Family Says Wrigley Field Will Stay Wrigley Field

Wrigley Field requires at least an estimated $400 million in repairs, but the Ricketts family said it would not sell naming rights.


Published: December 27, 2009

Bank of America Ballpark at Wrigley Field? U.S. Cellular Field the Elder? Oprahland?

Speculation about the possible sale of naming rights to Wrigley Field has spread since the Ricketts family bought the Chicago Cubs from the Tribune Company in the fall, but the new owners of the Cubs have not discussed the sale of naming rights to Wrigley Field, according to Wally Hayward, the team’s new chief marketing officer.

Beyond that, Mr. Hayward said in an interview last week, the Ricketts family would not sell the name because they understand the essence of the old-time park.

“We are not going to take the ivy off the walls and replace it with advertising signage,” said Mr. Hayward, who will oversee the Cubs’ business development, including commercial opportunities at Wrigley. “We intend to preserve the Friendly Confines.”

The stated intentions of the Ricketts family, though, will be tested against an unrelenting need for major repairs at Wrigley that could run to $400 million or more, according to documents reviewed by the Chicago News Cooperative and interviews with people who saw cost estimates during the Cubs’ two-and-a-half-year auction process. Experts in sports marketing believe the sale of naming rights will prove necessary as a means of financing Wrigley renovations.

The 96-year-old baseball shrine is one of the most popular attractions in Chicago and helps make the Cubs a signature sports brand despite a 101-year championship drought. But the park is showing its age, and its lack of amenities limits revenue.

Tom Ricketts, a 44-year-old investment banker, and his three siblings completed their $842 million purchase of the Cubs in October, prevailing over others who dropped out because of the high cost and the complexity of the deal.

One potential buyer, who asked to remain anonymous, withdrew when the sale price rose too high. He said the Tribune Company projected the cost of a Wrigley renovation at $400 million, a claim substantiated by documents. Plans also called for the Cubs to move out of Wrigley for at least a year while the work was done, the unsuccessful bidder said.

James R. Thompson, the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority chairman and a former Illinois governor, put the tab even higher.

“I think it was closer to $600 million,” Mr. Thompson said in an interview last week. “That was for a top-to-bottom renovation of a very aged structure with a lot of limitations – the place doesn’t have a kitchen.”

Tom Ricketts acknowledged that the $400 million figure was discussed as the Tribune Company briefly considered selling Wrigley to the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority. In that plan, ownership of the Chicago National League Ball Club would have been split from the sale of the famous ballpark.

Ultimately, though, Tom Ricketts; his sister, Laura; and his brothers Todd and Pete paid a reported $842 million for the Cubs, Wrigley Field and a quarter share of the Comcast Sportsnet Chicago regional cable network. While expectations for improvement in the team’s on-field performance are typically high, Wrigley Field presents a complicated, costly challenge, too.

Tom Ricketts brushes off the $400 million cost estimate for repairs, but acknowledges that major improvements must be made. In an interview in late November, he said he was still studying financing options, but believed that the repairs could be done without selling Wrigley’s name.

“One of our top priorities is to develop a real strategy to save Wrigley Field and make it a premier baseball experience,” Mr. Ricketts said.

Aside from naming rights, owners of other ballparks have turned to ticket prices and seat licenses as sources of additional revenue. But Mr. Ricketts said there had been no discussion of either of those options. The Cubs may have limited ability to raise ticket prices much beyond a previously announced 2010 increase that will most likely keep the team within baseball’s top three.

Experts who have studied the challenges of the Ricketts family note that the sale of Comiskey Park’s naming rights to U.S. Cellular in 2003 in a 20-year, $68 million deal, made it possible to renovate the upper deck of that South Side ballpark, make fans more comfortable and improve the White Sox’s revenues.

The U.S. Cellular naming rights came in at $3.4 million a year. A leading sports consultancy estimates that naming rights to Wrigley could fetch much more.

Jim Andrews, senior vice president of the IEG consulting firm, said he believed a Wrigley Field rights deal could be worth $5 million a year now, and maybe twice that in a better economic climate.

“It’s not an optimal time with the economy, but if they can wait a bit for the market to come back, I think you’re easily into the $10 million-a-year range,” said Mr. Andrews, who helped the Minnesota Twins sell naming rights to Target for their new park, which is set to open in 2010. “That’s a pretty exclusive property.”

The Yankees took a different approach, selling sponsorship “zones” at their new facility in the Bronx while retaining the Yankee Stadium name. Certain areas of Wrigley – the Bud Light Bleachers, the Captain Morgan Club, the Chicago Board Options Exchange box seats – have already been sold, but consultants note that such “incremental income” is less lucrative than one major rights deal.

Mr. Andrews noted that a company responsible for a name change at the ballpark could face potentially damaging public relations fallout. “You’re in for a lot of grief,” he said. “It will die down, but there’s such a long history of people calling it Wrigley Field.”

During the Cubs auction, naming rights were considered such a touchy issue that they were discussed only peripherally, in reference to a Tribune proposal to persuade Bill Wrigley, then head of the gum company, to pay to keep his company’s name on the ballpark, Mr. Thompson said.

“We didn’t think about changing the name,” he said. “It’s too much a part of the culture out there.”

The Ricketts family sees the ballpark as an essential part of the Cubs’ identity and a major source of the franchise’s value. Members cite Fenway Park, the thriving 97-year-old home of the Boston Red Sox, as their analogy.

Fenway has undergone a $150-million renovation that began shortly after a group led by John Henry, an investor, bought the Red Sox in 2002. The Henry group paid for the work without selling naming rights through revenue-generating changes that include these: The addition of “Green Monster seats” above the fabled left-field wall; transforming the adjacent Yawkey Way into an “on-campus” concourse; and conversion of the ground floor of a nearby parking structure into retail outlets. New seats throughout the park and other changes have updated the park without sacrificing the Fenway feel.

“Anyone doing work related to the ballpark was going to have to take the Fenway Park Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm,” said Larry Lucchino, the Red Sox president. “Fenway will be viable for another 40 to 50 years. We’ve set ourselves apart by being something special. We preserved the spirit of the place.”

Janet Marie Smith is the architect who oversaw the Fenway renovation, which was done in phases during the off-seasons so the team’s schedule was not disrupted. “Doing it in stages ended up being a virtue,” Ms. Smith said. “Each phase got the attention it deserved.”

The Ricketts family’s to-do list is nearly as ambitious as the Henry group’s was seven years ago. Construction of a long-planned “triangle building” on a triangular-shaped parcel northwest of the ballpark on Clark Street would add revenue-generating retail outlets and could house team offices now in Wrigley, Tom Ricketts said. This would create room within the park for expanded concourses with more concessions and more clubhouse space for the players.

The new owners have no intention of having the Cubs play elsewhere while renovations are done, Mr. Ricketts said.

Bud Selig, the baseball commissioner, endorses the Rickettses’ approach and admires their stated respect for Wrigley’s special status.

“Some edifices are sports cathedrals that have to be preserved,” Mr. Selig said. “Wrigley Field is one of them.”

New York Times

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