Special to CSNChicago.com
The following is an excerpt from an upcoming book titled "There Used to Be A Ballpark Here: Communication, Community and the Spaces of Baseball” by Adam Grossman that will be published by the Peter Lang Publishing Group later this year.
The Illinois House of Representatives stopped time on June 30th, 1989. The Chicago White Sox had threatened to leave its Southside home if the team did not receive public financing for a new stadium. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf signed an agreement that would move the team to Florida if a deal with Illinois state legislature was not completed by 11:59 P.M. on June 30th.
But, on June 30th, the deadline passed without a vote on the legislation. So, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan decided that whenever the vote was taken, the official timekeeper of the House would record the time as 11:59 P.M. The vote that approved state funding actually took place at 12:03 a.m. on July 1st, but according to official records, the decision was reached at 11:59 P.M. on June 30th (Gonzales, 2009, pp. 63-64).
If the Illinois state legislature could stop time for the White Sox, then it should do no less than defy the laws of finance to help the Cubs. When the Ricketts family assumed control of the team from the Tribune Company for $845 million in 2009 (Satariano, 2015), it also acquired Wrigley Field, the then 95-year-old ballpark. The family wanted to make significant improvements to the iconic venue. The restoration required to modernize Wrigley Field, however, would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Like Reinsdorf and many other sports owners, the Ricketts family pursued a public/private partnership with the local government. If the partnership were established then the Ricketts would have received public funding to help finance the ballpark’s reconstruction. On November 10th, 2010, Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts unveiled the Wrigley preservation plan, which, among other provisions, asked the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority to issue $250-$300 million in bonds to finance Wrigley Field’s restoration.
Unfortunately, 2010 was not 1989 and Illinois state and local government no longer had the resources to make such a large public sector commitment. Given that the governments of all sizes faced massive budget deficits at the time, it was going to be difficult to receive any funding let alone the money necessary to make the restoration needed for Wrigley Field.
The finances, however, may not have been the Ricketts’ biggest challenge in moving forward with renovating Wrigley Field. Time felt like it stopped from the moment a fan came near Wrigley Field in the best possible ways. Author George Will described the timeless nostalgia of Wrigley field when he said, “The story of the ballpark is braided with the story of the baseball team and the city. The ballpark has not been a passive ingredient in the Cubs story. It has shaped what it has framed .” (Will, 2014, p. 13-17) The sights, sounds, and smells of Wrigley Field reminded fans of all ages why baseball has traditionally been considered the country’s national pastime. Whether the team won or lost, people understood they would have a unique baseball experience at Wrigley Field that they could get from few other sports venues in the world.
At the same time, change at Wrigley Field was required because the ballpark was falling apart. For example, Wrigley Field’s infrastructure had crumbled to the point that netting had to be installed to prevent concrete chunks from falling from the upper decks (Wrigley, 2004). In addition, the building was not providing resources that fans, sponsors, and athletes commonly expect in a modern sports venue. For example, the Cubs lacked the outfield signage and the number of luxury suites that were cornerstones for incremental revenue growth essential to the success of more recently constructed ballparks. However, Wrigley field had even more fundamental issues impacting the game day experience. These ranged from concourses that were difficult to navigate to outdated weight rooms and training facilities to insufficient number of elevators.
By 2013, the Ricketts family had announced that it would privately finance the renovation of Wrigley Field and much of the area surrounding the venue (Ecker, 2014). The Cubs now faced a challenge that has become a common issue in urban communication: how can an organization make changes to iconic buildings that many people love and want to the stay the same when the facilities need significant improvements? The owners of the Cubs wanted to change the organization’s brand and use the renovation as a catalyst for a larger brand transformation. At the same time, the Cubs needed to convince fans, media, sponsors, and government officials the Cubs’ changes to Wrigley Field would meet these stakeholders’ expectations of what made the ballpark special to gain audience support for the massive project. In this chapter, we use the ongoing Wrigley Field restoration to explore the theoretical and practical implications that come from transformational communication. We start by examining the brand, audience, and place challenges that the Cubs faced in renovating Wrigley Field. We then demonstrate how using transformational communication paradigms and approaches enabled the organization to secure project approval while gaining the support of key audiences during the ongoing process.
In this chapter, we use the ongoing Wrigley Field restoration to explore the theoretical and practical implications that come from transformational communication. We start by examining the brand, audience, and place challenges that the Cubs faced in renovating Wrigley Field. We then demonstrate how using transformational communication paradigms and approaches enabled the organization to secure project approval while gaining the support of key audiences during the ongoing process.
