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No State Ownership of Wrigley Field!

Daniel J. Kelley 21 December 2007 4 Comments

Can you remember when a Governor Moonbeam held office in California rather than Illinois? Our zany adolescent masquerading as a fifty-one year old has hit upon a new scheme to bolster his sagging popularity with the electorate: Blagojevich is reported to be considering purchasing venerable Wrigley field and assigning its operations to the habitually inept Illinois Sports Facilities Authority.

Since the State of Illinois cannot attend to its most basic responsibilities, Blagojevich feels that an afternoon at the ballpark is just the cure for what ails us. Moreover, state ownership of the ninety-five year old stadium will help keep the team in Chicago rather than moving to the suburbs. As an added benefit, the deal may aid the Sam Zell’s purchase of the Tribune Corporation. Zell has indicated that he will sell the Cubs franchise and the associated real estate separately to pay for his purchase of the media conglomerate.

Naming rights for the stadium will also be available to the highest bidder. Traditionalists may be outraged, but, as will be explained, the stadium had several names prior to be renamed for William Wrigley, Jr. The big question is how prudent it is for the State of Illinois to dabble in managing another sports venue given its lackluster record in terms of leasing and operating other facilities? Wrigley field presents additional problems: as the second oldest baseball park in the major leagues its physical plant may be in need of costly repairs and upgrades.

The park was initially the home of the Chicago Whales of the maverick Federal League, a third major circuit that briefly competed with the American and National Leagues in 1914 -15. As part of a legal settlement, the Whales’ owner, Charles Weegham, was permitted to buy the Chicago Cubs in 1916/ He moved the team from the West Side (the UIC campus occupies the site of the former park) to the field that he had constructed for the Whales in 1914). When financial reverses hit Weegham’s bankroll, he began selling his stock to a minority shareholder by the name of William Wrigley. Wrigley eventually obtained a controlling interest in the team in 1925. He began expanding the park during the Roaring Twenties and added an upper deck to accommodate growing crowds. Wrigley was an unabashed sports enthusiast and he spent lavishly on the stadium and on the roster. One of his friends was Chicago Mayor William Hale Thompson, who regularly attended games at what was called Cubs Park. As Big Bill’s political ally, Wrigley, served as a delegate to four consecutive Republican National Conventions. Following Wrigley’s death in 1932, his son, Philip Knight Wrigley, renamed the park for his late father.

The park did not achieve its now familiar configuration until Bill Veeck undertook a construction project to build permanent bleachers in 1937. The current scoreboard was installed at the same time. Veeck described the myriad complications attending this remodeling job in his hilarious autobiography “Veeck as in Wreck.”

Veeck planted bittersweet and ivy on the outfield walls, but in time the familiar ivy took over. This renovation was planned to coincide with the next Cubs appearance in the World Series, or so thought P. K. Wrigley, but the New York Giants spoiled the Cubs’ postseason plans by edging Chicago in the pennant race for the second consecutive year. The team managed to make it to the Series in 1938, but were promptly swept by the New York Yankees. The team made its most recent World Series appearance in 1945 and have been frustrating generations of fans ever since.

While P. K. Wrigley actually reduced seating to provide better sightlines for fans, its current owner, Tribune has been shoehorning additional seats into every nook and cranny to increase ticket revenues. In 2007, the Cubs drew a record number of fans as the team surpassed the three million mark. It would be premature to think such attendance figures are guaranteed, however, if the state of Illinois takes over.

While White Sox fans may be pleased with the legislative bailout which preserved baseball on the South Side, the creation of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority has been less than a success for the Illinois taxpayers. For openers, the architectural plans approved by the White Sox and the political appointees on t he ISFA board proved to be immensely unpopular. The new ballpark, with the catchy name U. S. Cellular field, is cheerless and lacks charm. Although the lower grandstands provide excellent sightlines and ample concessions, the structure itself has the charm of a multilevel parking garage. The upper decks feature steep stairs that discourage vendors from serving patrons in the nosebleed seats. If you’ve ever sat up there in the stratosphere you may well have experienced vertigo.

