Wrigley Field: Back to the Future
Apparently Fenway Park is a big part of Wrigley Field's Upgrade Template for Tom Ricketts.
Cubs management over the past few years has held several luncheon meetings for season ticket holders where they provide a forum for suggestions to improve the ballpark experience. I finally had my chance last Thursday to attend one of these sessions.
Wrigley Field on this warm September non-game day had it's usual majestic feel but without the game day buzz, one senses the serenity that is baseball's crown jewel at rest. The streets surrounding the ballpark maintain their working day activities, construction site sidewalk hazards, beer trucks unloading their wares, but open parking spots on Addison seemed out of place.
The concourse was empty but they provided lunch, so one of the concession stands behind first base had activity, hot dogs, polish sausage, hamburgers, chips, soft drinks...and the mustard/relish stands were set up.
Then that moment I love every time it occurs, walking up the steps going to the stands as the field unfolds before my eyes. I hope this is what Heaven truly looks like. They had set up behind the first base dugout with bar stool seats in the row between lower and upper boxes for the management team. We were invited to sit anywhere in the upper part of the box seat section. Microphones and speakers set up so all could hear and ask questions. Led by Crane Kenney (Chairman of the Cubs) and Mark McGuire (Exec VP/Business Operations), they had about 8 of the facility management team. I didn't take notes so the others I remember speaking were Michael Lufrano (General Counsel/Community Affairs/Sr. VP) and Carl Rice (Sr Director/Facility Mgt and Information Technology). About 75 season ticket holders were there and the session lasted almost 2 hours.
Crane Kenney opened with the proviso that they were not going to discuss any on the field issues regarding baseball operations. This was a forum for anything other than the actual team. No complaining about why Soriano is a sucker for breaking balls out of the strike zone or why Bobby Scales is playing LF instead of Jake Fox this September.
Kenney had just returned the night before from Boston with Tom Ricketts to tour Fenway Park with the focus on how they had rehabbed their ballpark in the recent years under the relatively recent (2002) ownership of John Henry.
Here's the Boston timeline: Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Luccino bought the Red Sox in 2002 for $700 Million. From an on the field side of the change, that first year they brought in whiz kid Theo Epstein as GM. They won a World Series by 2004, so that in itself is impressive considering they had their own demons (Yankees) to and curses (Bambino) to slay. Mr. Ricketts, I'm really glad you are paying attention to the Boston experience.
Back to the topic of what Wrigley Field can learn from the Fenway refurbishing experience. What Kenney said was that the Red Sox were able to rebuild Fenway in sections with out leaving the park (for a season) to do a massive overhaul. They rebuilt Fenway's upper deck as well as adding a new annex building allowing them to move out all non essential parts (i.e. the business offices) from the old facility. Now that the Cubs now own the triangle property (on Clark), the Fenway model can be a key part of the Wrigley plan. It should provide a campus feel with shops and restaurants. The re-locations can create space for better team facilities, modernized concession services and restrooms.The upper deck rebuild is a big (probably multi-year) deal but new sky boxes that would come out of that will help that on the revenue side. The current sky boxes are more cement bunker than luxury apartments that newer facilities provide.
The Red Sox also had major upgrades to technology and although the Wrigley Field center field scoreboard is unlikely to see much change they are exploring other ideas including a Jumbo-tron (that's going to spark some intense controversy from the old schoolers if it happens) from one of the buildings on Waveland ave but it's definitely not a consideration inside the park. On technology upgrades, I personally asked for wi-fi access and a dedicated pitch count scoreboard (right now pitch counts are occasionally shown on the electronic board below the upper deck railing, down the right field line).
Fenway's electronic upgrades have a chance of being copied because they were done in a "traditional" way:
Four new electronic scoreboards along the face of the upper deck bring the ballpark into the 21st century technologically. But, Smith said, the graphics used on the LED screens will be limited to information such as scorelines and batting statistics, instead of the fancy graphics used at many arenas.
“It’s the best technology one can buy,” Smith said, “but the presentation of the information is very traditional.”
This isn't directly a Cubs issue but I learned that AT&T has a cell
tower on the roof down the left field line (just behind the light tower). Their cabling is antiquated
but will be upgraded this off season. Apparently a squirrel ate thru
their cabling and it took an absurd amount of time to find this out as well as to repair the damage (not kidding). Their 3G
data network works only for the first 75 phones then everyone trying to access the network above that gets
bumped. Supposedly this problem will get addressed in the off-season as AT&T has targeted Chicago as one of the cities to receive major upgrades.
The session covered many topics as the attendee's were given 2 hours to ask whatever was on their minds.
Topics included (now I wish I had taken notes to cover this better):
• Almost everyone is tiring of the guest singers for the 7th inning stretch, particularly non-Cub/Chicago related singers. One suggestion which drew some chuckles was to bring out a video screen on to the field and have a Harry Caray video lead everyone in "take me out to the ballgame" after all he's still the original. Talk about warm-fuzzy and a bit creepy.