Why losing is not so lovable
To understand why making changes to Wrigley Field would generate such a heated reaction, one first has to examine the ballpark’s impact on the team’s brand. The organization had come to be defined as a perennial loser but not always in a bad way. The Cubs last advanced to the World Series in 1945, when the team lost to the Detroit Tigers. From 1946-2013, the Cubs have lost 693 more games than the team has won and has never had a winning percentage over .500 in any decade during that time period (Will, 2014, p.13) Yet, people loved the Cubs whether the team won or lost. For example, the Cubs attracted over three million fans per season from 2004-2011 (Cubs, N.D). Wrigley Field was one of the biggest reasons why this was the case.
The lovable loser brand
The term “brand” can mean many different things to a variety of people in an industry. We use the definition of brand developed by Professor Scott Galloway of New York University’s Stern School of Business, which states that it is the “clearly defined set of attributes that facilitates decision-making and unifies an organization’s thinking process. Brands breed a culture that understands and lives [these attributes]. Brands establish a point of difference (competitive advantage).” (Galloway, 2010)
An important step in defining an organization’s brand is developing a brand audit. According to Galloway, each brand consists of a brand essence, core identity, and extended identity. We will apply this brand framework to the Cubs, but not exactly in the way that Galloway originally intended.
Brand essence is defined as the word or phrase that encapsulates the most critical components of a company’s soul and how audiences connect to a brand on a core emotional level (Galloway, 2010). For the Cubs, the team’s brand essence encapsulated who the team was but not necessarily who the team wanted to be. For the last forty or so years, the team’s brand essence has been the “loveable losers”. Fans, media, and sponsors loved engaging with the Cubs regardless of the team’s on field performance largely because of the experience of being at Wrigley Field.
The brand essence had been established when Philip K. (P.K.) Wrigley took control of the Cubs after the death of his father in 1932. Philip stated that “The club and the park stand as memorials to my father.” He promised to never sell the team “as long as the chewing gum business remains profitable enough to retain it.” While P.K. preferred the Cubs to be successful, he stated, “Our idea in advertising the game, and the fun, and the healthfulness of it, the sunshine and the relaxation, is to get the public to see ball games, win or lose." (Steele, N.D.) He envisioned a park within a park, where families could come and enjoy baseball in the sunshine amidst a pastoral atmosphere. He called it “Beautiful Wrigley Field”, and he ordered the gardeners from his Wisconsin vacation home to plant Boston ivy and bittersweet along the outfield wall and Chinese elms in the centerfield bleachers in 1938. The same ivy still grows today and has become an iconic feature of Wrigley Field.
P.K. Wrigley’s focus on making the team a good business led to perhaps one of the most important innovations that still impacts the sports industry today. Wrigley was one of the first owners to recognize the importance of television broadcasts of baseball games. In 1946, the Cubs signed a deal with WGN-TV and station began to broadcast all of the Cubs home games in 1948. At the time, many of the other MLB owners were afraid that these types of deals would cannibalize ticket and stadium revenue. Instead, revenue and interest in the Cubs grew rapidly with Wrigley Field as the star. The team created intimate, daily connections with new fans that loved seeing the team play at Wrigley Field. As WGN-TV grew into the “super-station” with games broadcast nationally, anyone in the United States who had cable could watch the games, see beautiful Wrigley Field from their living rooms each afternoon, and become Cubs fans.
These types of agreements also made it easier for the Cubs to achieve economic profitability and stability without winning. The Cubs focus on creating steady revenue streams enabled the team to not be as worried about the performance. The idea of being loveable even while losing, established by P.K. Wrigley in the 1930s, would remain the foundation of the Cubs identity until 2009.
Core Identity refers to the timeless and most important elements of brand identity. (Galloway, 2010). This is much more tangible than the brand essence, and these attributes that define the brand to different audiences.
The most timeless elements of the Cubs brand are defined by what happened at Wrigley Field. Fans flocked to Wrigley Field as much because they had a consistently satisfying game day experience as because they wanted to see their team win. As they approached the ballpark, fans felt they were returning to what they imagined baseball to be. They could see the iconic red Marquee welcoming them to a ballpark filled with the dazzling greens of the hand-operated green scoreboard and the ivy covering the outfield walls. They could smell the Chicago-style hot dog filled with onions, relish, mustard, celery salt, peppers and full pickle permeating through the concourse. They could taste the cold beer helping to cool them off on a warm and humid sunny day. They cheered when the fans threw a baseball back onto the field after the opposing team’s player hit a homerun. And the best part was that they knew that their parents, grandparents, sons, daughters, and friends all had the same gratifying experience at the “Friendly Confines.”
