On The Profit Motive

By Joel C. Boehm on Thursday, April 22, 2010

I take issue a little bit with this statement from a recent post, Chris: "Operating a ballclub is a business. It is not a charity or a non-profit."

I think that this statement, while true, misses something essential because it fails to portray the whole picture. A ballclub is a business, and one goal is to profit. Still, that is not the only goal, or responsibility, of the ballclub's owner. Winning is paramount, too. Most of the time, the twin goals of profit and winning are aligned: winning ballclubs generate profit, and profits help owners assemble winning ballclubs. But there are also times when actions taken purely for a profit motive do nothing to affect winning, in the short- or long-term.

Moreover, to add another important factor, the owner of a ballclub - and Wrigley Field - is also a steward, beholden in some sense to its fans, and to the team's tradition, the team's continuing legacy. At least, I believe this. And this stewardship matters to everyone who invests themselves in the team. If the bottom line is the only thing driving decisions - or even the predominant factor - that sense of stewardship can only erode, a significant loss to many who feel (rightly or wrongly) that an owner is entrusted with preserving something sacred. That's what it comes down to: whether or not it's fair, Cubs fans want (deserve?) to feel like we can trust the team's owner when it comes to everything that we care about deeply. To many, increasing advertisements at Wrigley Field feel like a violation of trust.

Of course, if the Cubs' player salary payroll were only $50M, and the team was nearly in the red every year, I think most fans would support selling ads to bump payroll up to $75M. In that scenario it's about winning. But when you can already afford a $146M payroll, and you're steadily profitable, what reason is there to trust that signs, affecting the ambience and experience, are being added for worthy reasons? (I assume the Cubs are in the black, but don't have a link handy to back that up. I also recognize that "affecting the ambience and experience" is relative to each person, but I think enough people agree that such signs are a detractor that it's a worthwhile point.)

I may write more about this, after the signs are up and we can better judge how intrusive they are, but I'm reminded of something I wrote back in 2008, when the naming rights to Wrigley Field were considered up for sale:

"Wrigley Field has come to mean much more to people than even a baseball stadium, symbolizing something mythical and nostalgic and grand. Something so inherently good that its identity cannot possibly be for sale, that we cannot possibly do anything to seriously compromise it. In a sense, I think many see Wrigley Field as a general in the battle against the downsides of Progress (capital P). In large part, I think this is because it's unique among places - even among baseball stadiums - in creating such a personal relationship with each of its visitors. Such places that invoke such genuine passion are harder and harder to come by."

3 Comments

First, full disclosure. I'm a White Sox fan.

Second, I'm with you on the overall about progress with a capital "P." The pervasiveness of advertising makes me crazy, and it would be nice to have some places where it didn't happen. Besides church, that is.

After that, well, this is just more Cubs drivel. Cub fans love to think their experiences--good and bad--are unique when they are not. More special when they are not. It's like a giant group narcissism.

Look, Wrigley is an ugly place from the outside. Granted, all the drunk recent University of Michigan graduates outside do have the potential of creating unique personal relationships, just not the ones you're hallucinating about.

Inside, Wrigley is a really nice place to watch a ball game. Is it nicer than say, PNC in Pittsburgh or ATT in SF? Do these places not manage to create relationships? Here's the thing: When you love a team and know its history, you'd have a personal relationship with going to the ball game no matter where it was. This is universal, dudes. It's not a Wrigley-only phenomenon.

Besides, it's hard to take this kind of thing seriously. The place has been owned for the last three decades or so by a conglomerate that didn't put signs up but commercialized every aspect of the experience, including watching the game from across the street. And did not put the money back into the stadium. And you're bitching about signs now? There's a delusional aspect of this that seems to say, "don't make me look at how my team has been commercialized so I can continue to believe it hasn't been."

Hey, thanks, really appreciate the thought ful response.

I see what you're saying and really don't disagree. From a non-baseball, preservationist point-of-view--one I'm fundamentally sympathetic to it--I'd want it untouched, too. I just don't think my experience with baseball can be ruined. Everyone's tried. The 1994 strike. Steroids. New Comiskey replaces old Comiskey which is replaced by The Cell.

History is not static, and it is not contained by a building. Symbols trigger memories, but if they tore Wrigley down tomorrow, you could (and should) still love the Cubs, still pass along stories about Holtzman pitching against Koufax or throwing a no-hitter, Sandberg's game against the Cards, etc. That doesn't below to Wrigley. I get the "it happened here" part but you know, the crazy thing is those memories are not diminished when the building goes away. The other thing is, if you're not careful, you end up with a museum, not a living breathing ballpark, and I think that can be competitively detrimental to the performance of the club on the field.

Which is to say, if the Toyota sign goes up, I think you'll be surprised how little difference it'll make to your experience.

The UM graduate thing wasn't intended as a low blow. The last time I was at Wrigley--and trust me, I'm not a prude--the behavior of some of the folks immediately outside the ballpark before and after the game was just pretty awful. Let me put it this way. I love New Orleans and have been there dozens of times. But I avoid Bourbon Street like the plague. I'm saying one of the prices of the enshrinement of Wrigley is the Bourbon Street part, it's been actively cultivated and it's a predictable part of the experience. To those of use who do not worship Wrigley, it's not a good one.

One other thing about historical buildings: They're awful in terms of accessibility and they really aren't fixable in that regard. See: Europe. Which is to say, nostalgia has it's limits. Just like maybe there weren't steroids in baseball in the old days, neither were there black or Latin players.

One other quick thing about whether the Ricketts need the revenue or not. I'm not partial to them, but in their defense, the truth is it's very possible the Cubs CAN'T really afford the current payroll level. Or the level they face over the next couple years. It's pretty obvious that the Trib folks said to Hendry, do whatever it takes to restore/up the value of this thing because we're selling. Hendry had not been a particularly big spender until after the 2006 season. In that season, the White Sox actually drew higher broadcast ratings than the Cubs for the first time in decades. If you're the Trib, and you own the Cubs, you gotta double whammy there. The value of a property you want to sell goes down while the value of another property whose value is related goes down. So they started spending like drunken sailors.

And they did not plow money back into even the basic upkeep of the park. So it's at least possible the Cubs could be looking at a difficult financial situation.

And unfortunately, it's impossible to know because owners don't make their books public.

Thanks again for the thoughtful response, appreciate your work.

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