By George Castle – CBM Historian on May 3, 2018
Cubs fans getting picky when they attend games at Wrigley Field warrants the attention of Tom Ricketts and Crane Kenney. And even Theo Epstein should take a peek.
Perception of the availability and cost of your Cubs tickets is affecting the total gate so far this year, compared to the wire-to-wire sellout present-day President of Cubs business operations Kenney experienced as Tribune Co.’s viceroy for the team in 2008.
The sight of the bleachers, the traditional “cheap seats,” only partially filled on an 80-plus degree spring afternoon the other day against the Colorado Rockies should raise the eyebrows of the Cubs’ top brass. StubHub listed bleacher seats for as little as $10. No internal Cubs promotion would ever dare go that low.
For the season, the Cubs have had reams of unsold seats. The tickets sold for the Rockies game were listed at just under 33,000, but the actual crowd count was lower. Three other games have had listed attendances in the 29,000 range. One was the Thursday, April 12, game against the Pirates with the game-time temperature around 70. I attended that game with senior season-ticket holder Carol Haddon. I took a quick trip to the upper deck. That seating area was empty. These listed attendances — seats sold have been the official crowd counts for decades now — meant many thousands of tickets were not purchased at all.
Meanwhile, at both April 12 and subsequent games, scores of prime box seats in the “Club 1914” area were unoccupied. Go back 10 years, and would you see a close-up seat between the dugouts empty?
Now, 29,000 or 33,000 with thousands of no shows is still light years distant from the cozy 3,000 or 4,000 early- and late-season gatherings of the 1970s, when Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers’ chants of “Fanzone, Woo!” would reverberate across the sections of empty seats. However, when applied to what has developed as the game’s flagship franchise only one year after the eternally-deferred World Series title, then some questions must be asked.
Are Cubs fans getting very picky about when they bust their entertainment budgets to attend a game at Wrigley Field? Does it have to be 60s through 80s perfect — excellent weather, an attractive opponent, a weekend or summer weekday? Is there a perception Cubs tickets are too expensive — even though the Rockies game was a 2010s bargain — and hard to get? Are fans tastes changing with so many other less expensive things to do — and the hypnotic rapture of smart phones always available?
When rationalizing pundits say we just endured the coldest April in memory, the adults are not on vacation yet and the kids are still in school, there is simple history to enlighten them. April always has been inclement in Chicago — it is just by what degree and whether gloves are still necessary. The workforce was never in big vacation mode in the first full spring month. And while the final day of school has been creeping backwards over the decades — I remember the third week of June in Chicago public schools — that joyous dismissal time has not yet moved into April yet.
I bring up 2008 as a prime example. I covered every single home game for the Times of Northwest Indiana. The Cubs established their all-time season attendance record of just more than 3.3 million. Wrigley Field was just a few thousand short of a season sellout. Only two listed attendances — the second and third games of the year on a Thursday and Friday against the Brewers and Astros, respectively — were as low as the 37,000 range. Only a minority of other home games were posted in the 39,000 range. Most were 40,000 and above.
To amass such crowds, the Cubs were selling not a World Series aftermath, but one stinking 85-win NL Central title and a three-game NLDS sweep at the hands of the Diamondbacks. Kosuke Fukudome was the big off-season acquisition. The economy was starting to tank, although not yet at the plummeting-elevator rate of September and October 2008.
The best tickets were expensive under the circumstances, but the concept of $60 bleacher seats had not yet arrived. The Lou Piniella-led Cubs won a post-war high of 97 games, but almost all the seats had been sold long before that regular-season dominance was locked in. As a reward for the fans’ loyalty, the unexpectedly-jittery Cubs were swept again, this time by the Dodgers, and new Tribune Co. bossman Sam Zell ordered Kenney and GM Jim Hendry to put the clamps on payroll. The team was being shopped around with Ricketts and his siblings kicking the tires.
So why apparent changes in the marketplace just 10 years later, when the Cubs’ long-term competitive situation is so much better and the baseball operations department under Ricketts is better poised for success than Hendry’s understaffed (a leftover from the Andy MacPhail regime) front office?
I won’t quote the Cubs’ corporate spokesman, who did not work for the team in 2008 and does not have the institutional memory of the team and long-time background in baseball. Omaha native Ricketts may not know the historical specifics and Boston product Kenney likely would put a spin on it.