Little of this game day experience actually had to do with the outcome of the game itself. What happened on the field often did not matter as much as what was happening in and around the ballpark. Even though the team won 10 pennants and two world championships, the team had more losing seasons then winning seasons. Yet, Cubs attendance remained the most consistent regardless of the team’s on-field performance. In fact, Wrigley Field gate revenue actually increased slightly in a year when the team lost more games than it did in an average year. (Moskowitz, 2011, p. 247 – 252). Wrigley Field embodied everything good and bad that has to do with being the “loveable losers.” The Cubs extended identity helped build on this foundation set by the ballpark.
Extended identity “encapsulates the Elements that provide texture and completeness" (Galloway 2010) of the brand through tangible items. The most common elements of the extended identity include:
— Brand as person – Which specific players, managers, owners, fans, etc. showcase the brand.
— Brand as symbol – How do the logos, photographs, artwork, banners, and images convey the brand’s core identity.
— Brand as product – How do the organization’s core service offerings encapsulate what the brand stands for to different audiences.
— Brand as organization – How the organization’s leadership, culture, and employees match with the brand.
Examining the extended identity shows just how entrenched the loveable loser brand was to the Cubs when the Ricketts family assumed control of the team. When the Wrigley family sold the Cubs to Tribune Company in 1981 for $20.5 million, the Tribune Company largely followed the same approach that the Wrigley family employed. While the Tribune Company preferred that the team perform well, the company was happier that the team delivered a consistent profit to the company’s bottom line while it owned the team through the 2009 season. Babcock (2014) contended that the “Tribune Company, recognized the game it was in—entertainment—and relentlessly promoted the pleasures of visiting Wrigley.” (Babcock, 2014)
The clearest example of the “loveable loser” extended identity, however, is seen through the brand as people. Great players and managers who win championships often define the success of a sports organization. The New York Yankees, for example, have Monument Park in the outfield of Yankee Stadium celebrating Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, and more.
The Cubs do have many great players in the organization’s history. This includes Mr. Cub Ernie Banks as well Hall of Famers Hack Wilson, Billy Williams, and Ryne Sandberg. Ron Santo made the All-Star team in nine seasons during his long Cubs career and later become a popular radio play-by-play analyst for the team.
However, the Cub’s brand has largely been defined by people who had no influence on the team’s on field performance at Wrigley Field. Arguably the most famous embodiments of the Cubs brand were announcers Jack Brickhouse and Harry Caray. Brickhouse was the first broadcaster for WGN when the station first began fully televising the team’s home games in 1948 (Castle, N.D.). Williams articulated what made Brickhouse so popular with fans when he stated, “You could tell in his voice. He was a Cub fan and he rooted for the Cubs.” (Castle, N.D.) Brickhouse was so important to the Cubs that the outfield field foul poles at the ballpark are adorned with “Hey Hey.” Caray made singing during the seventh inning stretch an institution and was known for colorful calls after having at least one or two beverages during the game. What made Caray an institution, however, was his passion for the Cubs and his commentary as the team struggled. While they loved the Cubs, audiences across the country often watched on WGN TV because they loved Caray just as much. Caray become such a Cubs icon that the organization commissioned a statue outside of Wrigley Field in his honor.i In addition to Brickhouse and Caray, many Cubs’ fans are more famous than its players. This includes movie stars such as Bill Murray, Will Ferrell, Jeff Garlin, and Vince Vaughn and politicians such as Hillary Clinton and former President Ronald Reagan.
The Cubs’ brand essence, core identity, and extended identity all demonstrate how the franchise has historically built its brand around being a loveable loser. Unlike the Wrigleys and Tribune, the Ricketts family did not want to employ this approach when it assumed control of the team. The family decided to make a change and develop a new brand focused on winning. Renovating Wrigley Field would be at the center of this brand transformation.
Transforming into a winner
Rein, et al. (2015) argue that winning should not define an organization’s identity. The strongest sports brands are often those that are not always defined by competitive success because winning is often a variable that is very difficult to control. For example, the Chicago
Bears have the highest winning percentage in National Football League (NFL) history. Yet, the team has only won 57% of its games (Rein, 2015). In addition, winning is becoming something more difficult to define. Even teams that have won on the field have lost off the field. The Scottish Premier League’s Glasgow Rangers won its record 54th title after the 2011-12 season, and then declared bankruptcy later in 2012 (Rein, 2015).
