CHICAGO (AP) — During a concert at Wrigley Field last summer, Bruce Springsteen looked up at the fans packing the rooftops across the street and shouted: “Who’d you pay?”
The Boss isn’t the only one wondering about those rooftops these days.
The days of working stiffs lugging lawn chairs and coolers of beer onto the roof to catch a Chicago Cubs game are long gone, replaced by gleaming bleachers and sleek skyboxes that offer a bird’s eye view into Wrigley Field — for a price.
These rooftops, 15 of them in all, have become a high-stakes battleground in the effort to turn baseball’s lovable losers into a consistent contender. The team wants to add big, new outfield signs as they spend $500 million to update the 99-year-old ballpark, second oldest in the majors.
The Cubs, however, have run into a snag of their own making: The team has a 20-year revenue-sharing agreement with the owners of those rooftops — and the owners hate the idea of signs that might block the view. The contract doesn’t expire until 2023 and the fight could wind up in court.
“I want them to be successful and win the World Series, but do you have to block out the rooftops that created the aura of Wrigley Field (and) made Wrigley the darling of Major League Baseball?” asked George Loukas, an owner of three rooftop businesses.
This is not necessarily a case of a franchise valued by Forbes at $1 billion getting tough on mom and pop.
Many of the owners are wealthy. There are real estate executives, tavern owners, ticket brokers and even a rancher. Just three years ago, the Ricketts family — yes, the family that now owns the Cubs — invested in one of the rooftops so it could reopen.
Loukas, whose holdings include the famed Cubby Bear Lounge and dozens of other buildings, came to Wrigleyville in the 1970s. He and his brother bought an apartment building for a fraction of what it’s worth now and charged renters, including a young Tom Ricketts, less than $100 a month.
The rooftop properties are now worth millions, the surrounding neighborhood a far cry from its days of being known for thugs and prostitutes. Cook County records show the properties’ combined market value adds up to more than $60 million, and they are likely worth far more than that.
Under the contract, the rooftop owners pay the Cubs 17 percent of their gross annual revenue. Last season, according to the Wrigleyville Rooftops Association, the rooftop owners paid the team $4 million, meaning they brought in $23.5 million.
If those numbers hold for the remaining decade of the contract, the Cubs will be paid $40 million out of nearly a quarter-billion dollars the rooftops take in.
The two sides have differed before, but this dispute is far more serious. The team is planning major improvements at Wrigley Field, including a massive new video board in left field and a smaller sign in right field. The goal would be to complete the whole thing over the next five years and the project is starting to wind its way before city committees for approval.
It sounds simple enough. But this is Chicago.
The rooftop owners don’t like the signs, fearing partial views will hurt business, and the left-field sign alone would be three times as large as the famed scoreboard above the center field bleachers. They have threatened to sue.
The Ricketts family isn’t budging. After buying the team for $845 million in 2009, the family is promising to foot the entire renovation bill but only if it can secure enough advertising revenue from the signs and other efforts. Give the Cubs what they want, the owners say, and the Cubs will take that money and someday deliver the first World Series championship since 1908.
“We’re not going out of our way to hurt their business,” said Crane Kenney, the team’s president of business operations. But, he added, “if in order for us to generate the resources and therefore win on the field it has an impact on their business, that’s how it goes.”
The ballpark holds 41,000 fans. When full, the rooftop businesses offer seats for another 3,000, and it can easily be a cheaper option since food and drinks are often included.
“I went online and got two tickets for $79 each for the game, all the beer I can drink and all the food,” said Dennis Gillespie, who was on his way to a rooftop for a recent game with his wife, Barb. He figured there was no way to get all that across the street at Wrigley, where two tickets in the upper deck cost can go for as much as $77 each, with a beer running another $7.50 and hot dogs more than $4 each.
The Cubs recently launched a website, wrigleyfield.com, asking for online signatures in support of the project that will “allow your Chicago Cubs to play in the Friendly Confines for generations to come.” The rooftops’ association has hired a public relations firm.
Tom Tunney, the alderman whose ward includes Wrigley, has sided with the rooftop owners a number of times. In 2010, he agreed to support the large Toyota sign that rises above the left-field bleachers only after the Cubs agreed not to put up any more signs like that for four years.
According to the state board of elections, the rooftops have contributed more than $150,000 since 2003 to Tunney through individual contributions or hosted events. He has also received more than $15,000 from the Cubs and team executives, though records don’t show any contributions since 2010.
“Anybody who knows Tom Tunney knows money doesn’t influence me,” Tunney said. “I will do what’s in the best interest of the community.”
The owners say some in their ranks are carrying a lot of debt after pouring millions into their rooftop operations. Mark Schlenker, who has a stake in two rooftop buildings, noted that he bought one of them at a bankruptcy auction.
“That sign in right field will put me out of business,” said Schlenker, who fears customers will simply choose rooftops with the best views and leave the rest searching for fans.
Kenney, the Cubs executive, said there will not be another contract once the 20-year deal runs its course. And when that happens, he said, the question of whether the Cubs would be within their rights to again erect windscreens to prevent rooftop peeking might find its way into a courtroom.
“Let’s hope we don’t get to that point. That’s not productive for anyone,” he said. “We just want to run our business.”