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Cubs see progress in rooftop talks

Threats of legal action from owners of nearby rooftops has held up Wrigley Field renovations. AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs might be heading toward a victory against their most formidable foes.

No, not the St. Louis Cardinals. The rooftop owners.

Cubs executives said they have made significant progress in negotiating with rooftop owners in the past two weeks, which, according to the Cubs, is the last remaining obstacle toward starting the $300 million renovation of Wrigley Field.

The Cubs won key decisions in negotiations with the city council last summer that relax landmarks ordinances that previously made it impossible to add a video scoreboard and outfield signage and play more night games, among other proposed revenue-producing changes.

Still, the major parts of the massive planned rebuild of the park hasn't yet begun.

That's because the rooftop owners, who signed a 20-year deal that expires at the end of 2023 that gives the Cubs a 17 percent cut in exchange for keeping the rooftops' views of the ballpark, are still holding a possible legal battle over the Cubs' heads to preserve those views.

At their annual fan convention Saturday, the Cubs announced their plan to start construction in 2014 and to erect the giant cash machine of a video scoreboard in 2015.

But the rooftop owners need to promise not to sue the Cubs before work begins, and the sides need to agree on several other points, including "ambush advertising."

"We had two meetings last week with most of the rooftop owners and the city," Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney said. "There's a lot of urgency to get this moving. The conversations were good. Like all of our situations, we're always ready to make a good deal. We're not going to do something that sets us back in the long term. I feel confident we're working our way toward the finish line here."

What do the rooftops say?

"We don't believe negotiating in the media is the best approach" Ryan McLaughlin, the spokesman for the Wrigleyville Rooftops Association, wrote in an email.

Both owner Tom Ricketts and Kenney couldn't help but take shots at their rooftop adversaries during the second day of the Cubs Convention.

During his morning session with fans, Ricketts compared rooftop owners to nosy neighbors watching your TV for free.

"So you're sitting in your living room watching Showtime, you're watching 'Homeland,' you pay for that channel," Ricketts said. "Then you notice your neighbor looking through your window watching your television. Then you turn around and they're charging the other neighbors to sit and watch your television. So then you get up to close the shades and the city makes you open them."

Of course, that might make more sense if the neighbors charged admission to watch your TV and gave you a cut of the money, which amounted to millions in annual revenue.

During his afternoon session, Kenney said the rooftops make $20 million a year, after the Cubs get their cut. He then conflated that profit into the Cubs' baseball operations budget, showing a projection that equated that figure to the annual salaries of Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Joe Mauer and Cole Hamels.

In a side session after taking questions from fans, Kenney told reporters that the rooftop contract doesn't prohibit the Cubs from putting up outfield signage.

"Just to be very, very clear on this point, the contract does not prevent signage in the outfield. At all. Full stop," Kenney said. "What prevented signs in the outfield was the old landmark ordinance, which has been changed. So that's been reported incorrectly. The rooftops say all the time, 'Our contract doesn't allow signage,' but that's not true."

So, if what Kenney said is true, what are the rooftops arguing? "They're debating everything," Kenney said. "They're debating the zoning. They basically want to delay the project unless there's some accommodation made, and we're willing to make reasonable accommodations for everyone and we're hopeful. We'd like to see this get done."

One thing is for sure: Business is down all over Wrigleyville as the team has suffered through four consecutive losing seasons -- and many are predicting that a fifth is on the way.

Attendance at both Wrigley Field and the rooftops are down from the salad days of sellouts and big corporate parties. The Cubs drew 2.64 million last season, a 17 percent drop from 2010, the Ricketts family's first season as owners.

"A couple things have changed from 2003 until now," Cubs vice president/general counsel Michael Lufrano said. "That may be one of them, but they're selling more tickets on a day-of-game basis. They used to just sell to corporations and rent out the whole rooftop and your company would come. Now they're more in the single-game sales business. The market has changed, it's a different time now than it was 10 years ago. That's not unusual."

Both Lufrano and Kenney helped craft the initial deal between the Tribune Company and the rooftops more than a decade ago, which allowed the team to add bleacher seats and more night games, and settled litigation.

So, why does a deal finally seem near after more than a year of bickering and a quiet offseason?

Simple. Deadlines.

"Because we're getting closer to the time we really need need to make a decision and move forward," Lufrano said. "We're hopeful we're able to resolve this with them and do it amicably and do it in a way that makes sense for everybody."