Barry Wilner looks at the $500m facelift of one of Major League Baseball’s historic venues and asks: is evolution better than revolution?
When sports organisations seek new homes, the debate can be furious: renovate or start anew.
For baseball’s Chicago Cubs, there really was no option. They couldn’t tear down Wrigley Field.
Indeed, it was never truly considered. Not only is Wrigley, which opened in 1914, an American gem, it is a part of the fabric of Chicago culture. Placing the wrecking ball on Wrigley Field would be akin to Parisians knocking down the Eiffel Tower.
So the Cubs set out on a $650m facelift for the ballpark. And the team’s timing was perfect as the Cubs made the playoffs for the first time since 2008, deflecting some attention away from the renovation project.
“Wrigley Field is recognised as one of the most treasured icons in sports,” says Julian Green, the Cubs’ Vice President of Communications and Community Affairs. “Each year, millions of baseball fans and tourists come to experience the storied history and excitement of this great ballpark. However, this matchless experience couldn’t be guaranteed for future Cubs fans if significant improvements weren’t made soon.”
Which meant the launching of 1060 Project, which would preserve Wrigley Field’s history and ensure the ballpark’s viability for another 100 years, but also modernise the place. It’s a quaint throwback to have ivy growing on the outfield walls, but not so enchanting to have uncomfortable seats, insufficient rest rooms, and aging concession stands in awkward locations.
“We wanted to have a modern facility equipped to accommodate the needs of our players, fans and partners, and enhance their game-day experience,” Green says. “Part of being a modern facility is meeting the demands of our fans who want to be able to dine, shop and entertain family and friends within our footprint. Our goal is to address those needs here at Wrigley Field with new retail and experiential components to provide an exceptional customer service experience.”
The Ricketts family, which purchased 95 percent of the Cubs for $845m, the team’s value now is estimated at $1.8bn, has said the renovations were essential to keep the club competitive.
Winter of Discontent
So the four-to-five year facelift began, with almost immediate challenges.
There are going to be growing pains, building pains, however you want to say it
A harsh winter slowed the first stages of the project, which included a left-field video board and right-field sign that block the view of the field from the neighboring houses and rooftop taverns. Owners of those establishments lost in federal court in their attempt to stop the construction of those two items.
The outfield bleachers were redone. Also in the plans: a new clubhouse, a fan-friendly restaurant, and an outdoor plaza that will allow patrons to gather together, something nearly impossible in the past.
The entire project should be completed by opening day in April 2019.
“They’ve taken all the steps to turn the Wrigley area into a Cubs experience and they didn’t do that just to make the fans happy,” said University of Texas Director of Sports Media Michael Cramer, who once was part of a group that owned the Texas Rangers.
Many fans actually were quite unhappy when the 2015 season began and there were major comfort issues. Yes, the toilets at Wrigley became something of a cause celebre in the Windy City.
The Cubs installed 72 portable restroom units during the first week of the season, hoping to curtail long lines people had to endure for the opening game. Waits of nearly an hour plagued that match.
“There are going to be growing pains, building pains, however you want to say it, with the ballpark,” general manager Jed Hoyer said.
Those pains – and the entire facelift – are a necessity because moving the Cubs out of Wrigley just wasn’t going to happen. Not even for the short term; suggestions were made that they share the Chicago White Sox ballpark on the South Side during the most massive renovations.
Financially, a permanent move from Wrigleyville to the suburbs would have been the most lucrative option, and municipalities in the Chicago area would have overbid to secure such a relocation.
Not a consideration for the Ricketts. “Location matters a great deal,” says Marc Ganis, president of consulting firm SportsCorp Ltd, and a Chicago native. “The stadium has a great deal of history, they view it as a shrine, many people do.
“And they couldn’t physically build a new stadium on the same site. So they had to find more space, and they moved their offices, expanding the footprint a great deal, all within that piece of dirt.”
Mass transit to Wrigley Field also was a key to the renovation project. It’s simply an easy place to get into and out of, something rare among US professional sports venues.
Is it working? Ganis thinks so.
“The public reaction has been far better than the media were predicting,” he said. “It has had hiccups – weather problems, infrastructure work before construction on the stadium itself was done. This is a challenging and complicated project.
“Everything has been done on a design basis to retain the motif and intimacy that Wrigley Field has. The Cubs have taken tremendous care and are spending a lot of money to retain the features of Wrigley Field to the extent they can.”
Green said the team will be doing more than even that as the 1060 Project continues.
“This past season we opened the new Budweiser Bleachers and launched our new video boards with great success and rave reviews from fans,” Green said. “Fans have enjoyed the extra room to move around and the new amenities with improved concession service and more variety of food. We also added new group spaces in left field and right field, offering great locations to view the game.
“Now that the season is over we will continue structural and foundational work inside the ballpark and buildouts of the clubhouse and office building structures. The Cubs’ new clubhouse will be completed by Opening Day 2016.
“Bottom line, we want to make Wrigley Field a modern, enjoyable place to watch the Cubs or attend events while maintaining the historic and unique features that make the ballpark special.”