• Season ticket issues and PSL's. It was discussed why seat relocations rarely occur. Apparently they have such low turnover that most of the changes are on the "fringe" areas of seats. They have maintained their partial ticket packages. That wait list for season tickets shrinks at a glacial pace. As of this past off season the list was over 100,000 and the reported renewal rate was less than 98% which meant only 200 or so new ticket holders come off the list annually. This lead to the mentioning of PSL's. The dilemma of having "families" hand down ownership generationally was discussed. They try to accommodate families but there is a limit on how these are stretched. There are "consortiums" where blocks of 40 tickets are wielded by one name on the account and those tickets get distributed by the account holder but it's not a family thing. I get the sense that they want PSL's but Tom Ricketts is exploring the implications. I'm sure that if they want to extensively remodel Wrigley it's going to happen.
I took this from the Bears PSL Q and A page on their PSL guidelines:
What is a PSL? PSL stands for "Permanent Seat License." It is a one-time fee. It is called a "Permanent Seat License" because it gives you permanent control over your seats. It also gives you the right to purchase season tickets for those seats and determine who may next gain control of that right for as long as the Bears call Soldier Field home.
So PSL's will create a secondary market for season tickets as best as I can tell. If you decide to sell the PSL (at least wrt the Bears) the Bears will not be the re-purchasers. Still this lets the PSL holder keep the tickets in the family as long as they want them. Once the PSL is purchased it's value will be determined by supply and demand/market forces so I'd expect it to be sold to ticket holders as an investment that should hold it's value. I'm sure the Bears and other PSL experiences will be a valuable comparison if/when the time comes.
• Parking. This will be a mess because there just are not enough options to build parking in nearby Wrigleyville. They have shuttled parking at DeVry, and what the call the Green lot (located at 1126 W. Grace) and the Brown lot but basically it's out of control with not much hope in sight. Pricing for parking was also complained about. Looks like using public options including the "L" will be a part of Wrigley's ambiance going forward. Their bicycle check program has been well received and will continue and may get expanded because of it's success.
• Arizona vs Florida for spring training. Apparently the Cubs are negotiating with the Hohokams but they have used an out clause on their lease. Here's the story as of 8/28/09:
The Cubs have indicated they'll take advantage of an out clause in their Hohokam lease in the coming year, making discussions necessary. But this doesn't mean the Cubs are looking to leave Mesa; we hear the team would like to stay in Mesa, preferably in a situation where there's more revenue potential. Whether that means renovated Hohokam Park or building a new facility near the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport remains to be seen.
Regarding Florida, Kenney said that once they invoked the out clause several sites in Florida where teams have left (Vero Beach/Dodgertown for sure) contacted them to see what could be done to lure them. The Cubs use Arizona as a key hub for many minor league operations including their rehab center and I think Arizona Phil can stop worrying about name changing to Florida Phil. I do expect they will get a significant upgrade to their Arizona facilities even if it takes the form of a new site since they are a key draw to the area. Florida will have to blow them away with an offer and it still is a decision that will be solely in Tom Ricketts hands.
• Wrigley Remodeling (funding) issues. This was a Tribune dilemma and will be transferred to Tom Ricketts. They are still bothered by the hotel tax (public funds) that benefits the White Sox stadium operations.
The bond payments for both stadiums (also Soldier Field) are funded by a 2 percent hotel tax in Chicago, which generates about $23 million a year. That tax was first levied in 1988, after the Illinois General Assembly created the ISFA to issue bonds for a new stadium for the White Sox.
I'm not sure what ranking system the Cubs use for this but what is the #1 and #2 Chicago tourist attractions: Navy Pier, Buckingham Fountain, Millennium Park or the Museum Campus (Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, Field Museum)? According to Crane Kenney, Wrigley Field is the third biggest tourist attraction to the Chicago area (maybe in Illinois too?) but those visitors stay in hotels and pay their taxes to the benefit of Jerry Reinsdorf's facility. I found this Crane Kenney quote from CSN TV's, "Chicago Tribune Live" show:
Kenney was asked how future renovations and improvements to Wrigley Field could compare to U.S. Cellular Field, and he said, "Jerry is like Phyllis Diller: he gets a face lift about every three years down on the South Side. We actually don’t have a public source of financing, so we don’t have a hotel tax to rebuild our stadium ever year. We’ve got to find it in our own pockets so it’s a little more limited.”
I'd expect some tactful negotiating to address that inequity. I heard something about Tom Ricketts proposing a dollar for dollar matching program possibly to show that he's not just asking for a freebie.
• Concessions. They started what they considered an upgrade by bringing in the Levy Group to cater the skybox area and the Stadium Club and recently that group took over the entire concession operations. The facility space limitations are an issue why they can't bring in as much diverse food options but the Triangle project may help there. There was a complaint that they are no longer providing Kosher Hot Dogs and that probably will be addressed. Someone suggested Hebrew National or Vienna (which is a Chicago company). Apparently the Cubs are aware that the perception is the food at US Cellular is better and it's been a difficult uphill battle to fix that but Mark McGuire pointed out that both stadiums have the same hot dog brands. It was also recommended to get rid of the cotton candy/popcorn on a pole which obstructs views (E-Man hates these almost as much as he does Will Ohman).
• Wrigley 2014. They are working even now on Wrigley Field's 100th anniversary celebration. Hopefully the Cubs can break out the confetti before then.
Incidentally, it looks like Soriano has decided to get his knee scoped sometime this week. Bruce Levine reports there are loose "fragments" (of cartilage) to be removed. Soon we'll know the rest of the story.
There will be an additional reason to celebrate in 2014. That's the last year of Alfonso Soriano's eight year deal.