by Sean Chercover
If you live in Chicago or are a Cubs fan or pay any attention to MLB, you know by now that Sam Zell (new owner of the Tribune Company and all of its assets, including the Cubs and Wrigley Field) has been making noises about selling the naming rights to Wrigley Field.
For baseball fans, it’s like selling the naming rights to Mecca.
Zell dropped this bomb during an appearance on CNBC’s Squawk Box. He said (among many other things), “…when I bought the Tribune, I didn't get a discount because I wasn't going to use the naming rights that field represents . . . Perhaps the Wrigley Co. will decide that, after getting it for free for so long, that it's time to pay for it.”
When reminded that many loyal fans have strong opinions about renaming Wrigley, Zell said, “Excuse me for being sarcastic, but the idea of a debate occurring over what I should do with my asset leaves me somewhat questioning the integrity of the debate.”
Predictably, everyone flew into a tizzy. Chicago newspaper columnists expressed their displeasure, and the Sun-Times organized an email campaign for fans to vent.
Even Zell's own assets - The Tribune and WGN TV (see inset video in the Trib story) - covered the controversy.
All the way over in Connecticut, ESPN weighed-in with appropriate outrage and indignation.
And in California, Jim Rome (who is never found wanting for an opinion on anything) got in on the act:
But Sam Zell is no dummy. He knew exactly what the reaction would be, and if you watch the Squawk Box interview, it’s hard not to conclude that this is exactly the reaction he was trying to get.
Because Zell’s plan is to sell the team and the ballpark separately. He knows that Wrigley Field is in desperate need of substantial restoration and renovation in order to remain a viable (or even structurally sound) ballpark. And that will cost a lot of money.
Not coincidentally, The Illinois Sports Facilities Authority had just announced that it is set to make an offer on the property in the next couple of weeks. As they did with U.S. Cellular Field (formerly the new Comiskey Park), the state plans to buy Wrigley and lease it to whomever buys the team. Fair enough.
But former governor James Thompson, chairman of the Sports Authority, estimates that it will cost $400 million to get the place into shape, and that money has to come from somewhere. He promises that it won't come from new taxes.
And here’s where Zell is a genius. Zell says he might sell naming rights outright. Fans envision Wrigley Field becoming Viagra Park, and they pitch a fit. Then Thompson steps in and says that the ISFA would never do that. He says that Wrigley Field will always be Wrigley Field. But, he adds, the restoration and renovation must be paid for, so they might sell limited naming rights.
Says Thompson, "It will be Wrigley Field at XYZ Plaza or something like that..."
So Zell plays bad cop and Thompson gets to play not-as-bad cop. And relieved fans say, “well, that’s not as bad. I guess we can live with that."
By causing all this ruckus, Sam Zell has greased the skids, making a quick sale to the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority more likely.
Which may or may not be evil, but is definitely genius.