Honeymoon with fans fleeting as Cubs owners raise ticket prices

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New Cubs owner Tom Ricketts. Amid a love fest of a Cubs Convention in which he and his sibling-owners got standing ovations and baseball fans chanted "Tommy! Tommy!", new Chicago Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts still got hit right between the eyes with the bottom-line question.

"Will you reconsider your decision to raise ticket prices due to the economy and job losses?" asked one fan during the Ricketts family's question-and-answer session with several thousand fans in the downtown Chicago Hilton and Towers' Grand Ballroom on Jan. 15.
The Ricketts, brothers Pete and Todd and sister Laura, heard the fan loud and clear. And for a micro-second, Pete and Tom Ricketts may have thought of their mid-1980s days hanging out in Wrigley Field's right-field bleachers, paying between $3 and $6 to get in. Those same seats now cost an average of $45, higher for in-demand games, the same price as upper-deck box-seats. But the businessman in these Ricketts apparently predominates over the old bleacher bum.

"With respect to ticket prices, there's always going to be that tension," Tom Ricketts said. "The fact is, you can have five questions about signing higher-priced free agents and you can have five questions about why ticket prices are going up. There's always going to be that balance.

"If we're going to compete with the bigger teams in the league, if we're going to try to compete for talent with the Red Sox or the Yankees, we're going to have to have some financial flexibility. With that said, we don't have any plans for any ticket increases in the future. The team wasn't in the best position financially coming into the season, so there are reasons behind the increases. But we appreciate it's getting more expensive to bring your family to the game."

Ricketts would have no more public comments about the ticket issue. Media access 2 1/2 months into his ownership tenure is almost non-existent, as he's apparently avoiding the mistakes of more voluble owners who have put their feet in their collective mouths. But he has said all profits will be plowed back into the Cubs and Wrigley Field. Those apparently include the 5% hike on the majority of Wrigley tickets this year, in spite of the economy and the Cubs' mediocre 2009 season that would logically put a brake on increases.

After the Ricketts family paid nearly $900 million for the Cubs, raising the capital by a variety of means, they apparently did not have an additional $50 million building fund; hence the additional revenue required from tickets. The new owners vowed to start a long series of improvements to the ballpark, which is a beehive of activity from construction workers during the winter.

Decaying wood on the venerable center-field manual scoreboard is being replaced. Bathrooms are getting a big upgrade from what one female fan called "old-fashioned" furnishings. The Cubs' longtime embarrassingly cramped home clubhouse is gaining some breathing room.

The Cubs' weight room will be shifted out of the clubhouse to the nearby umpires' locker room, which in turn will move across the field to a storeroom that doubled as an interview area in the postseason. Meanwhile, the players' long quest for a lounge to chill out from the media is being answered with the conversion of the old weight room. All of these projects require extensive remodeling and thus tap into cash flow.

"People will see an entirely different place when they walk in on Opening Day, which they deserve," Cubs president Crane Kenney told WalletPop of the off-season construction.

While the Ricketts' public verbiage is being rationed so far, Kenney, a holdover from Tribune Co.'s ownership, shed further light on the decision to not hold the line on ticket prices.

"It was a lot of back and forth," he said. "Like most 'plan years,' we evaluate everything including the economy, including our ticket sales from prior years and team performance. For us, we also look at our 'secondary' market and how many tickets are being sold at marked-up prices. Twenty-five percent of our tickets are re-sold from brokers. That tells you something [about] the fair-market value of the tickets vs. where we set the prices.

"Maybe what we're doing is taking a piece out of the secondary market. In return, our obligation is to provide a better experience for our fans. One of the most important things Tom said since they took over is every dollar of profit made is going to be re-invested in the ball club."

Despite reports the Cubs' payroll, ranking third or fourth in the majors, was frozen when Ricketts took over, the final dollar figure has risen from more than $130 million to more than $140 million. Much of the increase, however, was being soaked up by built-in increases in long-term contracts.

The Cubs' cheapest seat is $9 (for the least desirable games, such as weekdays in April, May and September) in the upper deck -- "thousands of tickets at that level," Kenney said. "We still want to be able to have a family of four or five in and spend less than $100 for the whole day. Where you feel like you have the ability to raise prices based on what the secondary market is telling us, you do.

"My job would be a lot easier without having to raise ticket prices. It's not my favorite part of the job. You don't feel good in this economy raising prices for anything -- parking, beer, tickets, and yet we are committed to finishing the job. Look what is happening with payrolls and we're doing a balancing act to find the right equilibrium."

In the early 1970s, the last years of the $1 bleacher seats (when box seats were $3.50), the highest salary in baseball was $250,000, earned by the Chicago White Sox's Dick Allen. Now top salaries are in the $20 million annual range.

Sticker shock has shaken baseball, but no team has yet dared to roll back both salaries and ticket prices to accommodate economically-battered fans.

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