Cubs banking on Wrigley rehab for more NU-type deals

Kenney, Phillips on Northwestern, Cubs partnership

Cubs banking on Wrigley rehab for more NU-type deals
February 5, 2013, 9:45 pm
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The Cubs have so many big ideas – once they figure out a way to finance the Wrigley Field renovation.

Team executives want more night games, more concerts – Pearl Jam tickets go on sale Saturday! – increased advertising around the ballpark, maybe even a Jumbotron. President of business operations Crane Kenney indicated a bowl game is a future possibility at Clark and Addison.

Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips hopes the atmosphere at five potential football games will give the Cubs the “ammunition” to convince local officials to shut down Sheffield Avenue and let them create their own pedestrian space to sell beer, food and merchandise.

After Tuesday’s news conference announcing that multi-year partnership with Northwestern, chairman Tom Ricketts declined to say whether he’s spoken to Mayor Rahm Emanuel since those restoration plans were unveiled last month at Cubs Convention.

But lobbying the city to ease restrictions around the ballpark appears to be a more sensible argument than asking for $200 million in state-issued bonds (especially when the head of the Ricketts family – Joe – has a conservative Super PAC called “Ending Spending”). And there seems to be a thaw in the cold war between the mayor’s office and the Cubs after a bitter presidential campaign.

“Everything’s moving forward and we’re making progress, I think,” Ricketts said. “So we’ll let you know when we have something that works for everybody.”

The clock is ticking if the Cubs want to begin construction in fall 2013.

“You kind of have to know a few months in advance,” Ricketts acknowledged. “I’m not sure what the hard deadline is, but we’d like to know pretty soon whether or not this is the season we get started.”

The Cubs say the stadium would be redesigned in a way that would allow the home dugout to be taken apart during the offseason, creating enough room to avoid the embarrassment in November 2010, when a last-minute change made by the Big Ten forced Northwestern and Illinois to use only one end zone.

But the event still generated a lot of buzz, and Northwestern will get a chance to tap into that again and again as part of an exclusive agreement. Notre Dame football is “not really on the table,” Kenney said, “other than potentially a bowl game.” Kenney, a Notre Dame graduate, cited Yankee Stadium’s Pinstripe Bowl as an example.

Phillips isn’t locked into a rematch with Illinois and said the Wildcats would look into a variety of Big Ten opponents for their marquee games. Kenney said those dates will be in November because “we’re reserving October for playoff baseball.”

That’s overly optimistic coming off a 101-loss season, and going on more than a century since their last World Series title, but, hey, it’s that time of year, with players already working out at the Cubs complex beneath the Arizona sunshine.

But if the Cubs are going to follow the Boston Red Sox model and win multiple championships, the baseball operations department is going to need the business side to generate more and more revenue to pour into the on-field product.

That tension led to everything unraveling at Fenway Park, though president of baseball operations Theo Epstein has predicted there will be “terrific synergy” between the two sides.

You can already identify the sweet spot. There’s an opt-out clause in the WGN television deal after the 2014 season. The homegrown core should have matured by 2015, with careful, selective investments made in free agency. Wrigley Field could be on its way to being tricked out with new player training facilities, party decks, LED boards and luxury suites.

In the meantime, Epstein’s boy Eddie Vedder will be putting on a show this summer, almost one year after the “Friendly at the Confines” between Italy’s AS Roma and Poland's Zaglebie Lubin. It’s easy to picture the Cubs pushing for more international soccer and other showcases.

“We’re always looking for ways to do more at the field,” Ricketts said. “We really feel like Wrigley is such a special place that when you come and have a great memory it just further bonds you to the building and the team. It’s great for the neighborhood, too. It’s a big win for everybody and anything we can do (when) the field is otherwise not being used is something we should look at.”

Of course, the Cubs aren’t obligated to open their books and disclose their finances. But they promise the money from the Northwestern deal and other ventures will be going back into the team. The fans can only hope this will boost what has become a mid-market payroll.

“This goes back to the Ricketts family’s first press conference in (2009),” Kenney said. “Not just this game, but all the profits that are made in the organization are being returned to the baseball side of the house. So we’re in this for one mission and these events really help.”

The Northwestern baseball team will host Michigan on April 20 at Wrigley Field. Its women’s lacrosse team – which has won seven of the last eight NCAA national titles – will play Notre Dame there next spring.

Football coach Pat Fitzgerald, who once worked security – “not a bouncer!” – at a Wrigleyville rooftop for a summer job, thinks this will be a unique selling point to recruits.

“I was one of those guys making sure everybody had a good time,” Fitzgerald said, “(and) it seemed like everybody had a good time every time. … I don’t think anyone’s had a bad day at Wrigley Field.”

That might as well be the next marketing campaign, second only to the classic get-off-our-lawn line Ricketts delivered at Cubs Convention promising to pay for the $300 million project in exchange for certain concessions: “We’re not a museum.”

No, Wrigley Field is definitely going to be open for business, as long as they can figure out how to get this off the drawing board and start removing those 50 million pounds of concrete and steel.