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Communications and Marketing
Swyers weighs in on Cubs ticket prices
Associate Professor of Anthropology Holly Swyers was quoted in a Chicago Tribune article about the effects of a 30 percent increase in the cost of Cubs tickets on the fan base.
For Cubs fans, sticker shock goes with trip to Wrigley
By Kathy Bergen and Patrick M. O’Connell
Like many Cubs fans, Nick Penze has his share of cherished memories. As a child, he met Ernie Banks at a car dealership. Later, he watched his father pencil in scores on their program as the North Siders walloped the Montreal Expos.
And last fall, he sat spellbound in Wrigley Field as the Cubs staved off defeat in Game 5 of the World Series, a crucial victory on the way to their first championship since 1908.
Now, like many fans who will be at Monday’s home opener, Penze is finding that creating new memories at Wrigley Field is becoming more of a gold-plated proposition. The tab for the season tickets he shares with two friends shot up by nearly 30 percent this year, bringing their average from about $70 to $90 per game for outfield box seats.
“It felt like a little punch in the stomach,” he said.
But that’s just the start.
The team’s family owners, led by Tom Ricketts, plan to roll out four luxury clubs starting next spring, each with special entrances, high-end food, gleaming bars and private bathrooms. These will be in addition to the hived-off areas that already dot the stadium, from the casual Budweiser Patio to the plush Assurance Club.
It’s all part of the way that the historic ballpark and surrounding neighborhood, with its coming boutique hotel and high-end restaurants, are being transformed by the Ricketts family.
A business executive himself, Penze understands the owners’ desire to mine their success on the ballfield.
“They finally delivered on their promises and now they want to get paid,” he said “But 30 percent seems like an awful lot. Could you start with 10?”
To one economist, the Ricketts family runs the risk of losing the Bleacher Bum mystique that gave Wrigley its allure.
“The moment it becomes a purely gentrified experience at Wrigley Field, and middle classes and lower-middle class Americans feel excluded, he’s going to kill it,” said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College. He’s betting, however, that Ricketts will be shrewd enough to avoid such an outcome.
The Ricketts family is hardly alone in catering to the well-heeled — in fact, the team owners are rather late to this trend at professional sports venues. And plenty of more affordable tickets are still available, the team points out, some as low as $9.
The Cubs have been unapologetic about the changes, saying they need to find new sources of revenue if the team and its stadium are to remain competitive. From 2012 to 2017, for example, the Cubs’ payroll surged from about $88 million to $172 million, eighth-highest in the major leagues. And while other teams can build new stadiums, often with generous public subsidies, the Ricketts family has committed to modernizing Wrigley Field largely without public financing.
Even for a family as wealthy as the Rickettses, that takes money. Having sent their emotionally attached fans into collective euphoria last year, they now have wide berth to raise ticket prices.
“People waited 108 years for a World Series Cubs — what’s that worth?” said Mark Tebbe, a technology entrepreneur who shares skybox season tickets with friends. “It’s priceless.”
Lining up to pay
There certainly is the demand. While the Cubs raised 2017 season ticket prices an average of 19.5 percent, the renewal rate was 99 percent this year, the team reported. And another 112,733 fans are on the waiting list.
“The demand for our tickets has simply far exceeded the current pricing levels,” a team spokesman, Julian Green, wrote in an email. “It is important for the club to realize some of that value that would otherwise be lost to the secondary market so we can reinvest those funds into the team and ballpark.”
Indeed, ticket prices in the secondary market were 96 percent greater than face value during last year’s regular season, and 670 percent higher in the postseason, the team said.
Many Americans — particularly those at the top of the income ladder — have come to expect a rich palette of amenities, whether at sports venues, airports or train stations, said Janet Marie Smith, an architect who played a key role in the remake of Fenway Park and is now overseeing renovations at Dodger Stadium, whose Lexus Dugout Club offers fans a luxurious den.
“It’s a mistake to be overly critical of older buildings that have to change in order to stay alive,” she said.
Today’s fans, especially younger ones, “expect to be able to see replays, they expect Wi-Fi, they expect to have good lighting, they expect not to lose three innings going to the bathroom,” said Marc Ganis, a sports industry consultant.
“Then you’ve got corporate and wealthier fans who want places to do business, entertain clients, bring the family,” he added. “And by the way, those are the people and companies that pay most of the freight.”
Still, the moves toward additional upscale offerings at Wrigley, and their attendant costs, are riling some longtime fans, of limited and not-so-limited means.
The ground shifted dramatically this winter for season ticket holders in coveted seats behind home plate. Construction began there on the subterranean American Airlines 1914 Club, which promises a “premier” experience beneath 700 seats starting on opening day 2018. Earlier plans called for 600 seats associated with the club, named for the year when the ballpark opened.
Among the club’s expected perks: multiple bars, carving stations, an array of desserts, grab-and-go snacks, in-seat service, invitations to VIP events and early access to special ticket sales, including for concerts. First-base, third-base and upper-level clubs are expected for the 2020 season.
Season tickets to those 700 spots, which were replaced with more comfortable seats for this season, are sold as a package deal with club membership, in multiyear contracts. The prices are soaring, some fans say.
