December 21st, 2007

Sell Wrigley name? Go to Zell

By Jay Mariotti
Chicago Sun-Times

On new Trib chief's first day of running the Cubs, he came up with his first horrible idea -- Zelling naming rights to Wrigley

I would like to like Sam Zell. Know any other 66-year-old who wears designer jeans, drops obscenities at news conferences, leaves his shirt wide open at the neck and comes off as a cross between Jack Nicholson and Foster Brooks? He’s the complete, eccentric antithesis of a nameless, faceless hierarchy—call it the StantonCookDennisFitzSimonsDonGreneskoCraneKenney blob—that no longer is running the Tribune Co. and, by extension, the Cubs.

My only question is, can I trust this wildman with the American institution at the corner of Clark and Addison?

On his very first day as the company’s new chairman and chief officer, Sam scared the Zell out of me. All I want him to do is sell the Cubs soon, hopefully to a fellow business maverick like the two-decades-younger Mark Cuban, and get out of the way. But already, Zell is trying to lighten the company’s $13 billion debt burden, and he was much too quick Thursday to embrace an idea that will make Cubdom collectively hurl its most recent meal.

He wants to sell naming rights to Wrigley Field.

Imagine the McDonald’s golden arches, in bright yellow, placed beside the famed red sign at the peristyle entrance. Imagine ``McDonald’s Park at Wrigley Field’’ wrapped around the chipped white exterior. Or, worse, ``Menards Yards at Wrigley Field.’’ Maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic for old ballparks, but messing with the mystique of a global sports shrine would be committing aesthetic and historical suicide. The appeal of the Friendly Confines is to escape the madness of 2007 life and slip back in time for three hours, or at least until the Cubs blow a ninth-inning lead. Does Zell understand that reducing Tribune debt by selling out Wrigley is akin to scribbling graffiti on the Mona Lisa?

And wouldn’t a Cubbie conspiracy theorist assume Zell’s minority ownership interest in the White Sox, which would have ended months ago if Bud Selig was a serious commissioner, is part of a South Side plot to muck up Wrigley? If and when Selig realizes one man can’t own portions of two baseball teams in the same city—if he has forced Zell to dissolve his stake, no one has said so yet—he might want to urge Zell to reconsider his plan. Unfortunately, the new chairman’s favored concept of green doesn’t involve grass and ivy.

``Wrigley Field, the Cubs and all the land around it is an asset of the company—including the right to name the park,’’ Zell said at Tribune Tower. ``Based on the sales of naming rights around the country, this would probably qualify as being extraordinarily valuable. Could that be part of an equation? Of course.’’

Just as one doesn’t bastardize the Eiffel Tower or Great Wall of China with corporate neon, there are four stadiums in this country whose names should remain sacred. Three of them have every intention of preserving tradition. The owners of the Boston Red Sox have made mass improvements to Fenway Park, installing advertising in every nook and cranny and even building seats atop the famed Green Monster, but they’ve wisely stayed true to not selling the historic Fenway name. The same applies in Green Bay, where the Lambeau Field name is too precious atop the NFL’s crown-jewel structure to ever shift to Sargento Cheese Stadium. The New York Knicks are the most mismanaged, dysfunctional franchise in NBA history, yet the parent company somehow saves enough brain sells not to disrupt the Madison Square Garden brand name.

The other is Wrigley. Once, it was among the first corporate-named parks, honoring gum-maker William Wrigley Jr. back in the 1920s and lasting into the next century. But these days, Wrigley Field is so synonymous with fun, sun, beer and bleachers—the entire Cubdom state of mind—that it must exist as the sole name. As it is, the Cubs have been adding more ad signage each season, starting with the revolving board—yuk!—that was placed on the bricks behind home plate so Fox can promote its TV shows. Last year, they really pushed the traditional envelope by slapping UnderArmour ads on the outfield doors. And with the bleachers renovation, of course, came the Bud Light Bleachers. The facades, the old-time scoreboard—ads are everywhere, just like Fenway.

And with the addition of Kosuke Fukudome, prepare yourself for a barrage of Japanese ads. The outgoing Tribsters didn’t see a right fielder as much as a grand opportunity to globalize the Cubs brand. Ever see the Japanese signage at Seattle’s Safeco Field, where Ichiro plays, or Yankee Stadium, home field of Hideki Matsui? Wrigley will have those elements. Said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based Sportscorp Ltd.: ``They have ads on cushions on the outfield wall where Matsui plays, on the scoreboard, on the rotational behind home plate and on a really large panel that’s as big as the scoreboard at U.S. Cellular Field. I hate to sound like a copycat, but I’d go to those same companies. You have to try to put the ads in right, where he’ll play and where he’ll be hitting the ball.’’

Oh, and need I remind you that ticket prices recently were jacked up? And that those dreaded three letters at Soldier Field—PSL, as in Permanent Seat Licenses—might be coming to Wrigley? All of that is well and good as long as Sam Zell doesn’t mess with the Wrigley Field name. But he’s going to, I’m afraid.

``It’s all about the three Rs: relevance, revenues and respect—and not necessarily in that order,’’ he said Thursday. ``Our goal is to make this a viable, efficient, relevant, profitable company. And whatever steps are required to accomplish that objective, we’re prepared to do them.’’

Makes you wish Zell would have become a journalist instead of a money hound. ``I got such (expletive) grades in English, I didn’t think I’d be capable,’’ he told a chuckling audience. ``For the 18,000th time, I don’t have any editorial aspirations.’’ Why would he? He’s too busy buying a conglomerate and selling some of it off in pieces. He still wants the state to buy the ballpark and rent it to the future Cubs owners, even if the state doesn’t have money.

Some fans may not care, figuring naming rights are part of today’s world. They may shrug it off, knowing the Cubs will have a $130 million payroll. Just realize there never has been a cool corporate name for a stadium or arena, whether it’s something bland like the United Center, something empty like U.S. Cellular Field or something hideous like Whataburger Field in Corpus Christi, Texas; Taco Bell Arena in Boise, Idaho; Tim’s Toyota Center in Prescott Valley, Ariz.; or Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, R.I.

I just had a wicked thought. If Ronnie Wickers had the money, he’d ante up and change the name to Woo Woo Field. And you know what Zell would do? He’d take the money and run.

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