The owners of the Chicago Cubs Major League Baseball team say they are willing to spend $300 million of their own money to renovate their home ballpark, the nearly 100-year-old Wrigley Field.
In 2012 the Ricketts family, who own the Cubs, appeared to be closing in on a taxpayer-funded stadium renovation plan with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But Emanuel backed away after Cubs trustee/owner Joe Ricketts considered funding a TV commercial campaign against the reelection of President Barack Obama. Emanuel had been Obama’s White House chief of staff, Chicago overwhelmingly votes for Democrats, and Obama was a Chicago resident before being elected president.
With a deal for taxpayer funding off the table, the Cubs owners are currently planning to spend $300 million of their own money over five seasons to do a “complete renovation of Wrigley Field,” the team announced at their January 2013 Cubs Convention. The fate of this new proposal rests with the Chicago City Council and mayor because the city has designated Wrigley Field a historical site. Renovations of properties with that designation must comply with numerous local ordinances and receive local government approval.
“As I have stated in the past, there is no doubt that Wrigley Field is a Chicago treasure and an economic engine for the 44th Ward,” said Alderman Tom Tunney in a official statement. His ward includes Wrigley Field.
“Keeping the priorities and residents’ views in mind, I believe we can work together to find a compromise that will allow Wrigley Field to expand and improve while keeping an inviting and safe environment within our neighborhood,” Tunney said.
The Cubs are not the only Major League Baseball team in Chicago. The Chicago White Sox, who play at U.S. Cellular Field on Chicago’s South Side, indirectly receive amusement tax revenue from the city to help pay for their stadium, which is owned by the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority.
The White Sox also have more freedom to use their stadium. Among other things, Wrigley Field is restricted as to the number of night games and other events that can take place there. This is because Wrigley Field is located in a more residential section of the city. The restrictions are in place to keep from disrupting residents.
The Cubs want concessions on some of these restrictions, including more freedom regarding game times, billboards, and signs.
“If [Wrigley Field] is such an asset [to the community] and we’re being restricted, we need some help. If they want to treat us like the other 29 clubs, where we can play games whenever, have advertisements, the Ricketts will be prepared to write the ($300 million) check,” said Crane Kenney, Cubs president of business operations, at the annual Cubs Convention in January.
Local sports economists agree Wrigley Field is an economic asset, something few other sports venues can claim.
“Wrigley Field is a shining example of how a sports facility can integrate itself within a local neighborhood and provide positive economic spillovers to the nearby community. . . . Afternoon games allow the team to share the area with neighboring business without crowding out other activity,” wrote Robert A. Baade, a professor of economics at Lake Forest College in north suburban Chicago, in a 2006 working paper he co-wrote for the International Association of Sports Economists.
Rare Economic Asset
“Of Chicago’s major professional sports franchises, as much as it pains me to say it as a lifelong White Sox fan, only the Cubs contribute a reasonable economic impact to the city and state,” said Allen R. Sanderson, a senior lecturer in economics at University of Chicago.
“The other franchises—Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, White Sox, and Fire—overwhelmingly attract local fans who are simply choosing to spend three to four hours and $100 inside one of those venues other than at a mall, movie theater, or restaurant. The net economic impact on the economy is effectively zero,” Sanderson said. “On the other hand, the Cubs draw a sizable non-area crowd to Wrigley Field, and thus they bring some new dollars, as opposed to simply recycling old dollars, to the Chicagoland economy.”
Sanderson said he believes “it’s incumbent on the mayor and governor and the aldermen, even in these challenging economic times, to recognize—and not exploit—this contribution. If not with actual dollar transfers, then by relaxing some of the constraints under which the owners must operate.”
John W. Skorburg ([email protected]) is an associate editor of Budget & Tax News and a lecturer in economics and the economics of health care at the University of Illinois at Chicago.