Just 72 hours before Opening Day, a federal judge has dashed the hopes of Wrigley Field rooftop bar owners — refusing to ban the Cubs from installing outfield signs that will block the rooftop owners’ lucrative views into the ballpark.
U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall ruled that the Cubs’ plan to block the rooftop views neither violated federal antitrust law nor a 2002 revenue sharing agreement with the rooftop owners.
The rooftop owners took too long to ask for an injunction against the Cubs, can continue to sue the Cubs for their lost revenues and could operate as regular Wrigleyville bars, Kendall wrote in a keenly-awaited 35-page ruling.
“One might argue, for example, that the patrons who go to the Rooftops do not really go to watch the game at all, and when they do, they see very little of it anyway,” the judge wrote. “In short, being in close vicinity to the game with fresh air, alcohol, and good food might be sufficient to run a business—maybe not the business they are in now—but certainly a business.”
But the ruling likely marks a death knell for several of the rooftop businesses, whose unique views into Wrigley from across Sheffield Avenue have become part of the stadium’s unique and iconic appeal, the rooftop owners say.
That’s because the Cubs are expected to move quickly to install the advertising signs — a move that the rooftop owners say will overnight destroy their businesses by preventing them from selling tickets.
The ruling is a potentially decisive twist in the long, bitter and public battle over the $575 million redevelopment of Wrigley and rooftop owners’ right to sell cut-price all-you-can-eat tickets to directly view Cubs games from outside the ballpark.
The rooftop owners had argued that the Cubs violated both a 2002 profit sharing agreement that resolved an earlier dispute over their viewing rights, and federal anti-trust law, when they put the squeeze on the rooftop owners by ordering them to sell up at cut-rate prices or see their views of the game blocked.
During a hearing last month, their attorneys painted Cubs president of baseball operations Crane Kenney as a scheming bully who snarled “We control the city” in an attempt to strong-arm the rooftop owners into selling up.
But attorneys for the Cubs contended that the Cubs were merely exercising their property rights by redeveloping Wrigley in a way that blocked the rooftop views.
And the Cubs rubbished the rooftop owners’ claims that the Cubs were attempting to create an illegal monopoly over tickets to watch Cubs games, telling the judge, “The Cubs own Cubs baseball.”
The public relations battle was just as fierce. Cubs’ owner Tom Ricketts compared the rooftop owners to someone watching a stranger’s premium cable TV package through a window, and the Cubs suggested that the revenue they were losing to the rooftop owners prevented them from fielding a winning team.
The rooftop owners took another beanball to the chin last week, when one of them, R. Marc Hamid, 46, was indicted on charges that he defrauded the Cubs out of $600,000 he owed them under the 2002 revenue-sharing deal.
But the rooftop owners also managed to hit the Cubs where it hurts, accusing the Cubs of attempting to force them to collude in a price-fixing scam. Only once the rooftop owners refused to participate in the scam did the Cubs move to block their views, with Kenney boasting that the Cubs had the sway they needed over City Hall to redevelop Wrigley and exclude the rooftop owners, they alleged.
Kendall, though, sided with Cubs on every major issue, rejecting the rooftops owners argument that it was possible for the Cubs to hold an illegal monopoly on Cubs game tickets.
“While the Court accepts that there are some die-hard Cubs fans that would never attend a White Sox game, that does not mean that Cubs games constitute their own market,” she wrote.
Her ruling does not affect several rooftops already controlled by the Cubs’ owners. The views from those rooftops were not affected by the Cubs plans.
The Cubs play their first home game of the season against the Cardinals at 7:05 p.m. on Easter Sunday.