Sign of times at Wrigley Field: Toyota ad raises fan ire, but may help bottom line

If there's one thing Chicago Cubs fans are known for, it's putting up with sub-par teams and high ticket and concession prices -- all because of what they're ultimately paying for: the old-timey atmosphere of historic Wrigley Field on Chicago's North Side.

But if new Cubs owner Tom Ricketts has his way, the atmosphere at Wrigley could soon change, as he hopes to erect a 360-square-foot Toyota sign above the left-field bleachers. The next step in the sign-approval process takes place today (Tuesday), as the city's Building Committee meets to talk about allowing the huge billboard. And talk about bleacher seats: The committee moved the meeting to the larger Council Chambers on the second floor of City Hall, which likely means they're expecting a crowd for this contentious issue, according to WBBM-TV Ch. 2.

Outcries are loud, but bet on the sign rising above Wrigley Field by later in the summer. This is the first political test of the new Ricketts family ownership, where Tom, now team chairman, has traded his beer and brats in the bleachers for the headaches of running a team that cost his family more than $800 million in a deal finalized last October.

Ricketts, his two brothers and sister, who comprise the Cubs' board, know they cannot continue to come hat-in-hand to fans to finance the acquisitions of big-name players and other aspects of the first-class farm system they crave. The Toyota sign is the first marketing doodad on their watch. Others will follow as the Ricketts balance the need for revenue with preserving the old-time feel of their dowager ballpark as its centennial approaches. And ironically, the sign Cubs fans don't want to see may help in some small way to keep ticket prices in check, too.

"We very much respect the people who want to preserve the feeling of Wrigley and what it means to come here," said Tom Ricketts, first among equals with his siblings as team chairman. "It's unique, it's special, it's terrific. We really do respect everyone who has thoughts on trying to be careful on what we do with the field.

"But in general, the vast majority of people we've heard from realize (they're plans are) not threatening the park. In the end, people have to realize the Ricketts family understands a lot of what Wrigley means. We learn a little bit more every day when we walk around and talk to folks. If you can add a little bit of revenue with a sign that has pretty low impact, you've got to take a look at that."

While some fans bemoan the sign as a harbinger of commercialization to come, the Ricketts know they cannot load up on signage. The Toyota sign will the be exception, not the rule. They want to emulate the Boston Red Sox baseball operation and how Fenway Park, two years older than Wrigley Field, was upgraded. But they cannot duplicate Fenway, which is chock full of signs. The family's vow not to make Wrigley Field one giant message board is one requirement for support for the project of Tom Tunney, the influential local alderman. Backing from the alderman for a new development in his ward is crucial for approval in the byzantine Chicago political system.

"Wrigley and Fenway aren't the same place," Ricketts said. "We don't have the kind of flexibility other parks do to put in huge billboards. We just have to look for places where we can pick our spots and add something that's tasteful and generates revenue without impacting the overall feel of the park."

"We're spending a lot of time this year thinking about what we have to do to really preserve Wrigley for the long-term. It's one thing to spend a bunch of money in the off-season to fix up bits and pieces here and there and do what you can. But you also have to have a long-term picture. The fact is that to really save this park for the next 50 years is going to take some real thought. In those plans, we'll think through some other ways to generate revenue inside the field that will help pay for that."

The family already spent money in the off-season upgrading bathrooms, including installing 15 urinals each in the men' rooms for more bashful fans while keeping the traditional communal troughs. To improve player training facilities, the Cubs' weight room was re-located and expanded into the former umpires' dressing room. There is also a new players' lounge where the Cubs could relax and escape from the always-inquisitive local media.

The Cubs picked a location for the Toyota sign – estimated to generate $2 million over three years – that would not block sight lines of existing rooftop club owners. The team and the rooftops have a partnership after a fractious confrontation 10 years ago, when the Cubs accused the clubs of poaching their product. But the two warring parties reached a Chicago-style deal in which the Cubs get 17% of the clubs' gross revenues. The rooftops, which can accommodate hundreds of fans with Erector set bleachers, charge between $90 and $300 per ticket, depending on the popularity of the Cubs' opponent of the day.

"The management here pointed out to us there was one part of the outfield where we really don't get any revenue from that part of the outfield," Tom Ricketts said. "It only made sense that if we could get a sponsor who'd be interested in putting something out there, we could generate some incremental revenue without impacting the overall feel of the park or anything too drastic. It made a whole lot of sense.

"Technically it's inside the park. It's not an involved structural process. It's two poles that hold up a logo. It's a pretty low-impact kind of signage."

Leading the opposition to the sign was Tom Gramatis, owner of a building at the northeast corner of Waveland and Kenmore avenues. Gramatis has a sign on the slanted roof plugging a nearby casino -- a sign that would be partially blocked by the Toyota logo. He reportedly also wanted to build his own rooftop club in that location. But he'd likely be overwhelmed if Tunney fully comes around to the Cubs position.

The sign already has been green-lighted by the Chicago Landmarks Commission, which must approve major changes to the landmarked-Wrigley Field. Next step is getting zoning approval from the Chicago City Council, which Tunney can shepherd if he's on board.

The new owners, natives of Omaha, Neb., who originally moved to Chicago for college, are learning Chicago Politics 101 as they concoct their vision for Wrigley Field.

"Everybody here deals with the politics by developing relationships," said Tom's brother Pete Ricketts, who moved back to Omaha, where he ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the U.S. Senate from Nebraska. "So we need to work through relationships. It's about process, so you have to talk through everything. We're learning the process. We've got to go through the process. It just takes time."

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