Starting to make cents: North Side plan coming to fruition

Work being done on the facade of Wrigley Field near the Marquee Joe Musso/Medil Reports
Work being done on the facade of Wrigley Field near the Marquee
Joe Musso/Medil Reports

By Joe Musso

For the better part of the last century the Chicago Cubs have delivered an on-field product most fans would be ashamed of. The lovable losers’ ticket sales have also suffered over the past five years, but widespread change is on the horizon.

In 2011 Cubs newly appointed President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein asked one thing of the North Side faithful, be patient. Since then he and Cubs Vice President and General Manager Jed Hoyer have taken an organization with no foundation and built it from the ground up.

With the addition of renowned manager Joe Maddon,  a couple big name offseason acquisitions  and the gradual matriculation of the Cubs’ top prospects into the big leagues, fan sentiments have shifted to an excited optimism.

As demand grows, so too will the cost of admission. The Cubs plan to increase ticket prices in 2015 for the first time in five seasons. Eighty percent of stadium seating prices will remain unchanged but prime seating areas including the club box infield, field box infield, and lower terrace reserved infield will experience an average increase of six percent. The stadium-wide average price point is expected to swell around two percent.

Since 2010 the average price of admission to a Cubs game has fallen 16 percent from $52.56 to $44.16. To better understand how ticket prices fluctuate, it’s helpful to look them in terms of average annual attendance.

According to Chicago-based Team Marketing Report’s fan cost index, from 2013 to 2014 the average ticket price dropped .9 percent to $44.16, while average attendance slid .36 percent. From 2012 to 2013 ticket price fell 3.8 percent to $44.55, with attendance falling a whopping 8.3 percent. From 2011 to 2012 prices dropped 1.3 percent to $46.30, with a 4.5 percent skid at the turnstiles.

This trend continues back to the 2009-2010 off-season when average ticket prices jumped a notable 10.1 percent. This price bump came on the heels of a solid three-season stretch from 2007 to 2009 during which the Cubs made the playoffs twice. It’s a simple concept, win more games, drive up demand, and charge more to get in the building.

The projected average ticket price for 2015 is currently hanging around the $45.04 range, according to Team Marketing’s formula.

If the Cubs long-term rebuild comes to fruition, ticket prices could skyrocket in relation to their success. This type of behavior can be observed in the evolution of another Chicago sports franchise.

From 2006 to 2007 the Chicago Blackhawks clawed their way out of a pit of irrelevance by drafting Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Owner Rocky Wirtz knew the importance of establishing a young core of players, much like the Cubs have been attempting to do over the last four years. Since then Blackhawks ticket prices have exploded by 126 percent, with this year’s average ticket costing fans $78.80.

A look at Blackhawks and Cubs average price of admission since 2010.

The largest increases in Blackhawk pricing came at 3 distinct points. First, following the 2009 season when the Blackhawks reached the conference finals, the average cost of a ticket increased 28.4 percent. Then in the two seasons following their Stanley Cup titles, tickets once again jumped 18.4 and 16 percent respectively.

While Cubs fans can only hope that the organization experiences a Hawk-like turn around, increased success could mean a much higher asking price.

“Historically over the last few years, we’ve been able to move tickets at about 25 to 30 percent above face value,” said Leo Sosa General Manager of Wrigley Field Premium Ticket Services. “Right now were not projecting for that to go higher but if [the Cubs] start off hot in April and May, we could see an increase in the summer months.”

If the Cubs can remain relevant into the second half of the season, ticket brokers like Sosa who thrive on the resale market, are likely to see a much heftier bottom line.

Hopefulness among long-time Cubs loyalists is also on the rise. Entering 2013, the season ticket renewal rate slid to just below 80 percent. Cubs management announced that for the second straight year, the renewal rate has jumped five percentage points to around 90 percent, which translates to about 1,000 renewed ticket accounts.

Not only is this good news for the organization’s financial future, it sends the message that fans have bought in to Epstein and Hoyer’s plan. It also means that the roughly 66,000 people on the season ticket waiting list are going to have to continue to do just that, wait.

“I would say that our fans are very optimistic,” said Cubs Vice President of Sales and Partnerships Colin Faulkner. “People are excited about the direction of the franchise and the progress we’re making towards our goal of winning a World Series.”

The surge in optimism could not come at a more opportune time. Last season the lowly Cubs went 73-89, but despite on-field struggles, the club broke a five-season skid of decreased average attendance.

In 2014 the Cubs attendance per game came in at an average 32,742, eleventh in Major League Baseball. This marks a 19.6 percent drop since the 2007 season, with 2013 being the lowest attended season since 1998, according to baseball-reference.com. Although it does appear that the Cubs are beginning to turn the corner. Attendance from 2013 to 2014 increased by a few hundred on a per game average basis.

“While attendance is a very public number that everyone can see, our ultimate goal is to reward generations of loyal cubs fans with a World Series,” said Faulkner. “And to do that we’ve have to pour the resources into the baseball side.”

While demand appears to be increasing, ticket supply could be an issue in the early stages of 2015. Last October the Cubs broke ground on the four-year $575 million dollar Wrigley Field expansion and renovation plan deemed “The 1060 Project.” Phase one is currently underway and already behind schedule due to bad weather and the discovery of an obsolete piping system under the recently demolished Budweiser outfield bleachers.

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Workers brave cold temperatures on Waveland Ave. where the left field bleachers used to stand. Joe Musso/Medill Reports

Project managers are unsure if the new outfield seating will be ready for the Cubs prime-time home opener against the Cardinals on April 5. Cubs management is holding off selling single-game bleacher tickets until the work is completed.