- World Series triumph has shaken off ‘loveable losers’ tag
- Overhaul of Cubs’ fortunes based on ‘strategy, plan, people and culture’
- ‘Town hall’ meetings helped to establish strong relationship with fans
To read the first part of this three-part series on German football club FC St Pauli, click here.
Part 2 – team: Chicago Cubs
Identity: Loveable losers with a bucket-list stadium, rebrand as commercially-savvy winners
Everybody can identify with a hard luck story, especially if you know how to dust yourself off and put a humorous spin on it. Until recently, the Chicago Cubs had such a historical flair for losing that their fans had become practised in a particular brand of gallows humour. The ‘curse of the goat’, and other amusing reasons for the team’s sustained mediocrity, only added to a rich mythology.
Crane Kenney, the Cubs’ president of business operations, shows he is fluent in the team’s self-deprecating idiom when he tries to put the team’s 108-year quest to win Major League Baseball’s World Series into perspective.
“The last president in office when we won the World Series was Roosevelt,” he says. “I know you’re thinking FDR was a pretty important president, but it was actually Teddy Roosevelt, the Rough Rider.”
For effect, he adds that sliced bread hadn’t been invented, Las Vegas was a one-horse town in the Mojave Desert and it was still accepted practice to treat toothache with cocaine at the time of the team’s previous World Series win in 1908.
It would be reductive, however, to say that the Cubs’ ‘loveable losers’ tag was built entirely on an inability to win and having a sense of humour about it.
Most histories of the club acknowledge the profound influence of chewing gum magnate Philip K Wrigley in the evolution of the team’s brand. Wrigley took charge of the team after his father’s death in 1932 and famously stated that the experience of watching the Cubs ought to be about more than winning. “Our idea in advertising the game and the fun and the healthfulness of it, the sunshine and the relaxation, is to get the public to see ball games, win or lose,” he said.
It was Wrigley who ordered ivy to be planted along the outfield walls and Chinese elms in the bleachers to make a visit to watch baseball more akin to a day in a public park. Kenney acknowledges the debt the current owners owe to Wrigley when he talks about the stadium they inherited and its place in the Cubs mystique.
“Wrigley Field, while it was crumbling, was also beloved,” he says. “It was the second oldest ballpark in the US after Fenway Park. And for a lot of people it was on the bucket list, so if you want to understand the national pastime, given all the other ballparks had been destroyed, you had to come to Wrigley.”
The chewing gum magnate also had the foresight to sell the TV rights to Cubs home games at a time when other owners were worried that they would cannibalise ticket receipts. The deal paid off when the TV channel he had struck the deal with, WGN-TV, grew into a ‘super-station’ and began broadcasting the games nationally.
“We got a huge benefit in the 70s and 80s,” says Kenney. “WGN-TV carried our games, unlike any other team’s games, to 70 million homes outside our market.
“We become somewhat of a national love affair and the loveable losers tag [emerged] as a result of WGN carrying baseball to markets that didn’t have it. Before Colorado had baseball, before Florida, before Arizona, those markets were all Cubs markets.”
When those fans in external markets tuned in to watch the Cubs play at home, they got a taste of the alluring sights and sounds of Wrigley Field. In addition to the outfield ivy, the ground boasted a hand-operated scoreboard and, from 1967 onwards, a pipe organist provided an unmistakeable musical backdrop. Perhaps taking their lead from Wrigley and his more sanguine attitude to losing, Cubs fans were famous for sportingly throwing the ball back onto the field after an opposing team hit a homerun.
As Kenney suggests, there was also something endearingly ramshackle about the ground. “Wrigley Field was literally crumbling,” he says. “We prevented the concrete from hitting our fans by putting nets over the heads, but fans did come to the ballpark for a period of time from 2004 to 2008 wearing hard hats. We should have got a sponsor; that was a missed opportunity.”
There is the sense that plenty of other business opportunities were missed around that time and that the disrepair of the stadium was matched by chronic levels of neglect while the club was under the ownership of the Tribune media company. When Kenney joined the organisation, it had about 85 full-time employees.
That all changed when the Ricketts family took ownership of the team in 2009 and declared their ambitions to professionalise the business and shake off the team’s unfortunate moniker. “The brand ‘loveable losers’ is dead to us. We’ll soon be loveable winners,” the new chairman Tom Ricketts told the New York Times in 2014. Losing, for the self-confessed ‘Bleacher Bum’, was clearly not integral to the team’s marketing appeal.
Kenney, who worked under both sets of owners, says the Ricketts family’s overhaul of the business was predicated on “the usual three things: strategy, plan, people and culture”, but the new owners had to be careful that they didn’t destroy the essence of the Cubs brand in the process.
“We decided not to call it a turnaround because turnarounds, generally, are a reference for failed businesses that need a new life and our business in many ways hadn’t failed. It certainly hadn’t failed in terms of building a great fan base. But it did need to turn around so we decided to call ourselves a 100-year-old start-up. Start-ups are optimistic, they are new, they look forward.”
On the field, the Cubs determined to invest in young talent, trading expensive free-agent players for long-term prospects. ‘Town hall’ meetings were organised with season ticket-holders to inform them of the new strategy and to invoke a familiar refrain for the long-suffering fans.
In those meetings, the new management also tried to persuade fans that good business practices and the redevelopment of Wrigley Field were not antithetical to the traditions of the club.
In fact, the message under the new ownership was that more modern facilities and additional sponsorship inventory around the stadium would help the team to win. The new owners used the fact that they were stumping up $600m of their own money to fund the redevelopment of the stadium to win planning concessions, including one for a new illuminated Toyota logo above the left-field bleachers in the listed stadium.
“The landmark designation was never intended to put Wrigley Field in a time capsule,” wrote Ricketts in a letter to fans defending the new sign against complaints from traditionalists.
While a new video board wasn’t to the taste of everyone, either, Kenney argues that it would be foolish to arrest progress and that the new screen brings the club into the 21st century by allowing for replays and the sharing of statistical data and information about the players.
By the same token, he says the fact that the club adopted a less-is-more strategy with sponsors is evidence that the team hasn’t sold out in the quest to be more commercially savvy.
“We went from more to fewer, more impactful, partners,” says Kenney. “We became selective and a great example is we recently did a deal with Jim Beam. We had several partners in the spirits category and they were non-exclusive and we went to an exclusive relationship with Beam.”
When Kenney is asked if the ‘loveable losers’ brand is a thing of the past, he admits that the club did leverage the reputation in a recruitment drive as it sought to address its understaffed business operation. Here the club appealed to prospective employees by suggesting that being part of a team that ‘broke the curse’ would mean they were involved in a seminal sporting moment on the scale of the 1980 Miracle on Ice.
“We used to say we all know where we were in 1980 when the Miracle on Ice happened and a bunch of college kids beat the Russian Red Army,” he says. “Don’t you want to be part of the next event in US history where people will stop and say: ‘Holy shit, they did it’?”
Of course the Cubs ceased to be able to use this recruitment pitch when its investment in youth and overhaul of its business finally paid off and the team came back to defeat the Cleveland Indians 4-3 in last November’s World Series. All of which begs the question about what success and the validation of its new business approach might do for the complicated and nuanced Cubs brand.
For once Kenney is at pains to find the right answer.
“There is a question among the fan base of, you know, ‘what now? That was the quest for one hundred and eight years, now what’s the quest?’ Can you just say we want to do it again? And I don’t know if I have an answer, for the fans,” he says. “I know internally, you know this just inspires us to continue moving forward, but it is an interesting question.”
Crane Kenney spoke to SportBusiness International at the Leaders Sport Business Summit in New York.