Whatever the Sox Can Do, The Cubs Can Do Better
On the surface, the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs have a whole lot of similarities. Both have very passionate fan bases that may come off as super-annoying to fans of other teams. Both play in major TV markets and have the budgetary muscle to put small market teams to shame. And (at least until 2004), both went longer than the average lifetime of a human between World Series wins. Now that the Red Sox have won three titles since 2004, the Cubs are the low man on the totem pole.
After the Red Sox broke their World Series drought, you wouldn’t blame Cubs fans for wanting to know when it was their time to win the big one. And the Cubs front office and management can’t be blamed for trying to copy the Red Sox in going about achieving that dream. But holy cow, they aren’t just reading the Red Sox Guide to Pleasing your Long Suffering Fanbase, they’re copying the damn thing word for word, top to bottom, from ownership to neighborhood revitalization.
And of course, stealing Theo Epstein away, the architect of the Red Sox team that broke through after 86 years of frustration.
I guess that shouldn’t be too surprising. The Red Sox and Cubs have been on very similar paths for a lot longer than you would think, starting with their ballparks.
Fenway Stadium in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago are the two crown jewels of baseball when it comes to seeing a game. Both are the only current stadiums that are, by and large, mostly the same as they were almost a century ago. Fenway was constructed in 1912, with Wrigley Field (then known as Weeghman Park) coming just 2 years later. What’s the 3rd oldest stadium in baseball behind those two? Dodger Stadium, built in the comparatively-recent 1962. To put it another way, the time period between when Fenway went up and when Dodger Stadium was built (50 years) is longer than the time between when Dodger Stadium was built and the newest stadium went up (Marlins park in 2012). Fenway and Wrigley aren’t just old, they’re TWICE as old as the 3rd oldest stadium currently in use. A whopping 28 stadiums have been built over that time period, and yet the Cubs and Red Sox still operate in their hallowed digs.
Staying in stadiums that are almost a century old is not an easy feat. Both Wrigley and Fenway have had to toe the line between keeping the old ballpark charm and providing fans with the amenities they expect a visit to a baseball game to come with. And in that regard, Fenway has been a great trailblazer in exactly how to do that. The first major step was installing a video scoreboard in 2000. A lot of vocal Red Sox fans complained, because that’s what Boston fans do best. They complained that bringing a video scoreboard into such an old gem from baseball’s golden era would ruin the aesthetic and they might as well start playing their games in a shopping mall. Fans had the same reaction to the news that Fenway’s Green Monster would be overhauled to contain seats. Working with baseball’s smallest capacity, the Red Sox have had to get creative in adding more seats to make sure ticket prices could remain realistic and putting seats on the Monster was one of the few expansions the team could take to get more people in the gate and buying overpriced beer just to yell at millionaire strangers playing a children’s game for a living.
It turns out that both the video board and the Monster seats were a huge success and gave the team additional revenue streams that allowed them to keep their payroll at the second highest in baseball for most of the 2000’s. Another major factor was the sale of the Red Sox to John Henry in 2002. Henry not only brought in front office help to build the Red Sox into a contender, he also completely overhauled the neighborhood surrounding Fenway, closing off streets and making it much more family friendly. And Henry came in just in time – the previous ownership group was planning on knocking down Fenway and building a brand new stadium across the street, much like the Yankees did when they built their new stadium in 2009. Because Henry and his ownership partners stepped in and chose to creatively revitalize not just Fenway Park, but the surrounding neighborhood, Fenway was able to celebrate its 100th birthday in 2012, being added to the National Register of Historic Places.
That plan is the very one the Cubs are hoping to replicate, a plan that started with new ownership. In October of 2009, the Ricketts family purchased the Cubs and put an aggressive plan into place to replicate the Boston process, both on and off the field. Instead of building a new stadium, the Cubs began aggressively overhauling the existing Wrigley Field. There was no Green Monster to add seats to, but the Cubs did the next best thing and added more seats into their famous bleachers. They also proved that anything the Red Sox do, they could do better by installing not only two video boards to their outfield, but one of them was the largest in any baseball stadium. Of course Cubs fans complained that it would ruin the Wrigley experience and of course they were all wrong because if there’s one other thing the Cubs and Red Sox have in common, it’s that their least informed fans are usually the loudest. Both the new bleachers and the video boards were smashing hits in 2015.
And the ‘Copy the Red Sox’ plan hasn’t stopped there. Over the last few years, the Ricketts family has bought up most of the property around Wrigley Field, including the rooftop seats that sit right across the street, planning on completely revitalizing the neighborhood with the addition of high end restaurants and hotels. There’s even going to be a space right outside Wrigley to host small concerts and public events. A big portion of these changes are supposed to be finished by the end of the 2016 season.
New ownership? Check.
Major renovation of a century-old ballpark to make it more family friendly? Check.
Hiring Theo Epstein to lead you to the promised land? Check.
The Cubs have carbon copied the Red Sox process up to this point, right? I guess that leaves only one last box to check.
No time like this October.