The question then becomes why should the Cubs change the loveable loser brand in the first place? From the moment the Ricketts family assumed control of the team in 2009, it was determined to change its culture and change it quickly. As Tom Ricketts stated, “The ‘lovable losers’ hits a raw nerve for everybody in the family.” Co-owner Laura Ricketts contended, “When we took over ownership of the Cubs, it was ‘If we ever win a World Series. Now the whole … culture of the organization has changed to … ‘when.’ The Cubs are coming back.” (Rackl, 2014)
The timing of the brand transformation made sense. Starting this process when new ownership takes over occurs frequently with sports organizations and other businesses. With regard to the Cubs and the Ricketts, however, the essential insight is that the Cubs transformation did not require a complete overhaul. Fans, media, and audiences still wanted the team and the experience to be “loveable”. The team just did not need to be defined as “losers.” While seemingly contradictory, this idea is actually complementary to the approach that Rein, et al. previously articulated about winning. Just as focusing solely on winning should not define an organization’s brand, losing should not either. Or as Cohen says “Losing some of the time makes you want to win; losing all of the time makes you a loser.” (Cohen, 2012) Instead, the Cubs needed to create a brand that enabled them to be successful on the field while continuing to be a loveable franchise.
To complete this type of change, the Cubs would need to change its core identity. There was no more highly visible element of the brand than Wrigley Field, and it would be the centerpiece of the team’s brand transformation. The first step the team needed to undertake was to understand and navigate audience expectations and associations with the ballpark.
Expect the unexpected
Audience expectations are critical any time an organization is going through a brand transformation. However, sports organizations face a unique dilemma compared to other industries and businesses in this regard. Most sports organizations are privately owned entities. For most businesses with this ownership structure, the business can make decisions to renovate a venue whenever it perceives it makes the most sense to take on these changes without any regard for outside sentiment.
Most sports teams, however, are also thought of as a public good. This means sports fans believe that they deserve a say in how their favorite sports teams and athletes are managed. The teams or athletes often define countries, regions, states, counties, cities, and towns where sports audiences live.
Wrigley Field is a clear example of this point. Chicago is home to some of the most famous buildings in the world, including the Willis Tower and the Hancock Building. Yet, Wrigley Field is arguably the most famous building in Chicago. It is often widely considered one of the most popular tourist attractions in Illinois after Navy Pier and Millennium Park. It is also a venue wholly owned by the Chicago Cubs and the Ricketts family.
Given this dynamic, the Cubs organization cannot operate like any other privately owned business. It must do more to fully understand audience expectations and employ a transformational communication strategy that takes these issues into account. What are the expectations that Cubs audiences have? There are two critical challenges the team needed to address in its communication with audience members.
Wrigley has been the same since it opened
As we have stated in this chapter, fans, media, sponsors, and politicians love Wrigley Field because it is perceived to have changed very little over the course of its history. Some of the criticism the Cubs current plan has faced is rooted in the fact that the restoration could fundamentally alter what makes the ballpark so special.
The reality is that Wrigley Field has undergone extensive changes throughout the course of its history. When the ballpark was built in 1914, it was a 14,000-seat venue with a single deck named Weeghman Park. Weeghman Park had no Ivy, no Marquee, no lights, and a completely different scoreboard. In fact, the Cubs did not actually play at the ballpark when it first opened. The Chicago Federals (later known as the Chicago Whales) played at Weeghman Park for two years before the Cubs’ first game in 1916 (Wrigley, N.D.)
In addition, many of the “timeless” elements of Wrigley Field have actually been added over time. These include (Yellon, 2013):
— 1920 – Weeghman Park is renamed to Cubs Park. It would be another 12 years before the ballpark acquired the title of Wrigley Field.
— 1923 – The team increased seating by 12,000 seats to 30,000. This included moving the center section of ballpark from behind home plate back closer to the intersection of Clark St. and Addison St to accommodate the new seating capacity.
— 1926 – Cubs Park name is changed to Wrigley Field to honor William Wrigley, Jr.’s ongoing tenure as the majority owner.
— 1934 – The team adds a red Marquee that faces the intersection of Addison and Clark. The Marquee broadcasts information to fans outside the ballpark about game times, starting pitchers, and team information.
— 1937 – The famed outfield bleachers are added to the ballpark. The bleachers replace the old seats to expand capacity. In addition, the team constructs its legendary handoperated green scoreboard that is still used today. In addition, P.K. Wrigley, orders the planting of bittersweet and ivy vines that have become synonymous with Wrigley Field. The team paints the marquee blue, which has remained to this day.
— 1941 – A new organ is added to play all music throughout the game including player introductions, breaks between innings, and “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.”
— 1952 – The centerfield bleachers are closed to provide hitters with a “Batter’s Eye,” a better background to see the ball. Cubs fans used to wear white shirts to confuse opposing batters and put jackets on when the team were up to bat to make it harder for batters to see pitches.
