It was one year ago at the Cubs Convention that the Cubs unveiled plans to renovate Wrigley Field with private funds. It was greeted with awe, cheers, and anticipation.
… and then nothing happened for a year.
I’m being a little glib, of course, because a great deal did happen, at least with respect to the lengthy, sometimes ridiculous, political process. The Cubs have all of the permissions they need to start the renovation, they’ve got some of the sponsors that will come out of the renovation lined up, and they are ready and eager to get started.
But why haven’t they started yet?
- “I think you know why,” President of Business Operations Crane Kenney remarked after a similar setup during a presentation at the outset of the business panel. In a changed tone from months past, the Cubs are quite clearly painting the rooftop businesses as the primary hold up in the entire Wrigley Field renovation. Calling them a “$20 million drag” on Cubs business operations, Kenney laid out what needs to happen with the rooftops before the Cubs can start work: rooftop capacity limits must be enforced, there must be restrictions on “ambush advertising” (i.e., the Cubs want to control advertising around the park, not the rooftops), the Cubs must have certainty that they can do what they want with the bleachers/signage after the rooftop contract is up (2023), and the Cubs want the rooftops to drop their threat of a lawsuit that could delay everything.
- That explanation is why the Ricketts Family doesn’t want to start writing checks for the full renovation before they know they’ll be able to generate revenue (essentially, to cover those checks) with the outfield signage. From a business perspective, this makes sense. But if the player facilities or crumbling concrete are so important to the future of the organization, why wouldn’t the Ricketts Family be willing to go out of pocket to start those projects, even if the outfield signage is imperiled by the threat of a rooftop lawsuit?
- Well, for the first time, we got a clear answer from the Cubs, per General Counsel Mike Lufrano: the method by which the rooftops would legally challenge the outfield signage (the only part of the renovation with which they take issue) would actually challenge the zoning of the entire project. In other words, the Cubs really can’t start the rest of the renovation, because if things come to blows legally with the rooftops, the Cubs could have already done work that is subsequently determined to be unlawful. Can you imagine that disaster?
- Dovetailing with that point, Kenney told the media after the panel, per Jon Greenberg, that the contract with the rooftops – the agreement by which the rooftops get to sell tickets for views into Wrigley Field in exchange for 17% of their revenues – is not what is preventing the Cubs from putting up signs. The only thing that ever prevented signage, according to Kenney, was the landmark status of the bleachers, which has now been changed. So why not go ahead and throw up the signs? Well, because I’m guessing the rooftops, in addition to challenging the zoning of the entire project, would argue that the Landmarks Commission did not act lawfully in altering the landmark status of the bleachers to allow signage. So, if the rooftops sued the Cubs, they’d be suing the City of Chicago, too. Knowing this, and knowing how extraordinarily unlikely such a suit would be to succeed, I now believe that some kind of agreement will be worked out with the rooftops. The pressure that must be raining down from the City at this point has to be extreme.
- In his own remarks about the rooftop situation, owner and chairman Tom Ricketts analogized the rooftops to a neighbor peering through your window as you watch Showtime, which you’ve paid to subscribe to. More than that, the neighbor is selling tickets to watch through your window, and, when you try to close the blinds, the city tells you to open them. Now, in that analogy, you’re getting 17% of those ticket prices from the neighbor, but the point largely remains, particularly if the Cubs can’t do whatever they want after the rooftop contract is up.
- To be sure, Ricketts did mention at times that he likes the rooftop owners personally, they have good conversations, and there are positives about the rooftops from an atmospheric perspective.
- Multiple references were made at the ownership panel and the business panel to good conversations over the past couple of weeks with the rooftops (some of which included the City, as well), so maybe there really is something on the way soon.
- The good news is that, despite all of the political wrangling and rooftop fighting, the fans might not be too much worse off when it comes to timeline of the renovation. Both Tom Ricketts and Crane Kenney mentioned the possibility of getting the renovation done in four years, as opposed to the originally-projected five years. So, the end date may not have changed, despite the “lost” year. That’s great news. It could end up costing the Ricketts Family a little more money, though.
- Kenney added, flatly, that the left field video board (the JumboTron) “will” be added in 2015.
- To that point, Kenney said something interesting: when going through the standard spiel about the Ricketts Family agreed to renovation Wrigley and develop the surrounding area without any public dollars, Kenney added a small clause that I haven’t heard anyone else utter publicly before. Kenney said that the Ricketts Family agreed to finance the $500 million project “using family assets.” It’s such a small clause, but it could have so much meaning. Is the message here designed to pre-empt concerns about the financing of the renovation, given the already-prevalent debt concerns? I, myself, have wondered for some time whether the intent was to finance the project with more debt (attributable to the Cubs organization? the Ricketts Family, personally?), and, if so, how was that going to impact the financial state of the club? Is Kenney saying that the Ricketts Family will actually be paying out of pocket for the renovation and development? I won’t read more into Kenney’s statement than is there – the word “using” is fungible, as is the word “assets” (because, hell, that could include the Cubs organization, itself) – but I did think it worth highlighting.