Cubs likely to sell Wrigley name rights
Team chairman says that club has several suitors to choose
MESA, Ariz. -- The Cubs have been approached by at least three companies interested in purchasing naming rights to Wrigley Field, and team chairman Crane Kenney said on Friday that it is likely they will sell those rights.
Kenney, speaking to beat writers about the state of the team, also said that the Cubs are progressing in their efforts to get the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority (ISFA) to buy the ballpark and operate it, and could receive an offer next week. Kenney said they are still hopeful a framework for the transaction with ISFA could be completed by Opening Day, which is March 31.
Naming rights is the hot button issue with fans. The Cubs have already made some changes, such as renaming the bleachers the "Bud Light Bleachers" and adding the new Chicago Board Options Exchange seats, currently being auctioned off. New Tribune Co. chairman Sam Zell has made it clear that he is interested in selling naming rights to the ballpark, which was built in 1914 and named after William Wrigley.
The Cleveland Indians, for example, have changed the name of their stadium to "Progressive Field" after selling the name. The New York Mets will receive $400 million after selling their new stadium name to Citibank. It will be named "Citi Field."
"It's like a Chinese menu -- people are doing it all different ways," Kenney said of naming rights. "We know there's value in people attaching their corporate brands to what we are selling out at Clark and Addison [Streets]. Whether it's on the marquee or 70 seats down by the bullpen, naming rights are something we'll keep pursuing."
Kenney said companies have expressed an interest in purchasing the naming rights the way Progressive did in Cleveland. He recognizes that fans are opposed to the concept.
"We'll assess everything and look at the various ways we can do it, and what other parties are willing to do with us and be sensitive," Kenney said. "We're not crazy. We know people prefer to keep the name on the building. I prefer to keep the name on the building. If we can make it work to do that, that would be great.
"We're not going to leave resources that would go into the payroll and go into our restoration plans on the table to appease people who say, 'I don't think you should do it.'"
The majority of the revenue created from the sale of naming rights would go into restoring Wrigley Field. Kenney said the HOK architectural firm is looking at improving the grandstand area.
"The circle would be naming rights support a rennovation of the stadium," Kenney said. "A rennovated stadium creates more revenue. More revenue goes to the team, and it's that circle that works for us. That's essentially how the payroll continues to grow."
Even if the name changes, the Cubs will not change the structure of the marquee above the entrance to the ballpark. However, they can alter the letters in the marquee.
"We couldn't take the marquee down," Kenney said. "We believe the First Amendment protects what letters we write on the marquee. If we said, 'Let's take the marquee off and do something different,' we couldn't do that. The structure of the marquee is what's landmarked."
Zell still plans on selling the Cubs, and when asked about the advantage of having ISFA own and operate Wrigley Field while someone else owns the team, Kenney said such a deal would create a pool of resources.
The Cubs have postponed building what has been called the "Triangle Building" on Clark Street next to Wrigley Field because of the cost. That building would house all non-game day, non-essential club activities, and there is potential to create a lounge at the back of the grandstands.
"It has to get built," Kenney said of the building. "It's holding us back, it's holding performance on the field back. We don't have adequate player facilities. The fact of the matter is the facilities here [in Spring Training] are better than the ones in Chicago."
Kenney said the Cubs are very much aware the sky boxes need improvements, as do the rest rooms in the ballpark and the food. There is still netting in place in some parts of Wrigley Field, to prevent concrete from falling onto the concourse.
"These are things we need to do and have needed to do for years," Kenney said. "The Tribune, as a public company, you couldn't justify, 'Let's put $250 million into Wrigley Field. You could never make the numbers work. The ISFA deal is attractive because ISFA is not-for-profit. They buy the stadium and renovate it, and what they turn over to the owner is an attractive stadium."
If the grandstand renovation is done and the Triangle building built, Kenney said it may mean that the Cubs would have to relocate for an entire season or part of a season. Because ISFA also operates U.S. Cellular Field, the Cubs may be forced to play some of their home games on the White Sox home field during the renovation.
"Maybe construction would start the last day of the season and go through the offseason and maybe through June," Kenney said. "We haven't worked through the logistics of how it will go forward or what projects."
HOK's architects have told the Cubs that the project could be done in phases, and the team may not lose any home games or a season at Wrigley Field. There are no plans for fans to look at; they are still doing design work, Kenney said.
The idea of selling Wrigley Field to ISFA was actually Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's idea, Kenney said. Daley apparently brought it up when the ballpark received landmark status.
Whoever purchases the Cubs, which are still for sale, would agree to a 30-year lease with the ISFA. The lease would designate what contributions towards operations and maintenance would be from the Cubs, contributions from the Tribune Co., and contributions from ISFA.
On other topics, Kenney said:
The Cubs' payroll is "North of $120 million," Kenney said. The team has gone from 10th to fifth in the Major Leagues in terms of payroll. "We should be -- we're a major market team, and we should play like one," Kenney said. There is room for the payroll to increase, he said.
The Cubs now have 30 home night games, and would like to increase that number. Kenney said he talks to Cubs manager Lou Piniella and the players about the importance of night games. "That is a performance issue as much as it is a revenue issue for me," Kenney said. The league average is 54 home night games. "I know we won't get that many," Kenney said. "As a negotiator, there's room between 30 and 54."
Crewneck Productions will follow the Cubs this year for a movie on the 2008 season. The working title is, "We believe: Chicago and its Cubs."
The Cubs will not add a video scoreboard or Jumbotron to the existing scoreboard.
The Cubs have moved eight games from WGN TV to Comcast. The team will be paid twice as much for the Comcast games than the WGN games. "Money means payroll and payroll means championships, in my view," Kenney said.
The Cubs are moving toward their first-ever Spanish language broadcast, and hope to launch that by the All-Star Game.
Major League Baseball has completed background checks on the four to six groups interested in purchasing the Cubs. The first step is to complete the ISFA deal; then the books on the team will be distributed to prospective buyers. The sale of the team is expected to be completed this year.
"One thing I've learned about my new boss is it's hard to predict what he'll do next," Kenney said.
Kenney has heard the criticism from fans, many of whom have dubbed Zell public enemy No. 1.
"I'd like to think we get a little bit of credit," Kenney said. "We haven't done anything really in not keeping the character of the park."
The bleacher expansion project is a perfect example.
"We have to look at [the grandstand project] like the bleachers so when it's done, everyone says, 'Look, the good things are still here, proximity to the field, sightlines, etc., but all the bad things are gone,'" he said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.