— 1968 – The entire lower bowl was completed rebuilt with new concrete and capacity actually was lowered by 5,000 fans in this section.
— 1988 – Floodlights are added and Wrigley Field hosts its first night game. The first night game had to be played twice. A downpour causes the first game versus the Philadelphia Phillies to be rained out. The game was postponed and the first official night game occurred the next day against the New York Mets.
— 1989 – The Cubs have the first private boxes installed in the ballpark with the press box moved behind home plate. The current press box includes the television broadcast area where celebrities come to sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch.
— 2005 – The bleachers are expanded and the team adds a new restaurant during the expansion.
— 2012 – The team constructs the Budweiser Patio in right field and installs a new LED scoreboard to display videos, statistics, and dynamic corporate signage.
Wrigley Field is also not the first historic ballpark to undergo extensive changes. Fenway Park, the Rose Bowl, and Notre Dame Stadium are all historic venues that have similar importance to their communities as Wrigley Field. Each of these venues has also undergone significant restoration over the past twenty years. This demonstrates that renovating timeless stadiums actually happens more frequently than many people may expect.
To effectively gain audience support, the Cubs needed to communicate with its core audiences in an attempt to understand the dynamic nature of Wrigley Field and historic ballparks more broadly. Rather than remaining the same, Wrigley Field has a long history of change. The current restoration needed to be part of the larger narrative of how Wrigley Field has been improved with the addition of new items that enhance the ballpark experience.
Sports teams and owners always get what they want
Another issue facing the Cubs prior to the renovation of Wrigley Field is the perception that sports teams and owners are in full control of restoration, often times at the public expense in a literal and metaphorical context. In many cases, the public pays for the construction or renovation of new sports venues. From 1990 to 2010, over 260 venues were constructed using public/private partnerships as their largest source of financing capital. This included two-thirds of the teams in the MLB, NBA, MLB, NHL, and MLS playing in new or reconstructed venues that used this approach (Rein, 2015, pp. 127-128). The Cubs’ National League Central rivals all play in publicly financed stadiums constructed after the year 2000.
The main reason that countries, states, regions, and cities have agreed to this financing structure is that these new stadiums are supposed to grow the local economy through new spending, construction, taxes, and jobs. Not only are these benefits often unrealized, but also governments are often left worse off than when the projects were started. For example, Hamilton County in Ohio spent an estimated $540 million to help with the construction of new stadiums for the Cincinnati Bengals and Reds. The debt payments for these venues now account for 16.4% of the county’s entire budget while also causing cuts in education and school services (Rein, 2015, pp. 127-128).
In addition to public financing, sports organizations have made changes to venues that modify or eliminate historic elements of stadiums or local neighborhoods that audiences love in an attempt to maximize the team’s revenues. The Cubs organization faced this issue with regards to the rooftops surrounding the venue. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, owners of townhouses whose roofs provided views of Wrigley Field and later began selling seats to watch games. In 2004, after the Cubs sued these rooftop owners, the Cubs and rooftop owners negotiated an agreement that provided 17% of revenue to the team in exchange for allowing the rooftops to sell tickets to watch Cubs games and ballpark events from the rooftops (Kaplan, 2014).
As part of the Wrigley Field restoration, the Cubs planned to add more outfield signage and videoboards to increase sponsor revenue. The rooftops that many Cubs fans patronized would potentially no longer have the same views of the field. In the meantime, nine rooftop owners have sold their buildings to the Ricketts family. These transactions have created a perception for some of the team’s audience that the Ricketts family has prioritized maximizing revenue and profits over other concerns when it comes to ballpark restoration.
However, this perception is flawed for two reasons. First, some rooftop owners sold their buildings because these transactions made sense from an economic perspective. Receiving millions dollars represented both a “fair price” and a significant return on investment (Sachdev, 2015). Second, the Cubs could not pursue videoboard construction until it received approval from the appropriate government authorities. The videoboards are an example of how the Cubs may have the most restrictions placed on its operations than any other professional sports team. This reality occurs despite it being one of the few teams that has generated significant public returns. For example, local governments place restrictions on the Cubs that few, if any, other professional sports organization have to deal with when it comes to game times. There is a reason that the Cubs did not have night games at Wrigley Field until 1988. The neighborhood associations and city government did not want fans in the area after the games for fear they would cause disruptions in the community. The Cubs had to fight hard to have something – night games – that other teams take for granted. From 1988-2013, the Cubs could play a maximum of 30 night games per year. Starting in 2014, the Cubs would still only be able to play a maximum of 46 night games (Byrne, 2013).
