MLB

Cubs' brass faces new problem: filling up Wrigley

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CHICAGO (STATS) - As the sun peeked through the back of the left-field grandstand and the temperature dipped to a comfortable 72 degrees, Wrigley Field again seemed like the perfect place to spend a summer evening.

Yet even that ideal landscape - combined with the Chicago Cubs' high-profile matchup against the freakishly good Tim Lincecum and reigning World Series champion San Francisco Giants - still could not help fill the seats at one of baseball's most historic venues.

When Ryan Dempster delivered his first pitch to Andres Torres, sections 438 and 538 at the end of the upper deck in right field were completely empty. Not even $1 hot dogs could entice people to take up seats in the upper portion of the center-field bleachers after Torres fanned for the first out of the game.

The Cubs drew 37,221 that late June night - that's the figure that was announced, anyway - which isn't too bad for most clubs. But it was the lowest attendance on the team's most recent eight-game homestand, and signified a downward trend usually reserved for places not nicknamed the Friendly Confines.

Chicago's lovable losers are one of five teams to draw at least 3 million fans each of the last seven years, but attendance through 46 home dates has dropped for a third straight season. The club's current average of 36,596 is down over 2,000 fans from this point a year ago and almost 4,000 from 2008, the Cubs' last playoff season - and 100 years from their last World Series title.

The problem is widespread - through July 4, 17 of the 30 major league clubs saw their average attendance figures drop from the same time in 2010. Places like Yankee Stadium, Busch Stadium and Dodger Stadium are also seeing more empty seats - and the reasons are as broad as the cities they've hit.

A combination of poor weather, rough economic times and rising ticket prices have affected many of baseball's markets. But with the Cubs, whose loyal fans have in many ways embraced their culture of disappointment and transformed it into a season-long Wrigleyville party, the gig may be up.

Lovable? Not so much. Losers? A 37-55 record at the break says it all.

Suddenly, North Siders seemingly impervious to the quality of the product on the field may have finally had enough.

"It's a perfect storm, no doubt about it, but the icing on the cake is the play on the field," Cubs television analyst Bob Brenly said. "There is not a compelling reason to make people want to walk up and buy tickets on the day of the game. It's been one of those teams that's been hard to wrap your mind around and reach into your wallet and pay for it."

As a result, the Cubs' marketing department is working feverishly to ensure Wrigley remains Illinois' third-largest tourist attraction. Because regardless of bad contracts, underachieving players and a seeming lack of connection between this particular team and the people it represents, there is something even larger at stake.

"This is a 24/7, 365-day-a-year brand," said Cubs executive vice-president Wally Hayward, who heads the sales and marketing group. "People are always thinking about the Cubs or about Wrigley Field. Every idea we come up with, we are trying to create some excitement or buzz to enhance the experience with our brand."

In 2009, when the Cubs came off their second straight NL Central title, getting two seats together for a game at Wrigley was as tough as finding Steve Bartman's name in the phone book. With the prospects of a second consecutive losing season probable, that's no longer the case, and could be the norm if the future doesn't get brighter for the boys in blue.

"If the Cubs end up being this team for the next 15 straight years, then that erosion may continue," Hall of Fame broadcaster Jon Miller said.

"What I like about Cubs fans, though, they like the whole experience. These are pure fans. They enjoy it more if the Cubs are good. The Cubs and Wrigley Field are like the Red Sox and Fenway Park - sort of inextricably linked. Either ballclub, if they leave that historic ballpark, it could really be a problem."

That's why Hayward and his staff want to make sure a team that has not won a world championship since Teddy Roosevelt was president remains appointment viewing. It's certainly been tougher to do this season, considering three home games were postponed due to rain and seven delayed. According to Hayward, the average temperature for their 14 April home games was 47 degrees.

"Just like any business, every organization is working harder to make a sale no matter what industry we are in," he said, noting that 37 percent of those attending a Cubs home game hail from outside Illinois. "We want to make sure we have the right people in place to be proactive about getting out in the market place."

The Cubs have established a group of employees located in and around the ballpark to pick the brains of fans on a myriad of topics. They have instituted promotions in the bleachers never needed in years past, like free T-shirts on Mondays, $3 beers on Tuesdays and the hot dog special for Wednesdays.

Hayward and the Cubs continue to reach out to their season-ticket base - which this season is the largest in team history despite the relative lack of other traffic - with special perks to maintain its loyalty. They've organized fan luncheons with current players and opened a designated area outside Wrigley for fans to gather during series against the Yankees, White Sox and Cardinals.

"At times it comes off a little pretentious, 'Geez, the Cubs need more people at Wrigley Field,' but you're looking for the next generation of fans," Brenly said. "You want that 10-year-old who comes out here now to bring their family back. You want that fan base to continue to roll over and come out here."

As initiated by chairman Tom Ricketts, whose family purchased the club for $845 million from the Tribune Co. in 2009, the Cubs' front office listens to their fans through such outlets as social media and even old-fashioned face to face communication. It's not uncommon to see the team's brass talking with fans at Wrigley on game day.

"(Fans) all have ideas," Hayward said. "They feel like they own the team and own the field. It's part of their life. All of these people have ideas and suggestions, and for the most part are good.

"A lot of fans I talk to, they understand what's happening and the situation we are currently in. I think they are excited about the ownership we have here, one who is extremely committed to winning a world championship, not only once, but building a franchise or organization that can win consistently over time."

That's all any die-hard Cubs' fan wants. Whether it ever materializes, however ... well, only time will tell. But if it does, it's safe to say the memory of $1 hot dogs will seem as distant as 1908.

Tagged: Cubs, Giants, Tim Lincecum

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