So I’ll inquire to a man of both Cubs memory and background going back to $1.75 grandstand seats — Al Yellon, bleachers season-ticket holder, Cubs fan since 1963 and managing editor of the popular BleedCubbieBlue.com blog. Al’s no anarchist and heavy team critic, and cautioned me against jumping to conclusions off this smallish early attendance sample. I wonder what conclusions he had when he saw rows of empty benches in front of his top-row left-field seat for that Rockies game, as if it was 2012 and the Epstein-tanking was in full throttle.
“There is a perception that Cubs tickets are too expensive now,” Yellon said. That’s true for many games, not for (the Rockies game), but the perception’s out there.
“In 2008, no, the perception about pricing wasn’t as high as it is now.”
If that perception hangs heavy among Cubs fans, and if he spontaneity of waking up on any day and just deciding to go to the ballpark is gone, then the fans will now pick and choose the dates they’ll try to attend. And that will ace out what the team markets as “value” dates — day games in the spring and fall. Yet it’s a reverse spiral — a less attractive date in chancier weather won’t come near to selling out as it did a decade ago.”
I suspect the issue goes deeper. The ranks of Cubs fans are now heavily purged of what Lee Elia, in his infamous 1983 rant, ripped the “nickel and dimers” (and more earthy descriptions) who came out to Wrigley Field. To be sure, real avid, intellectual fans who attended dozens of games a year. They prided themselves of going to the ballpark with $10 ($5 in the 1960s and 1970s) in their pockets, and returning home with change.
But the bulk of the present attendance appears to be groups of four or more on a once- or twice-annual outing, decked out in Cubs uniform shirts, T-shirts and tank tops. The most attractive will find their way onto NBC Sports Chicago or WGN/WLS fan-cam shots to musical accompaniment, playing to rock expert Len Kasper in the TV booth. They regard a trip to Wrigley Field in almost the same perception as attending a rock concert, and desire a sense of enthrallment. They are not going to dissect Joe Maddon’s handling of the bullpen or who bats leadoff.
Truth be known, management wants these more casual fans with open pocketbooks to buy up expensive concessions and souvenirs. Far more aggravating are dollars-pinching fans who will question the official line on and off the field.
Still another factor has emerged since 2008. TV converted to digital high-def a year later. Unless one really craves the expensive ballpark experience, which is still chock full of lines on public transit, and at bathrooms and concessions stands, the game actually can be followed a lot better on the big screen at home. HD equipment permitted the introduction of close-up replays.The home beer at $5.99 at six pack instead of $10 per cup at the ballpark is cheaper. So are the munchies.
I consider it an old-school doubleheader sweep if Yellon agrees. He does.
“You’re right about HDTV — which is almost everywhere now — wasn’t as much in 2008,” he said.
I recall a Blackhawks public relations man — I won’t say which to protect his present job — running into me at the press gate when the Times goofed up my credential in 2012. He knew I was there to work, and admitted me on my personal recognizance. “But if you weren’t here to work, you might as well stay home and watch on the big-screen,” he said, mindful the pressbox and 300 level fans were basically nine stories above the ice.
A final factor — and this is societal — could be fewer proportion of the total populace are baseball fans in comparison to the youths of this writer and Yellon. Some 12,000 showed up for Cubs night for the Back of the Yards Council’s Fun Fair two miles from old Comiskey Park on July 15, 1969. But what else did those multitudes have to do on a steamy summer night? Now, distractions galore are available, starting with the phone that stares back at you.
I may have been the only one to wonder why every fourth house and car wasn’t flying a “W” flag in the first week of November in 2016. Maybe I was using a way-outdated template in figuring a Cubs world champion would have an all-encompassing afterglow for 15 years. I recalled a 1985 land-office rush for Cubs season tickets merely off the groundbreaking NL East division title season the previous year, as fans strived to endure future postseason access.
Then I moved mentally to the present, and spied the plenty-of-room bleachers against the Rockies. Something did not compute.
Heads up for Ricketts and Kenney. They need to pay as much close attention to unsold seats that were long gone in 2008 as they do to the massive gentrifying of the Wrigley environs.
Category Baseball Under Glass Blog Tags Chicago Baseball History, Chicago Cubs, Chicago Tribune, Crane Kenney, Tom Ricketts, Wrigley Field