Let’s Stay Ball? Regulations Threaten Wrigley Field Upgrades (UPDATE)

Jul 10, 2014

Chicago's Wrigley Field turns 100 this year.

UPDATE: Amid growing support for the Chicago Cubs, both in Chicago and across the U.S., the city's landmarks preservation council voted unanimously this week to approve the team's plans.


Chicago is known for a lot of things: deep dish pizza, skyscrapers, and museums, to name a few. In a city with its fair share of prominent landmarks, perhaps none is more iconic than Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. In an effort to ensure it’ll stay that way, the team wants to invest more than $500 million of its own money to modernize the 100-year-old facility and, in doing so, invigorate the local economy. Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

So far it’s turned out to be anything but.

The Ricketts family, which owns the Chicago Cubs, first announced plans to renovate Wrigley Field more than a year ago. Opened in 1914, Wrigley Field has a capacity of approximately 41,000, making it one of Major League Baseball’s smallest venues. It also trails other MLB stadiums, the team argues, in terms of that amenities and services it offers to fans. 

Hence its decision to spend a half-billion dollars on a sweeping overhaul of the venerable stadium. First unveiled in January of last year, the Ricketts’s master plan for Wrigley calls for an increase in seating capacity and the installation of four LED signs and a new video screen, among other proposed changes. The project, which would take four off-seasons to complete, is expected to create 2,100 jobs and pump $1.2 billion in new net revenue into the local economy over the next three decades—a boon for the myriad bars, restaurants, and retail shops located nearby.

Thus far, Chicago’s city council has approved the team’s privately funded plan twice, endorsing its initial proposal and, later, a modified version. Yet the Ricketts family hasn’t been able to begin work on the stadium, as they are also required to receive approval from another city agency, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.

The added layer of bureaucracy—which comes after multiple other layers of municipal bureaucracy—could derail the team’s efforts, proponents of the expansion say. Wrigley Field, which sits at the heart of Wrigleyville, a residential neighborhood on Chicago’s northside, was designated a city landmark a decade ago. Though intended to protect the iconic park, the move has had a number of unintended and negative consequences, argue team officials and backers of the plan.

The ballpark’s landmark status requires the team to sift through regulations and navigate a cumbersome approval process when it wants to make changes to protected parts of the structure. The Cubs have long argued that these kinds of problems have literally cost them money—to the tune of $30 million per year, the team has estimated.

The hurdles the Cubs have faced trying to implement badly-needed upgrades are especially striking when compared to other MLB teams. In particular, advocates point to the Boston Red Sox as an example of how such a strategic investment can transform an aging ballpark and its long-suffering fan base and ignite economic growth. Between 2002 and 2011, the Red Sox invested more than $285 million to restore and improve Fenway Park, which, at 102 years of age, is the league’s oldest stadium. 

Expanding Fenway’s capacity and enhancing the surrounding Fenway neighborhood helped drive revenue and reinvigorate a team that, after having failed to win a World Series in more than 80 years, has since raised two championship banners. Once moribund with lagging sales and attendance, Fenway Park recorded $280 million in revenue last year—the second highest such level in the MLB—and broke a league record with 820 consecutive home sellouts

The Cubs hope a Wrigley makeover will have a similar effect on surrounding businesses and the franchise, which last won the World Series in 1908. After years of contending with the city’s messy regulations, the Cubs might be forced to consider a sad reality should their efforts to modernize Wrigley fail, says Crane Kenney, the team’s president of business operations. 

“If we don’t control our ballpark, then we have to look at other options and we would work with the city on that,” he said in a recent interview. “That would be what would happen, but those conversations have not occurred at any level. Everyone believes this project is moving forward.” 

With its imminent decision on Wrigley Field, Chicago has the chance to act on Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s publicly stated goal to improve its competitiveness. The city has a long way to go: A just-released report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the 2014 Regulatory Climate Index, ranked Chicago 7th out of the 10 cities it studied because of its comparatively unfriendly regulatory climate.

Approving the plan would undoubtedly generate economic growth and please William Wrigley Jr. Wrigley, who built his own fortune from nothing, began buying stock in the Cubs in 1916. Five years later, when he had a controlling stake in the team, he renamed the park after himself. Given his ambitious rise to prominence, there’s a good chance he’d want his eponymous stadium to keep up with the times rather than languish. As every successful businessperson knows, if you don’t prepare for the future, you’ll become a relic of the past.

Not to mention, if it worked for Boston, why can’t it work for Chicago?

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