The lack of night games is an example of the central issue facing the organization when it comes to the larger renovation. Remember, the Cubs were not using any direct public financing for the ballpark reconstruction. Yet, the organization still needed to secure government approval for the ballpark construction plan. The team had to spend months convincing government officials at multiple levels to approve of plans it was going to pay for using its own capital.
This situation was all the more confounding for the Cubs because Wrigley Field has actually delivered significant public returns. Today, the Wrigleyville neighborhood in Chicago is one of the most affluent areas in the city. Many restaurants, businesses, bars, and homes have been constructed or appreciated in value because of Wrigley Field. That was not always the case. Until the mid-1980s, Wrigleyville was actually one of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago. When the team performed better in the mid 1980s than it had in the recent past while also installing lights to have night games, the Cubs served as the catalyst for the gentrification of the neighborhood. More specifically, people wanted to spend time engaged with the team by going to Wrigley Field and staying in the area after games. They wanted to live in the area, eat at local restaurants, and patronize nearby bars because the Cubs played in the neighborhood. Wrigley Field is now clearly the anchor for the success of Wrigleyville.
In addition, the Cubs organization is one of city’s and state’s largest taxpayers. The Cubs pay $17 million per year in city taxes alone and $50 million in overall tax dollars (Green, 2014). A significant portion of these dollars comes from an amusement tax levied by both the City and Cook County. This requires the Cubs (and other Chicago professional sports teams) to charge fans additional dollars for each ticket it sells to all home games. The more fans come to Wrigley Field, the more taxes the team pays. Even before the renovation project, the Cubs estimated that the team creates over 7,000 jobs per year and helps create a $638 million impact on the local and state economies (Green, 2014).
To gain more support for the renovation, the team recognized it needed to position the renovation as part of this larger narrative on how much it has contributed to Wrigleyville, Chicago, Cook County, and Illinois. It also had to convince a skeptical audience how these changes would contribute to this storyline in a credible way.
Combining audience expectations with the team’s brand analysis enabled the team to develop a communication strategy that would best ensure audience buy-in for the project. The Cubs employed strategies and tactics that have enabled a highly visible organization to make changes to an iconic structure while increasing or maintaining the support of most of its key audiences.
Transforming into a winner
The Cubs and the Ricketts family were committed to transforming the Cubs brand. To successfully accomplish this goal, the team needed to renovate Wrigley Field in ways that maintained classic elements of the ballpark while providing a winning experience to fans, players, media, and sponsors.
In High Visibility, Rein, et al. (2006) explore three types of brand transformation – minimal, moderate, and extensive. The restoration that began after the 2014 season on Wrigley Field is an example of a moderate transformation. In the recent past, the Cubs focused on minimal transformations of Wrigley Field. This included the addition of lights in 1988 and changes to the bleachers in 2005. While these changes were important, they did not significantly alter the venue. Many other sports projects of similar cost are an example of major transformation. This includes the tearing down and rebuilding of a venue or building an entirely new venue in a different location. The extensive transformation eliminates most, if not all, components that define a venue and its impact on a team’s brand.
The Ricketts family realized that Wrigley Field did not need an extensive transformation. The Cubs were committed to keeping critical elements of the in-stadium experience. A fan could still expect to buy a Chicago-style hot dog, sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”, and view the hand-turned scoreboard.
However, the team did need to change Wrigley Field to make the ballpark more competitive with more modern facilities and communicate these changes to the team’s fans, players, media, and sponsors. In High Visibility, the authors highlight four stages of transformation that enable people and organizations to embrace their past while building a successful new brand. We have adapted these components and applied a three-stage version of the model to demonstrate how the Cubs implemented a transformational communication strategy. These stages are brand regeneration, testing, and realization.
Because the Cubs had an established brand that distinguished the team from other sports and entertainment organizations, it did not need to focus on the brand generation that the High Visibility authors typically recommend for brands. Rather, the Cubs were determined to move on from the loveable losers identity. As Cubs Chairman Ricketts asserted, “The brand lovable losers is dead to us. We’ll soon be lovable winners.” (Bearak , 2014).
The brand-as-person dynamic played a pivotal role in beginning the transformation of the Cubs identity that the Ricketts family wanted for the organization. A cornerstone of the Ricketts brand transformation was shifting the brand-as-person away from the stars off the field to the stars on the field. This started with hiring Epstein as the organization’s president after the 2011 season. Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer made a commitment to rebuild the Cubs Minor League farm system and trade for younger players to develop star players.
By the end of 2014 season, the Cubs had built a strong core of young players that had star potential, including Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant. In addition, the Cubs signed pitcher Jon Lester and former Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon to substantial, multimillion dollar contracts. Maddon’s unorthodox approach to both fielding and hitting had been one of the catalysts the enabled the Rays to reach the World Series in 2008 and numerous playoff appearances in the following years. These personnel moves showed that the Cubs were committed to finding the people who would give them the best opportunity to become winners.
