CHICAGO — Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts caused a stir Wednesday when he said publicly for the first time he would consider moving the team if money-making outfield signs central to his Wrigley Field renovation plan failed to win the city’s blessing.
The surprise utterance may have been a brush-back pitch as the approval process gets underway or merely a wild-pitch response to a hypothetical question posed to a businessman still adjusting to the spotlight.
Either way, the resulting frenzy led Ricketts and his spokesmen to spend the rest of the day tamping down the remark and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to assure Chicago that the Wrigley plan remains on track. Owners of the rooftop clubs that oppose new signs that would block their lucrative views, meanwhile, argued Ricketts was bluffing about moving away.
The flap came the same day the Cubs formally submitted its stadium renovation plans to the city, launching a months-long process that will include public hearings. During those sessions, the pros and cons of a proposed 6,000-square-foot video board in left field and a 1,000-square-foot sign in right are sure to be debated.
Before the paperwork was filed, however, Ricketts spoke to a packed room of movers and shakers at a City Club of Chicago breakfast. He was asked by an audience member what he would do if the outfield signs were rejected in the face of opposition. The team hopes the signs generate $20 million a year for the Cubs to pay for the $300 million ballpark renovation and $200 million hotel development.
“I’m not sure how anyone is going to stop the signs in the outfield, but if it comes to the point that we don’t have the ability to do what we need to do in our outfield then we’re going to have to consider moving,” Ricketts replied. “It’s as simple as that.”
Afterward, Ricketts offered some clarification.
“The fact is we are committed to try to work this out,” Ricketts told reporters. “We’ve always said that we want to win in Wrigley Field, but we also need to generate the revenue we need to compete as a franchise. Having the ability to put video boards and signs in the outfield is very important to us.”
Later in the day, on WMVP-AM 1000, the Cubs chairman toned it down even more.
“I think everything is going to be fine,” Ricketts said. “There is so much at stake for the city, for the neighborhood, for the team, for the fans that everyone has enough incentive to make sure we do this the right way and get it done.”
Ricketts’ talk of a potential departure caused such a media firestorm partly because he had not previously raised the idea of leaving, as many teams do when negotiating stadium deals, even though he’s been talking renovation since his family bought the team in 2009. He has repeatedly expressed his affection for the ballpark and his family’s intention to preserve Wrigley for future generations, even after he lost a bid for public financing.
The mayor adopted an everything’s OK approach, noting that the outfield signs, if not their precise size, were agreed to in a framework plan hammered out over weeks of intense negotiations among Ricketts, Emanuel and 44th Ward Ald. Tom Tunney.
“One of the reasons we had a framework was there is now certainty around what they needed,” Emanuel said. “There will be a Jumbotron in left field. There will be a sign in right field, things that they think are necessary. There also will be signage in the plaza.”
The mayor also said he did not consider the team leaving the North Side a serious possibility because Ricketts understands how the city and ballpark contribute to team profits. “If you go through what Tom said and the others, they also know from their own business sense how important Wrigley Field is to their business and Chicago is to their business,” Emanuel said.
Will DeMille, president of the Lake View Citizens’ Council, has expressed concerns about the impact the Wrigley plans will have on the already congested neighborhood, including the new hotel, office building and walkway connecting them over Clark Street. Nevertheless, he said he understood the team’s need for the outfield signs.
“That’s a big part of the revenue model to make it work,” DeMille said, dismissing the idea that the Cubs would end up packing their bags. “Pieces and plans are falling into place, and I’d be surprised if they get to the point where they decided to leave.”
The primary critics of the outfield signs have been the 16 rooftop club owners, who give the Cubs 17 percent of their profits under a 20-year contract that expires at the end of 2023. They have rattled a legal saber, saying that their deal with the cubs and stadium landmark ordinance prevent the team from blocking their views.
Beth Murphy, a prominent rooftop club owner, attended the breakfast where Ricketts spoke and said afterward that she believed Ricketts was bluffing.
“I don’t know where he is going to move,” she said. “They come to Wrigley Field because it’s an old ballpark, and it’s in a neighborhood. Look at this team.”
Later in the day, Murphy and other rooftop owners met with Cubs executives Crane Kenney and Mike Lufrano. Murphy said she left that meeting optimistic the sides would be able to come to agreement. Cubs officials, who already have agreed to move the outfield walls back to limit rooftop view blockage, said they would soon put up “mock-up” signs so rooftop owners could assess how they would affect their businesses, she added.
“Even if it seems as if we can’t work together, we have worked together, and I continue to feel we’re partners and benefit each other,” said Murphy, who suggested that the plans will be modified as they work their way through the process. “Until something is done, there is room for improvement and compromise.”
Under the framework agreement reached about two weeks ago, the Cubs plan to add the two major outfield signs, plus four other signs in the outfield area. The agreement also calls for at least 40 night games a year, six more late-afternoon Friday starts and weekend closures of Sheffield Avenue for street fairs.
And it allows for extensive signage in the plaza slated for the triangle-shaped property just west of the stadium and on a hotel across the street. But the exact size of the video board in left and the sign in right have yet to be set, and the amount and type of signage in the surrounding neighborhood also remains to be seen.
Those who viewed Ricketts hint at a potential move as a bluff questioned whether Cubs ownership could afford to spend even more money to build a new stadium, given the ballclub carries a high level of debt from when it borrowed to purchase the team from Tribune Co., which retains a 5 percent stake. There’s also the open question of whether the Cubs’ ability to turn large profits would be retained if it moved to the suburbs or out of state.
Recent stadium projects include the $555 million Target Field, which opened in 2010 as the new home of the Minnesota Twins, and the $634 million Marlins Park, which opened last year for the re-christened Miami Marlins. Both ballparks were funded primarily through public financing, an option that has thus far eluded the Cubs.
“It’s not that they weren’t asking for public dollars,” Emanuel noted Wednesday. “They’re not going to get them, because it was clear that was not going to happen.”
Without public financing, building a new stadium is unlikely to be a boon for the Cubs, according to Allen Sanderson, a University of Chicago sports economist. “Stadiums tend to help the franchise if they’re paid for with somebody else’s money,” Sanderson said. “If they’re paid for with their own money, they tend to be economic losers.”
The Mets and Yankees spent more than $3 billion combined to open their new respective ballparks in 2009, according to Neil deMause, a New York-based writer and authority on stadium financing. He said that the public costs for both ballparks have reached about $1.8 billion.
A new Cubs ballpark would likely cost more than $1 billion, according to deMause, an investment he doubts will pay off, even with a plethora of revenue-generating amenities.
“I can’t possibly imagine that they could earn it back,” deMause said. “Even a stadium with all the bells and whistles in the suburbs isn’t going to have more revenue potential than Wrigley is, because you’re giving up location.”