Piniella not only aspect fleeing Wrigley Field -- fans stay away, too

Only a couple of hours after manger Lou Piniella formally announced his retirement as Cubs manager on July 20, team chairman Tom Ricketts could look out at his beautiful Wrigley Field and see swaths of green.

And it wasn't money. Anything but.

In his first year as team owner, Ricketts has been slapped with a hard, cold dose of reality on a hot summer day that for decades made for a packed ballpark. He witnessed rows of unoccupied green bleacher benches down the right- and left-field lines and in the upper reaches of center field. Longtime ballpark pundits had not remembered empty bleacher seats for mid-summer games, day or night, for a generation.

The world had turned upside down. The Cubs attendance machine sputtered. The bleachers used to the most popular -- and thus most populated -- outpost of Wrigley Field. Even in the dark ages of the mid-1970s, when early- and late-season weekday crowds dropped into the 5,000 or 6,000 range -- sometimes as low as 1,500 -- the 3,300-seat strong bleachers would be well-populated. Sometimes half the attendance would camp out in the cheap seats, then $1 or $1.25 -- the price rising in 25-cent increments every few years.

It would be unthinkable for the bleachers to not be filled to overflowing in a mid-summer game, no matter who the opponent. The Houston Astros are certainly one of the worst draws on the schedule. But the empty seats were even seen during a May 25-27 series against the Dodgers, a traditional draw. The unsold tickets spread to other parts of the ballpark. On Thursday afternoon, July 1, with the rival Cincinnati Reds in town, hundreds of empty seats were spotted in the upper-deck boxes and grandstand down the left-field line. Those streaks of green were noticeable to Cubs players in the bullpen below. Attendance, which normally would be near capacity at 40,000, was announced at 36,880, which probably was 5,000 more than actual fannies in seats.

Symbolically, Piniella's planned departure at season's end signals the need for Ricketts to make changes in the Cubs organization. Fans no longer will simply show up at Wrigley Field because its gates have been flung open, the beer is cold and the babes are displaying lots of skin and curves. The Cubs must win and show the promise of finally reaching the World Series, not stumble around as the least-efficient organization per payroll dollar going out, according to a Forbes survey.

The Cubs aren't the only Chicago baseball team with a drooping gate. The White Sox just pulled off baseball's hottest streak -- 26 wins in 31 games to go from 9 1/2 games back to 3 1/2 games in front in the American League Central. As they reached the apogee of their hot spell just before the All-Star break, they played the Kansas City Royals in a three-game series at U.S. Cellular Field. In perfect 77-degree weather on Friday night, July 9, the Sox drew just 25,000 to their 39,000 capacity ballpark. The next evening, the traditional big Saturday-night draw, attracted 32,000 -- good, but under what the Sox should have attracted.

The aftermath of the Great Recession obviously has taken a bite out of baseball. Attendance reportedly was down 4 percent throughout the game -- and that factored in a massive uptick in crowds at the new Target Field in Minneapolis, which virtually sells out every day.

But in Wrigley Field, Ricketts faced a perfect storm in his Ownership 101 course. He raised most ticket prices 10 percent in a bad economy. Forget boom times -- a new owner, coming from the bleacher fans ranks as Ricketts and his three owner-siblings had -- would freeze ticket prices as a goodwill measure in his first year at the helm. Instead, Ricketts signed off to a 10 percent hike on many Wrigley Field seats. But twinned withe economy and an overpaid, underachieving, unappealing Cubs team, the fans are voting with their feet. So with the drop in crowds come a corresponding cut in concession sales. Empty seats mean less beer consumed on hot summer days. One vendor (in the upper deck) estimated his sales were down 20 percent this summer. And that was on top of a 10 percent drop in 2009.

Moral of the story is that the price-hike spiral for sports events has to moderate, if not stop. The fan culture has changed. They are less willing to allocate increasingly scarce discretionary dollars to sports franchises unless they get an assured return on their investment. And in baseball in particular -- the sport most accessible due to its affordable ticket prices -- the costs of attending a game have finally reached atipping point.

I was a supporter of players' rights, including free agency and getting market value for their talents, all along. But the market has gone down. Those green seats show both the owners and players they've got to change the way they do business.

And in his case, the fans -- who are staying out -- have the ultimate clout.

George Castle, an award-winning sports writer who recently covered the Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup championship, is host of the baseball nostalgia talk show "Diamond Gems."
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