Signing previously successful front office personnel, players, and managers clearly sent a message to the Cubs’ audiences that the team had made a new commitment to winning. The question then became: is this the message the audiences want to hear? More specifically, signing new players impacts the team’s extended identity. Wrigley Field was part of the team’s core identity. Would making the ballpark into the home of a loveable winner violate the audience’s expectations? These are the questions the Cubs took into the testing phase of the brand transformation and regeneration.
The Cubs recognized early that making the type of brand change that the team was looking to make required consistency and repetition. In The Sports Strategist, Rein, et al. identify three primary narrative types that can be used by sports organizations to most effectively communicate with audiences – organic, directed, and shaped. An organic narrative occurs when there is a story developed with little input from the organization. The directed narrative is used when an organization plays the central role in creating a storyline or brand. The shaped narrative can be employed as a combination of these approaches where the organization “capitalizes on an existing storyline to add branding value.” (Rein, 2015, pp. 52-54).
For the Cubs, the shaped narrative approach worked best for the organization. However, it did appear at first that the Cubs would use a directed narrative approach. In particular, the Ricketts family and the Cubs organization clearly made a decision to move from loveable losers to loveable winners.
A deeper analysis shows how that was not the case. In fact, it was the Cubs’ use of an organic narrative combined with the Ricketts’ directed approach that helped team gain support for the renovation of Wrigley Field. In his book The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, author Sasha Issenberg explored how winning candidates and their teams were using a new approach in audience analysis. In particular, successful campaigns were able to identify and focus on the swing voter. There were certain voters who were unlikely to support a candidate no matter how many commercials, direct mail advertisements, or emails they viewed or received. It made little sense to continue to focus efforts on people who were never going to change their mind. Conversely, there were certain voters who were going to likely support a candidate without any campaign outreach. It also would not be an efficient use of the campaign’s resources to target these voters (Issenberg, 2012).
The swing voter is the person who was undecided about which person to vote for and could be persuaded to support a candidate if the campaign could determine the best message and approach to reach that voter. As Sasha Issenberg contends, “Armed with research from behavioral psychology, data-mining, and randomized experiments that treat voters as unwitting guinea pigs, the smartest campaigns now believe they know who you will vote for even before you do.”(Issenberg, N.D.) Campaigns shape messages to these voters using small experiments where that message is communicated through different formats and content. This includes sending emails to certain audiences using different languages or making different requests. For example, President Barack Obama’s campaign realized that it could increase voter turnout by having students sign a non-binding Pledge To Vote Card. Even though there was absolutely no repercussion to not voting, the campaign increased young voter turnout using this approach (Issenberg, 2012).
The Cubs understood Victory Lab’s approach as well as anyone in the sports industry. Numerous senior leaders and managers within the organization had experiences with political campaigns and government organizations. The organization recognized that this strategy would be helpful in gaining support for the Cubs. By privately financing the Wrigley Field renovation project, the organization knew it had the support of many fans, politicians and local businesses that wanted to see the improvements. There were also some outspoken critics who would be unlikely to ever support the organization’s renovation efforts or brand transformation. However, the team recognized that a large number of people made up a swing audience. The key was to determine which narratives could build on existing storylines to help engage with these audiences.
This starts with core Cubs fans. The Ricketts family wanted to make the Cubs a winner, but did Cubs fans want that as well? Starting in the 2008 season, it became clear that that was the case. That year, the Cubs won their second Central Division title, but were eliminated in the
divisional round of the playoffs. Even though the Cubs rarely achieved this level of on-field success, the fan sentiment had changed. As then manager Lou Pinella stated, “When I came here a couple of years ago, if you told our fans we’re going to win two divisions, I think they’d be happy with that. Now if you tell [them] you’re going to win a third and not have [playoff] success, they’re not going to be happy with that.” (Rein, 2015, p. 6). Rick Kaempfer and Tom Latourette (Kaemper, 2014) humorously summarized many Cubs fans’ displeasure in their song entitled “We Can’t Wait 100 Years”:
“Cause we can't wait 100 years
But we can't wait even one year more
It's been a whole damn century
It's time to even up the score.”
The adjusted fan expectations could be seen in the on and off field results from the 2008-2013 seasons. The Cubs record during that time span was 453-517 with team failing to win more than 83 games in the years after 2009. Attendance declined each year in this span and television ratings decreased by 64% over same time period (Rein, 2015 pp. 5-6).
