chance an arbitrator could put the kibosh on a new Jumbotron and other in-stadium ads. If this happens, the Cubs would be forced to wait until 2023 to alter Wrigley Field. It's possible that in this scenario, ownership could consider a move from Chicago's North Side. As blasphemous as that sounds, consider what nearby suburb Rosemont has offered in the past.
The Chicago Tribune summed it up earlier this year:
The solution lies just 13 miles to the west — in Rosemont. Retractable roof. Forty-eight thousand seats. Perfect sightlines. All the signage, video boards, and night games the Cubs want with no whiny neighbors or city amusement tax. The opportunity is there.
The suburb is within reach of Chicago's 'L' train, near O'Hare Airport, and Allstate Arena has successfully hosted the likes of the AFL's Chicago Rush, WNBA's Chicago Sky, and DePaul men's basketball before.
The bottom line
A move from Wrigleyville sounds insane, but don't expect ownership to lay down if the rooftops win. Just last year, Tom Ricketts, the team's chairman, told the AP he'd consider all possibilities. "The fact is that if we don't have the ability to generate revenue in our own outfield," he said, "we'll have to take a look at moving -- no question."
While it's tempting to side with rooftop owners -- they are under a contract after all -- think about what Chicago would miss out on if the Cubs leave town. The Chamber of Commerce estimates Wrigley Field contributes over $600 million to the local economy each year.
And perhaps more importantly, without its 100-year-old ballpark, the Cubs would lose its best asset. In a time when the team is still an embarrassment on the diamond, nostalgia is all it has going for it.