For former Wrigleyville Ald. Bernie Hansen and a group of family and friends, the cost for their season tickets became too much and they gave up a pair of seats near home plate, which will become club seats, as well as five others down the left-field line.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of those big-money Cubs fans who will eat up the season tickets,” said Hansen, who was in Arizona, watching spring training. “It’ll be all corporations and rich guys — it won’t be families.”
Next season, the 1914 Club ticket prices, which include food and bar drinks, will run from $400 per ticket to $695 per ticket for the front row.
In Chicago, similar club packages at White Sox games run $240 to $265 per ticket and $865 at a Bears game. The Bulls, however, are a different matter — a courtside seat at a Bulls game runs $1,800 in the regular season, not including food or drinks.
For some fans, a club-ticket splurge is worth it, at least occasionally.
“For a special client, if tickets were available to one of the better divisional rivalries, I can certainly see those tickets being worth the expense,” said Jarrett Fradin, a commercial real estate broker with the Kudan Group.
As of the end of March, 1,342 Cubs fans had paid $500 to get on the waiting list for tickets linked to the four planned luxury clubs. Existing season ticket holders in those seats get first dibs.
“Our efforts to improve the premier experience … won’t affect fans who desire a sun-soaked fun experience in the Budweiser Bleachers or affordability in the upper deck,” Green stated in an email, noting that an eventual 1,600 luxury club seats will make up less than 5 percent of ballpark seats.
While the steep price hikes for prime seats rankle some, a more critical question for most fans, Hansen said, is how much the Cubs will “jack up the regular tickets — will even normal families be able to go to the ballpark without mortgaging their house or car?”
The average price for a nonpremium Cubs ticket last year rose nearly 15 percent, to $51.33, the third most expensive in pro baseball behind the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, according to Team Marketing Report. The White Sox, in contrast, came in No. 11, with an average ticket price of $29.55, close to the Major League Baseball average of $31.
Wrigley Field also ranked third for fan costs among the nation’s baseball parks last year, with an outing for four estimated at $312 last year, including four hot dogs, two small beers, four small sodas, parking and a couple of ballcaps, according to the report. The tab would have been $82 cheaper at a White Sox game.
The Cubs do not share year-over-year data on ticket-price hikes for individual games.
For Charlie Ryan, a retired salesman who used to go to games, the prices have become prohibitive. “They are changing the profile of their customer,” said Ryan, who lives nearby. “They are moving away from the everyday person.”
Holly Swyers, an associate professor of anthropology at Lake Forest College and author of a book on bleacher regulars, sees a shift in the makeup of that boisterous crowd.
Unlike decades ago, when fans could snag tickets for a few dollars, a ticket to the bleachers costs $23 minimum as of Thursday, and usually at least twice that price for more popular dates and opponents.
“People just got priced out and what remains is not accessible often to younger people and people who don’t have as much money,” said Swyers. “And that eats away at the fan base.”
It’s not just Wrigley
The coming changes will accelerate the profound transformation that the Ricketts family has been pushing around Wrigley Field.
Across the street, just west of the ballpark, the family is building the 175-room Hotel Zachary, along with four restaurants led by some of the city’s most respected restaurant groups.
At the ballpark’s western entrance, a tavern-style restaurant will anchor a new plaza that will have shops along its northern edge, including a two-story flagship Cubs store.
Many neighbors and businesses welcome the upscale shift, though some have reservations as well.
“My college days and drinking days are more limited than they used to be — I’m now a family guy,” said Laurence Jankelow, 33, a technology executive who owns a duplex near the ballpark. “The changes they are making in the neighborhood are very family-oriented — new restaurants, things that aren’t bars. I’m in favor of those things.”
Others, like seasonal worker Arby Amay, hope the neighborhood retains some of its unpretentious feel.
“I like the mom-and-pops and the little dime stores,” said Amay. “I hope they can make it modern, but still keep some of the old stuff.”
Having brought home the first Cubs World Series championship in over a century, the family has huge stores of goodwill locally, which translates into ever-increasing revenue.
“Right now the Cubs are the hottest ticket in America,” said Jim Anixter, a longtime fan. He is frequently seen sitting behind home plate during Cubs home game broadcasts wearing a pink cap.
Anixter will be among some 40,000 fans pouring into Wrigley on Monday, in spite of his astonishment at the size of the price hikes on 16 season tickets behind home plate.
His company, A-Z Industries, a Northbrook-based wire and cable firm he co-founded, kept its four front-row seats, he said, despite a price hike from about $29,000 each to about $56,000 in 2018, a price that includes membership to the 1914 Club. It gave up its other 12 seats behind the plate, exchanging them for seats along the right-field line.
“I’m not related to Commonwealth Edison,” said Anixter, the 72-year-old company president. “The common part, but not the wealth part.”
Nick Penze, the season ticket holder, will also be at Wrigley on Monday — his 22nd home opener – despite any misgivings about the price increase. He now lives in Utah but manages to attend 10 to 12 games a year.
This home opener, though, has special significance, sure to add to his many fond Cubs memories.
“I’m taking my son,” he said. “It will be his first.”