This is the first in a five-part series wherein SBN Chicago will look at the current state, and the future, of Chicago's five professional sports teams.
I'll start with the Cubs. Yes, I'm a Cubs fan, but that's not the reason -- I'm starting with the Cubs because they seem in turmoil right now, and I know more about them than any of the other teams. This article, though, is going to be less about specific player moves or roster changes, and more about what direction this team needs to take to continue to succeed.
To analyze the future, we must first look to the past. In 1966, the Cubs were on their way to their second 103-loss season in five years -- those two years, 1962 and 1966, still stand as the club's worst in history. They had replaced the laughable College of Coaches with manager Leo Durocher, who had been successful managing the Dodgers and Giants, but who was more than a decade past that success. In early 1966, the Cubs were an afterthought in Chicago. Attendance was miserable -- they hadn't drawn more than 1 million since 1951 -- and in midsummer, the Chicago Tribune magazine published a feature by a non-baseball writer on the scene at Wrigley Field for a doubleheader against the Astros on May 18:
I rode to Wrigley Field on the "L" the other day and debarked at Addison Street with 25 or 30 other poker-faced men who had the guilty bearing of children playing hooky. Most were elderly, probably retired. I followed them to Wrigley Field. The customers, few in number and somber in spirit shunned the sidewalk vendors. You could find a bigger and livelier crowd at the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium.
The entertainment for the day was a doubleheader matching the Cubs and the Houston Astros, who inhabit a glass dome of such stupefying size, that when the air conditioning goes awry, clouds form indoors and precipitate little thunderstorms.
Only 3,813 fans turned out for the afternoon's spectacle. Of these a few were children in organized herds, a few were servicemen in uniform, and a few more were housewives. About a half-dozen were executives that brought along their briefcases and their out-of-town customers. The rest were superannuated men crumbling and suffering through that agonizing decline called the golden years. They sat there, blinking in the sun, clutching their 15-cent programs, waiting for something to happen.
Very little was to happen that afternoon.
Houston was winning their 19th and 20th victories of the season, and the Cubs, thanks largely to the own errors, were sinking to their 5th and 6th consecutive defeats. The Cubs, said a Tribune sports writer the next day, were "indescribably bad." Even their most ardent supporters could not bear to watch the slaughter, and slowly, as the sun yellowed and fled toward the west, the little flock of spectators dwindled. Beautiful Wrigley Field has thousands and thousands of seats, rising tier upon tier toward the sky, but vast sections of the stands lay closed and empty. "If it were conceivable," said the man next to me, "that the Cubs could lose any more games than they already do, they would draw ever smaller crowds - if that were conceivable."
The Cubs lost the double header by scores of 4-2 and 5-1.
That was the perception of a Cubs fan in 1966 -- either a retired man, hoping for the glory era of thirty years earlier to return, or small groups of screaming children, often audible on TV yelling, "We want a hit!"; their cheers, most times, went unanswered. Jack Brickhouse shilled to fill the park every day on television, saying, "If you're in the area, come on down and see thrilling major league baseball!"; "thrilling," of course, being a relative term.
But the Cubs then started winning, and the late 1960s teams came agonizingly close to postseason titles. In doing so they helped to create a generation of young fans, who, when they grew up, spent more time at the ballpark and many of them even moved into the neighborhood. That area, once on the verge of urban decay, became today's gentrified Wrigleyville.
And therein lies some of the Cubs' problem. Since 1998, they have been, by recent standards, fairly successful. From 1946-97, the Cubs made the postseason twice. In the last 12 seasons, there have been four playoff appearances and the collapse in the 2003 NLCS, of which we'll speak no more, except to say that it has raised expectations, since the Cubs came so close to the World Series, an affair so distant in Cubs memory that it's getting to the point that fans who last saw the team play in it are now dying off in large numbers.
Those expectations, and mostly good teams from 2004-2009, helped fill Wrigley Field to record numbers; in part, this was because of hope of playoff glory, and in part because the Cubs got very good at selling the "party" of the bleachers -- something that has turned sour recently with underage drinking and people getting way too drunk (although the Cubs are now trying to do something to rectify that) -- and "the Wrigley experience."
Therein lies the problem, I think. There is only so much "the Wrigley experience" can do to lure people to the ballpark. In 2006, many tickets had been sold in advance for September games, but the ballpark was half empty despite crowds announced at 35,000+. The same thing is happening now -- only it's June, not September, and part of the reason is high ticket prices.
New ownership, I believe, made a colossal mistake raising ticket prices in the wake of: 1) a mediocre 2009 Cubs season and 2) the economic recession. They have priced many people right out of the market; many season-ticket holders I know who used to come to most games now sell many of their tickets just to afford the ones they do attend. The Cubs also broke out the amusement tax and now show it separately from the ticket price; while I understand the reasons they did this, it confused a lot of people and gave tickets weird prices like $40.32 and $50.40. When Arte Moreno took over the Angels -- the year after they'd won the World Series in 2002, no less -- one of the very first things he did was lower beer prices, as a goodwill gesture. The Ricketts should have frozen ticket prices for a year for the same reason.
They're likely to not lose too much money this year on tickets because they had a 15-20 percent markup pre-sale, in which a lot of tickets for premium games were sold at higher than face value. This did keep a lot of those tickets out of the hands of scalpers -- another concept that makes sense -- but engendered more bad will. The Cubs now have a perception as a team that's just trying to squeeze every last dollar out of fans -- and sponsors, with the controversial new car company sign, the noodle ad just placed on Clark Street, and various other sponsorships. They've improved the ballpark in many areas, including food and restrooms, which are welcome changes, and I understand that those were easy to do and fan-friendly, and you can't simply rip apart the baseball operation and start over.
It has created a perception, for better or worse, that new ownership is only interested in "the Wrigley experience" and not improving the team. Personally, I do not believe this is true; it takes time to remake a baseball operation and the Cubs, now floundering on the field, need some remaking. But the public perception may chase away customers. I am well aware that the Ricketts borrowed a lot of money to finance the purchase of the Cubs. But if they are going to solely focus on "the Wrigley experience", they will fail. For an example, look at the Baltimore Orioles, who were a top-notch organization and consistent contender up to the mid-1990s, and sold out their gem of a ballpark, Camden Yards, nearly every day for the first six or seven years it was open.
Now, having the worst team in baseball in 2010, on their way to their fifth straight 90+ loss season, the Orioles' attendance is cut in half -- and a lot of their tickets are purchased by Red Sox and Yankees fans, who find it easier to go to and buy tickets to see their teams in Baltimore than in their clubs' home parks.
I'm not saying the Cubs are headed the Orioles' way, and I do believe that Tom Ricketts and his family are great Cubs fans who want to win.
But they've only been Chicagoans since the mid-1980s, the era of the national cable Cubs and playoff contention. They don't have the institutional memory of those of us who grew up here in the 1960's and saw the Cubs draw, three times in September 1966, fewer than 1,000 fans to a game.
It's a different era and it won't get that bad. But the Cubs must build a winning baseball organization from the ground up, and contend and make the postseason on a consistent basis, or they risk again becoming an afterthought in Chicago sports.