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A Cautionary Tale For Ownership, About Cubs Fans

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" -- so said philosopher George Santayana. Here, then, we present a little history lesson.

Brian Kersey

I've been thinking about how to write this post for about a week, and while I was considering the matter, this Op-Ed appeared in the Tribune two days ago. It's written by Marty Sandberg (presumably, no relation to Ryne), who is described as "a disheartened Cubs fan and Chicago-based architect." Most of the article is complaints about Tom Ricketts and what the Ricketts family ownership wants to do to change Wrigley Field; we've been over that many times here and I don't think I have to repeat my support for the renovation plans (with the exception of the size of the proposed video board).

What caught my eye in Sandberg's writing, though, was this:

Ricketts has done one thing successfully — creating the most apathetic, undemanding fan base possible. Over the past few years third-generation die-hards have quietly been returning their season tickets. The knowledgeable, fun and sometimes offensive regulars that used to pack the park and make game day such a raucously enjoyable experience have disappeared. In their place, we find a ballpark full of expense-account-toting managers, teenage girls posting self-portraits on Facebook and a few drunken college bros confused by the ramp system. And let's not forget the legions of first-timers still traveling to Wrigley from out of state, somewhat disappointed by the lethargic atmosphere they encounter. But don't worry about them — they'll stop coming soon, too.

A lot of this, of course, is the coincidental takeover of the team by the Ricketts family and the fact that the team has been in decline on the field over the same period of time. We know many of the reasons for that -- the junk-food-high spending under Jim Hendry to try to win so that Tribune Company could get more for its property, and the hire of Theo Epstein and the rebuild that's now under way. This post isn't about that -- it's about how you create buzz to get people in your ballpark when you're not winning.

Let's take a trip back in time, shall we? It's 1946 and the Cubs are the defending National League champions. They've won five of the last 17 league championships and, although they didn't win any of the World Series in that time, they're still considered one of the best teams in either league. In that 17-season time frame, only the Yankees (seven times) appeared in the World Series more than the Cubs did.

World War II is ending, and attendance is jumping in the pre-television era. For the next seven years -- through 1952 -- the Cubs drew over one million fans, then considered a benchmark of success, six times, and finished in the top half of league attendance four times.

Even during the low years of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Cubs were able to draw reasonable crowds because they had a franchise icon -- Ernie Banks -- in his peak years. It was, of course, a different time; ticket prices were lower, and coming to the ballpark for an afternoon could be done for a family of four for less than $50, including food.

By 1966, though, with 20 years of failure, attendance was starting to drop. During the series I wrote last winter, "A Game From Cubs History", I quoted a Tribune writer who wrote about the kinds of people who inhabited a nearly-empty Wrigley Field as the Cubs were getting off to a horrific start:

Only 3,813 fans -- about one-tenth of a capacity crowd -- had turned out for the afternoon's spectacle. Of these a few were children in organized herds, a few were service men in uniform, and a few more were housewives. About half a dozen executives had brought along their briefcases and their out-of-town customers. The rest were superannuated men, crumbling and suffering through the agonizing decline known as the golden years. They sat there, blinking in the sun, clutching their 15-cent programs, and waiting for something to happen.

Very little, in fact, was to happen that afternoon. 

Baseball, even when played by professionals, moves at a stately pace with long pauses while the pitcher scuffs the mound and hangs his head dolefully. The Cubs' pitcher had plenty to be doleful about.

Houston was winning its 19th and 2Oth games of the season, and the Cubs, thanks largely to their own errors, were sinking to their fifth and sixth consecutive defeats. Even their most ardent proponents could not bear to watch the slaughter, and slowly, as the sun yellowed and fled toward the west, the little flock of spectators dwindled. Attendance varies directly with the success of the team: the Cubs attract only a little band of the faithful. Beautiful Wrigley field has thousands and thousands of seats, rising tier upon tier toward the sky, but vast sections of the stands lay closed and empty. "If it were conceivable," said the man next to me, "that the Cubs could lose any more games than they already do, they would draw even smaller crowds -- if that were conceivable."

The crowds aren't that small now, of course; there were a lot of baseball teams suffering attendance declines in the 1960s. The Cubs came out of that decline with the late 1960s/early 1970s with the teams that never won anything, but are beloved to this day. That happened coincidental with people like me, the Baby Boom generation just beginning our love of baseball, following the team every day via WGN-TV. All of that solidified a love of the Cubs that was helped along for those outside of Chicago with the coverage of the team on national cable in the 1980s.

Beyond the television coverage, my point is that since the late 1960s, there have always been reasons to come to Wrigley Field beyond winning. There have had to be, because although there have been six Cubs playoff teams since 1984, there have been no championships. (This, I did not have to tell you, but keep reading.)

The playoff teams of 1984 and 1989 spawned popular team icons such as Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Greg Maddux and Mark Grace. This helped keep attendance and interest up through the lean years of the mid-1990s, when the 1994 strike/lockout sent some fans away. By 1998, when the Sosa/McGwire home-run chase began to bring fans back into Wrigley, Grace was still there, and Sosa's presence kept the park filled from 1999-2002, when the team lost 95 or more games three of those years.

Then there was the playoff year and near-miss of 2003; the agonizing close call kept people coming back, hoping beyond hope that the team would make it to the Promised Land. The 2007 and 2008 playoff teams kept interest high; the Cubs set an attendance record in 2008 with 3,300,200, an average of 40,743, and still more popular team icons: Derrek Lee, Mark DeRosa, Reed Johnson, Kerry Wood, Ted Lilly and others. To this day you'll still see many more jerseys on fans at the park of players from the 2003-08 era than the present-day Cubs.

And that's the problem. The Cubs have continued to raise ticket prices through the decline of the last four years -- lowering them only this season -- and the result has been an exodus. The current attendance average of 31,829 is down 22 percent from the 2008 peak, and though it will probably go up by season's end, it's still going to be the lowest-attended year, most likely, since 1998.

The team is bad. Who on this club could claim the title "franchise icon" or "franchise player"? There really isn't anyone. Not yet, anyway. Anthony Rizzo might become that player, but he's only in his first full Cubs season and, though he's performed solidly, hasn't really done the sort of things that would make him a reason the casual fan would buy tickets. Neither is Starlin Castro, nor Jeff Samardzija, just to name two players that management seems to consider part of the "core" going forward.

This isn't intended to be a plea to lower ticket prices, though it seems clear from reports I've had most of the season that "street price" is about half face price; instead, it's intended to be a note to management: Wrigley Field doesn't sell out every day, win or lose; the value of Wrigley as a tourist attraction goes only so far before people find other things to do; and in the interregnum between contending Cubs regimes, there has to be some buzz placed on the franchise in order to get people to come out to the ballpark. Some of the earlier-created buzz was intentional -- Tribune Co. did attempt, at least, to improve marketing -- and some was serendipitous, such as the national fanbase created by two decades' worth of mostly afternoon games on WGN-TV.

Right now, though, as you can see by the photo at the top of this post -- and Wrigley has looked empty like this on multiple occasions in 2013 -- the Cubs should be worried about the lack of interest, since the baseball team might not improve to contention for two or three more years and serendipity is just that -- you can't force it. If they aren't concerned, they continue the present course at their peril.