Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Is nothing sacred?

I have to be careful here because Sam Zell, the new owner of the Tribune Company, could some day be in a position to hire me as a journalist - that is, if journalism is still around in the long term. Nevertheless, Zell is also, for now at least the owner of the Chicago Cubs and its home turf, Wrigley Field. And it's his current stewardship of the latter than has in a lather.

Wrigley Field has been around forever and a day. It has been renovated time and time again; the legendary scoreboard, the bleachers, the ivy, the famous front marquee - even the upper decks are not original equipment. And neither, for that matter, is the name - in the beginning, when the ballpark was built to be the home not of the Cubs but of the Federal League's Chicago Whales, the place was called Weeghman Park after the co-owner and president of that team. When the Federal League folded in 1916, Weeghman bought the Cubs, then playing on the West Side of Chicago, and moved them to his existing ballpark. In 1918 William Wrigley, he of the chewing gum, bought controlling interest from Weeghman; at that point, Weeghman Park became Cubs Park, and didn't assume its current moniker until 1927.

But for how much longer will Wrigley Field be "Wrigley Field." Zell, the billionaire real-estate titan known for his blue jeans, his motorcycles and his blustery temperament, bought the sagging Tribune Co. last year to save the media empire from itself, in effect, and at the time he said he would put the Cubs and their ballpark up for sale, though not necessarily to the same bidders. Indeed, it seems his intent is eventually sell Wrigley to the state of Illinois for them to maintain. But before that happens, Zell has recently made it clear that he is seriously thinking about offering the naming rights for Wrigley Field for purchase by any major corporation looking to slap its brand on one of the most iconic places in American sport. Zell says he would do this to help pare down the debt currently being carried by Tribune - even though the $20 million or so he could expect annually from such a deal would be a mere drop in the bucket in terms of affecting the $13 billion worth of debt hanging around Tribune's - and Zell's - neck.

As you can imagine, news that Zell is even considering such a move has not gone over well with the Cubs faithful, or even those who are anything but. As you might also imagine, Zell has made it clear that he doesn't give a shit about that, in almost those exact words. And whether Zell could even pull off such a sale has to be questioned. The backlash against such a move could be greater than one might think if you take into account the passion of the Cubs fans. I'm not saying we would march to, say, Bank of America and burn down the headquarters if they ponied up money for this venture. But could there be a rash of people canceling their accounts? You betcha. Just see what the reaction has been to the renaming of another Chicago institution, Marshall Fields. Macy's, which stripped the famous State Street department store of its time-honored name a couple of years ago in favor of its own corporate label, is still struggling to win back the customers it offended by spitting into the face of Windy City tradition.

And there's another wrinkle that could futz with Zell's grand plans - no matter what you call Wrigley Field, it will always be Wrigley Field thanks to that large red neon marquee on the front of the ballpark. Under Chicago law, which has declared Wrigley a city landmark, it can't be touched, no matter what. And I'm thinking that the city council will be loathe to amend that agreement. Put that in your tailpipe and smoke it, Sam.

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