The Chicago Cubs Face Serious Backlash In Building A 6,000-Square-Foot Jumbotron At Wrigley Field

The Cubs want only what almost every other MLB team already has:  A Jumbotron.  Part of a proposed $500-million renovation plan to the 99-year-old Wrigley Field includes placing a 6,000-square-foot video screen in Wrigley’s left field.  Along with enhancing the viewing experience of Cubs game attendees at Wrigley Field, Cubs officials assert that the Jumbotron will provide another key element:  revenue.  Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts recently asserted that advertising placement on the Jumbotron could create up to $20 million annually in revenue. This revenue would help pay for the costs of the proposed $500 million renovation.

Given the enhanced viewing experience and revenue generation it would create, what’s not to like about the proposed 6,000-square-foot Jumbotron being placed in Wrigley’s left field?  As it turns out, there is nearly as much not to like as there is to like.

The biggest opponents to the placement of the jumbotron are a group of rooftop owners whose buildings surround Wrigley Field.  For over two decades, these rooftop owners have been a thorn of sorts in the Cubs’ side.  The contention between the rooftop owners and the Cubs began when rooftop owners began selling packages to view Cubs games from the rooftops, while also providing amenities like food and beverages and telecast views of the games.  Many of these ticket packages exceeded $100 in costs, with the Cubs receiving no cut of the money.

After another renovation proposal was rejected, wherein the Cubs sought to add additional bleacher space to Wrigley Field, in 2002, the ball club sued a group of the rooftop owners.  The lawsuit, in federal court, asserted four causes of action:  copyright infringement, trademark infringement, misappropriation and unjust enrichment.  In its lawsuit, the Cubs noted that the rooftop owners created million-dollar businesses by charging individuals for entry onto their rooftops to watch Cubs games.  The Cubs asserted that the rooftop owners’ businesses were built on the backs of the millions of dollars the Cubs invested in building a team and maintaining Wrigley Field.  Not only did the rooftop owners not provide the Cubs a cut of their revenues, but they had not obtained copyright or trademark licenses from the club, which the team asserted were necessary for the rooftop owners to profit off of selling opportunities to view the games.

The Cubs’ lawsuit resulted in a settlement agreement, in which the rooftop owners and the team signed a 20-year agreement, whereby the owners give the Cubs 17 percent of their gross revenue annually.  This gross revenue amounts to an estimated $2 million per year.  While this settlement agreement provided the Cubs with an additional $2 million in revenue and at the time, a solution to one of the team’s greatest dilemmas, it may now create new problems for the ball club.

The rooftop owners who were part of the settlement agreement assert that building a Jumbotron that blocks their view amounts to a breach of the settlement agreement.  The owners claim that if the Jumbotron blocks their rooftops’ view, it will dismantle their businesses.  This is because the rooftop owners assert that without a clear view into Wrigley Field, patrons will not pay to watch the games from their rooftops.  Thus, the rooftop owners assert that any action taken by the Cubs to thwart their view into Wrigley Field during the term of the 20-year settlement agreement constitutes a breach of the settlement agreement.

The terms of the settlement agreement were reached out of court, and thus, are private.  Hence, it is unclear what licenses, rights or assurances the Cubs granted the rooftop owners.  Knowing what, if any, licenses, rights or assurances the Cubs granted the rooftop owners is necessary to determine whether the rooftop owners could file a lawsuit to successfully block the team from building the Jumbotron.

Given the lucrativeness of the rooftop owners’ business, it is unlikely that they would settle a lawsuit on this matter quickly or for a small amount of money.  From all accounts, it is clear that the Cubs want a Jumbotron, and at that, one big enough to be taken seriously in the age of mega Jumbotrons.  Given this, it is possible that said Jumbotron will block some of the rooftop owners’ views into Wrigley Field.  If the Cubs want the advertisement revenue that comes along with the proposed Jumbotron, depending upon the terms of the previous settlement agreement with the rooftop owners, there is a chance that the team will have to shell out serious cash to the rooftop owners.

While the rooftop owners continue to pose a threat to the team’s renovation plans, perhaps another factor presents a bigger obstacle to the Cubs.  That factor would be Wrigley Field’s recognition as a historic landmark by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks in 2004.  As a result of its status as a historic landmark, renovations to Wrigley Field must be approved by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.  Given the historic nature of Wrigley Field, there is a chance that the commission would reject a plan to modernize the field by adding a 6,000-square-foot Jumbotron.  A potential argument exists that addition of the Jumbotron, which would bring Wrigley Field up to par with other, more modern baseball stadiums, would impact its historical nature.  Thus, while the Cubs’ proposal has received support from a number of essential Chicago politicians, perhaps the biggest hurdle the team’s plans face is convincing the commission that addition of the Jumbotron does not thwart the historic nature of Wrigley Field.

Over the coming months, the Cubs face some serious battles in their plan to renovate Wrigley Field.  While chairman Ricketts has asserted that if the team’s renovation wishes are not met, it may be forced to move, such a decision will not come without a full economic analysis of alternative stadium locations.  Although the Cubs have built a legion of loyal fans over the years, the team’s home at Wrigley Field remains an important component to its economic success.  As the team has only three post-season appearances in the last decade, it’s safe to say that many who attend Cubs games do so based upon the lure of visiting the second-oldest ballpark in MLB.  Uprooting the team over the potential inability to construct a Jumbotron then, arguably poses a great risk to continued ballpark attendance.  Thus, it is to be seen, whether that is a risk the Cubs are willing to take.

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