Friday, May 3, 2013

The Wrigley Conundrum

Imagine if the next time you went to the Paine Arts Center and Gardens the "Castle" had been replaced by a modern strip mall--and the art on the walls was now being shown on giant hi-def video screens.  It wouldn't be the same, would it?  And you likely wouldn't want to go back again, right?

Well, that is the situation facing those who enjoy going to watch baseball games at Wrigley Field in Chicago.  Owner Tom Ricketts is issuing threats that he will move from the venerable stadium on the North Side if he is not allowed to make 800-million dollars in improvements to Wrigley and the surrounding neighborhood.  Ricketts claims that the Cubs are leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table by not having giant advertising signs in the outfield, or a video replay board to air commercials during games.  He also wants to have a hotel attached to the stadium to capture more revenue.  All of this will, of course, come at the expense of the experience of actually watching a game at Wrigley.

You may have noticed that I didn't use the term "Cubs fans" when describing those who come to Wrigley.  I--like about a billion other people in the world--HATE the Cubs.  But--like millions of others--I love Wrigley Field.  I like parking in Kenosha, taking the METRA train to Evanston and then riding the Purple and Red Line trains right to the ballpark.  I like stopping at the bars and little shops in Wrigleyville.  I love sitting in the sun on a beautiful summer's day watching a game.  And most of all, I like being able to just watch a game.  At Wrigley, you actually have to pay attention to what is happening on the field.  There are no replays.  You need to know the players, because their faces are put up on a screen 50-feet tall every at bat.  And your second baseman's .184 batting average--or your "closer's" 21.35 ERA isn't on display either.  Plus, there's no Kisscam, Fan of the Game, out-of-town highlights, commercials for the "Official car of the Cubs", dot races, fireworks for home runs or "walk up songs" for hitters.  There is an organist playing the same songs for the last fifty years.  Wrigley is the last Major League venue for the "classic" baseball experience.

That's not to say a few refinements aren't necessary.  The bathrooms are disgusting--and there aren't nearly enough of them.  The seats were designed for the 5'5" person of the early 1900's--not the 6'3" men of today and the locker rooms don't even meet modern minor league standards.  But what Wrigley does not need is a monstrous video board distracting us from the real reason we go to the ballpark--and that is to watch the game.

So if Mr Ricketts wants to put up his hotel and his clubs and even advertising signs to block the rooftops from being able to see into the stadium from across the street--go ahead.  But if he decides to turn Wrigley into the "multi-media experience" that he thinks today's 15-second-attention-span "fans" demand--he may find out that his greatest revenue source was actually not having a bunch of "revenue sources".  To paraphrase the voice from the cornfield in Field of Dreams, "If you don't build it, they will still come."

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