Full houses at Wrigley Field no longer the norm
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 ideal place to spend a summer evening.
When Ryan Dempster delivered his first pitch to Andres Torres, sections 438 and 538 at the end of the upper deck in right were completely empty. Not even $1 hot dogs could entice more than 44 people to take up space in the upper portion of the center field bleachers after Torres struck out.
The Cubs drew 37,221 that evening of June 29, good for most clubs but the lowest total on their most recent eight-game homestand. Unfortunately, fans staying away from Wrigley Field has become a regular occurrence the last few years.
Chicago's lovable losers are one of five teams to draw at least three million people each of the last seven years, but attendance through 46 home dates has dropped for a third consecutive season. The club's current average of 36,596 is down 2,086 from this point in 2010 and 3,932 for the same time in 2008 - the Cubs' last playoff season.
The problem isn't confined to the Friendly Confines.
Though 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.
For the Cubs, though, a combination of poor weather, rough economic times, the third-highest average ticket price in the majors and a dismal 37-55 record has contributed to the low numbers in 2011.
"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."
That's one reason the Cubs marketing department works feverishly to ensure Wrigley Field remains Illinois' third-largest tourist attraction.
"This is a 24/7, 365-day-a-year brand," said Cubs executive vice president, chief of sales and marketing officer Wally Hayward. "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, with the Cubs coming off their second straight NL Central title, getting two seats together for a game at Wrigley was as tough as getting Tom Cruise down from Oprah's couch. With the prospects of a second consecutive losing season very much possible, that no longer seems to be the case, and could become the norm if the future does not 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 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," said Hayward, who noted 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 marketplace."
The Cubs have established a group of employees located in and around the ballpark to pick the brains of fans on a myriad of team topics. They have instituted promotions in the bleachers that were never needed in years past, such as free t-shirts on Mondays, $3 beers on Tuesdays and the hot dog special for Wednesday games.
Hayward and the Cubs continue to reach out to their season-ticket base - which this season is the largest in team history - with special perks to maintain their 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 fans through outlets from social media to 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.