From a fiscal point of view, the ISFA lease has been a consistent money loser. The White Sox have such a sweetheart rental agreement that one might suspect that George Ryan and Larry Warner may have cooked up its terms before being fitted for their orange jumpsuits. Prior to 2001, the White Sox paid nothing for the use of the stadium unless their attendance exceeded 1.2 million paid admissions. More often than not, the team paid next to nothing in rent.

In return for cosmetic repairs to the decade-old stadium, the lease was renegotiated. Almost all of the renovations were intended to make the sterile facility more aesthetically pleasing. Several rows of upper deck seats were eliminated and retro features were incorporated into the park to make fans feel more comfortable with the appearance of the stadium. Even ivy was added to centerfield! Nonetheless, the new pact is not a moneymaker for the IFSA. The base annual rent is a ridiculously low $1.24 million (about the annual salary of a mediocre bench player); after the team draws 1.5 million spectators at full ticket prices, an additional $4.00 is paid for each extra ticket sold thereafter. If the team sells 2 million tickets at full price, an extra $1.50 per ticket is paid to the ISFA.

According to a 2005 study by the Heartland Institute, the White Sox paid rent in only nine seasons since the stadium opened in 1991 and, on most occasions, the rental income was nominal as the team barely exceeded its attendance threshold. One 2003 study suggested that Illinois taxpayers have subsidized every ticket purchaser attending a White Sox game to the tune of about $20.20 per person. Ticket sales have never met expectations and the White Sox continually attract fewer patrons than other similarly situated major league teams. The Illinois Sports Facilities Authority has spent over $200 million dollars on US Cellular field to date. In the most recent IFSA annual report, revenues from White Sox games continued to disappoint and the ISFA lost over a half million dollars.

During the 2005 World Series, the White Sox paid no rent for the use of the ballpark since the lease did not provide for any rent or revenue sharing from ticket sales, concessions, merchandise sales and parking fees generated during the postseason. Incredibly, the lease contained no express references to postseason play and the ISFA collected nothing from the White Sox during their storybook run through postseason playoffs and World Series. With a potential windfall on their hands, the ISFA board members came up penniless.

Need I mention that former Governor James R. (Big Jim) Thompson chairs the ISFA? This is not encouraging for those who want fiscal accountability to say the least. . Thompson only skimmed the financials of the “Sun-Times”” parent corporation so interested was he in clinking martinis with a celebrity board—all the while Conrad Black and David Radler were looting the joint. .

In all due fairness, similar criticisms could be leveled against the tenancy of the Chicago Bears at the newly reconfigured Soldier Field. Both the Chicago park district and the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority share in the mismanagement of the Mistake by the Lake. The architectural monstrosity caused the stadium to lose its national landmark designation. A look at the initial data is discouraging, but not conclusive as to a trend yet.

If Blagojevich proceeds with this latest populist proposal, Illinois taxpayers should call, a balk against their grandstanding governor.

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Lawyer Daniel J. Kelley, a baseball fan and an Illinois taxpayer, is a regular columnist for The Chicago Daily Obsefver..

4 Comments »

  • Bob DeBarnone (author) said:

    I don’t understand. Are chewing gum sales down? If so, it is time to bring back the never ending series of sexy Double Mint Twins featured in the Wrigley gum commercials. Once this ever so effective mastication campaign is relaunched and resulting sales up again, private industry will be able to continue subsidizing the Ballpark if it is indeed losing money with no sweat.

    Nuff Said. Problem solved. No need to thank me.

  • Dan Kelley (author) said:

    The Tribune Corporation has owned the baseball team since the Wrigley family sold it about twenty-five years ago, but the ballpark was not renamed since it was such a valuable asset. Now, the Tribune has hit the skids and it was recently sold. The new owner is not interested in owning a team and he is trying to make more money by selling the team and the park to the highest bidders.

  • John Ruberry (author) said:

    Sounds like this fella has not been to U.S. Cellular since all the changes. The place is getting better and with time, will continue to improve.

    Wrigley was not an original name or the original home of the cubs.

    I think the thing should be bulldozed, not because it can’t be rehabbed, but because it is an inconvenient location and because it could never generate the revenue of a new Park with modern facilities.

  • Tim Rasmussen (author) said:

    I wonder how long it will be before our political leaders bend over and agree to a sales tax increment financing deal to further subsidize the purchase of Wrigley Field.

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