Commentary

Praying (and paying) for a miracle

Cubs fans already put their faith in Theo Epstein -- and their money will follow

Updated: January 15, 2012, 10:42 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- The biggest craze at the 27th annual Cubs Convention was, as predicted, Theobowing.

Theobowing replaces Hendrification, which was the promise that money would fix everything. It is exactly what it sounds like, except there's no need to go to one knee, Tim Tebow style, to Theobow. Just find someone with a Chicago Cubs nametag and open your wallet. Faith will take care of the rest.

Prayer isn't what's driving the Cubs' front office. Research and advanced analysis is driving both the baseball side and the business side of the club.

I listened to fans Theobow for a solid hour Saturday morning when Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein took questions from Cubs broadcaster Len Kasper and a legion of obsequious fans.

Epstein was his Spock-honest self, even sharing his wisdom on how to win that elusive World Series.

"The best way to win the World Series," he said to the sounds of ears being perked, "is to reach it as often as you can."

[+] EnlargeTheo Epstein
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCubs fans appear ready to put their faith in Theo Epstein.

Yes, things are changing at Clark and Addison. The previous regime's idea of how to win the World Series was "lock up Milton Bradley for three years." That didn't work.

The front-office Theobowers, the disciples of Epstein, are multiplying and presumably working 25 hours a day (they found the extra hour, don't ask how) to thoroughly scout and research and ultimately build that "foundation for sustained success" that is all the rage these days.

Meanwhile, the Crane Kenney clones are preparing more money-making endeavors to fund those plans.

As Kenney, the Head Guy Shaking You Upside Down to Get Your Money, loves to remind us, his job is no longer finding ways to make money for the Tribune Co.

Now Kenney is the money man for the Ricketts family, who have pledged that all profits will get funneled back into the team. Since it's a private enterprise, I guess we just have to take them at their word.

"Everyone at this table," Kenney said at the team's business operations panel Saturday at CubsCon, "has really only one focus: to generate revenue to be put back into the ballpark and the team and give it a better chance to succeed."

But, of course, Kenney, Wally Hayward & Co. also said they're building a 150-seat party patio in the far right-field bleachers and adding a 75-foot long, 10-foot high LED scoreboard above the ivy in that spot to "enhance the fan experience."

"Everything we do is for the fans," another Cubs executive, Alex Sugarman, assured me.

These new additions, the patio and the LED board, were the biggest story of the Convention, outside of the well-planned Kerry Wood signing announcement on Friday night. Speaking of pre-packaged news, this is how Kenney introduced the new bleacher additions.

"I'm going to start with pre-submitted questions," Kenney said, echoing the spin of an ill-fated political rally. "To get things started, Wally, you, and your sponsors, have brought a number of great event spaces to the ballpark in the last couple years, including the PNC Club. What do you have planned for 2012 and is there anything you can talk about today?"

Funny you should ask, Crane! Wally did have something to introduce.

The patio -- sponsored by Budweiser, naturally -- isn't really an homage to the Green Monster seats in Boston, but rather it's a straight rip-off of the rooftops, with all-inclusive booze and food fare aimed at drawing groups willing to drop serious loot to get loaded and maybe watch a game. It will be easier to see the game. The Cubs are raising the seats to include the LED board and to give fans a better view of the action.

[+] EnlargeCrane Kenney
Jon Greenberg/ESPNChicago.comCrane Kenney and the business team unveiled a new right-field patio at the Cubs Convention.

The LED board is major news, given many fans' aversion to modern technology creeping in. Kenney said the design of the board makes video "challenging" but there will be a steady stream of advertising and an influx of updated statistics, pitch speed, etc. I'm all for this, and I'd love for them to belly up and just put in a JumboTron next to the scoreboard.

But while the electronics are fascinating, the addition to the bleachers shouldn't be ignored, either. This section replaces the bleacher box seats, which never looked filled.

Hayward, the well-tanned vice president of marketing for the club, said that the groups can buy tickets for the patio in chunks of 50 or just rent out all 150 seats (there is additional standing room only space, as well).

But in a breakout with reporters, Kenney said they weren't sure if it would be limited to groups, or what the prices would be.

As of Sunday, the Cubs had prices listed for the patio section on their website, but the team's vice president of ticket sales, Colin Faulkner, said those prices were listed from before the team altered its plans for the patio.

Those initial tickets were priced at $117.60/$87.36/$76.16/$52.64/$31.36, depending on the pricing tier. So we'll see how they change.

Whatever the price, given how cramped -- I mean charming -- Wrigley is, it makes sense to add this social space. I expect it to be a big hit during the summer, when everything is pretty much a big hit, except the Cubs' lineup.

The bleachers are also where the Cubs are experimenting with dynamic ticket prices. For those unfamiliar with the concept, dynamic pricing provides fans and teams with the ability to alter pricing of single-game tickets depending on demand, weather and special events. The San Francisco Giants were the first team to use this concept, and they reported great success.

The Cubs used a research firm to help them determine ticket prices this year as they sifted through millions of pieces of data. Theo's crew aren't the only ones with a computer and a dream.

The difference with the Cubs' usage of dynamic pricing is that there won't be fluctuations. The Cubs are pricing single-game tickets cheaper when they go on sale, starting with the season-ticket price ($85.12), and then prices will go only one way, up.

Single-game tickets go on sale March 9, which is a few weeks later than in the past. Starting in 2004, the opening day of ticket sales was a feeding frenzy for fans and amateur scalpers, but last season, very few games sold out the first day. The team is offering earlier mini-plans. A holiday plan was on sale in December and a new nine-game plan goes on sale Jan. 20. Season-ticket holders had to renew much earlier this year, and the team added many new season-ticket holders this season through various methods.

While there aren't a ton of season-ticket holders there, the bleachers, while uncomfortable and not family-friendly, are the heart of the ballpark experience, and the Cubs recognize their unique value.

Bleacher prices have been broken out of the tiered structure of the other seats around the park. The average single-game bleacher seat is down around $4, on average, from last season, at $45.13. (Season tickets are basically flat this season.)

Of course, when there five different pricing tiers, single-game averages aren't that meaningful.

While the Cubs plan on making these tickets dynamic, they have current prices listed on their website. Right now, for the 13 marquee games, bleacher seats are $87.36. That's nearly $30 higher than the nine platinum games($58.24) and more than four times higher than the cheapest games, the 11 bronze games ($19.04). Twenty-seven games are $30.24 and 21 are $42.56.

Those prices include the 12 percent city amusement tax. The Cubs started separating the tax from the ticket prices as part of their scheme, I mean plan, to use any amusement tax increases to fund the possible renovation of Wrigley. That plan, and how it would be funded, is still in the works.

While I know some Cubs business executives are cognizant about the "sticker shock" of an $87 bleacher ticket, the ugly truth is that fans, especially the large groups of tourists, drive the price, Kenney said.

"[Here's] what's really interesting," Kenney said. "Those marquee games in the bleachers were the first sold last year and the highest attended. In some ways, we let the market dictate what's going on there."

So there you have it Cubs fans, the only people to blame for higher ticket prices and the proliferation of party areas are, well, you. If you point a finger at Kenney, three more and a thumb are pointing at the real culprit. The 2004 to 2008 ticket rush allowed Kenney & Co. to oversee dramatic ticket-price increases. Under Ricketts' leadership, those prices have stabilized.

But if Theo does his job, you will continue to pay more and more. At least there's hope the tickets will be worth it one day. Not this year, but hopefully for all parties, very soon. Theobow on that.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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