These changes in audience behavior show why the Cubs actually employed a shaped rather than a directed narrative. Before the team could implement its ballpark renovation plan or even before the Ricketts assumed controlled of the Cubs, it was clear that fans now wanted the Cubs to be a winner. Rather than having to wait for testing results after having started its brand regeneration, the Cubs had five years worth of data and an experiment to show that the team needed to be more competitive to engage with fans. We call this approach deductive testing. This enables organizations to use the results of a testing environment that already exists to create a brand proposition that will work in the future.
That is a critical reason why the Cubs shaped the renovation as a way to be a more competitive team. In its communication with fans during media interviews and on its own website, the Cubs stressed how the new restoration would help the team become better in direct and indirect ways. Before the renovation, Wrigley Field had dilapidated batting cages, weight rooms, and training facilities. It is hard to attract and retain top players with these types of facilities. Therefore a significant renovation was needed to Wrigley Field that incorporated these elements.
In addition, the Cubs also could use this message to support why the ballpark needed new signage. This was the most controversial element of the renovation plan but the Cubs took steps to make this part less controversial. This included agreeing to a plan that would mandate advertisements to be a minimum of 20 feet apart and a minimum of 65 feet on either side of the center-field scoreboard, as well as reducing the video board to 3,990 square feet (Bearak, 2014). The signs were still a risky proposition to fan perception. In addition to potentially blocking the rooftops, fans were not sure if having more signage would make the venue lose the nostalgic elements of the ballpark and replace them with items more commonly found in more recent baseball venues, including large digital scoreboards with advertising and promotions.
On Opening Night in April 2015, however, many fans expressed their support of the videoboards. Comments ranged from, “I love it,” to another fan proclaiming, “It's about time. I've been sick of arguing with people next to me about whether he (a runner) is safe or out. It's good to be able to see a replay.” (Constable, 2015) Cubs fan Mike Smuda, who has been going to Wrigley Field since the 1960s, stated, “"I like what I see. They're still keeping the old stadium feel. They still have the iconic (manual) scoreboard that they're not touching, while modernizing." (Madhani, 2015)
Bud Sonoda also articulated another popular position with Cubs’ fans on the construction. Sonada stated he understood temporarily giving up his bleacher seats at the beginning of the season while this section was under construction because the restoration meant the “Cubs become a better team.” (Constable , 2015) Sonada’s comments is another way to help show how Cubs positioning these moves as a way to generate more money that could be used to sign more top talent was resonating with many fans. Rather than the increasing profits and returns for the Ricketts, the Cubs were committed to use the money to make the team better. While sympathetic to the rooftop owners’ point of view, many Cubs fans would prefer the team did anything possible to sign the best players. The ballpark was now positioned as the foundation for how the team would make that happen. This narrative was routinely repeated to build and maintain support of the project among Wrigley Field faithful.
The team’s partnership with Wintrust Financial Corporation is another excellent example of this approach. Wintrust CEO Edward J Wehmer understood the economic benefit of working with the Cubs in helping to enhance the financial service firm’s brand awareness and perception with its core customers that were also Cubs fans. However, Wehmer was also himself a big Cubs fan. He was such a devoted supporter that Wehmer planted a Cubs white flag with the blue “W” at his home.
He was also tired of seeing the Cubs lose. His company’s sponsorship enables Wintrust to be a part of the team’s winning transformation. Wehmer realizes that the Cubs are using the money primarily to create a better team, and he agrees with the team’s contention that generating more money through Wrigley Field is an integral part of that effort. The Cubs deserve credit for finding a sponsor who believes in their brand transformation and wants to take a significant role in making it happen. However, Wintrust and Wehmer would not make this type of financial commitment if the Cubs had not been consistent in its communication and actions in support of the brand transformation (Faulkner, 2015).
The Cubs also identified another interesting swing audience group through the use of deductive testing. While the country at large was impacted by the economic and financial downturn that started in 2007-08, the city of Chicago, Cook County, and the state of Illinois were particularly hard hit by this crisis. By 2014, the city, county, and state governments were facing massive budget deficits and unfunded pension liabilities that forced a reduction in city services. For example, the city of Chicago had to implement large-school closures that impacted 12,000 students in 2013 for budgetary reasons (Perez, 2013).
Not everyone in Chicago, Cook County, or Illinois was a Cubs fan. However, every person who lived in these areas supported items that could bring in new dollars to local government in ways that would not increase taxes. Unlike other recent stadium construction projects, the privately financed construction would add new dollars to the local economy without direct government assistance. In addition, the Cubs already had a track record of helping neighborhoods grow as demonstrated by what happened to Wrigleyville in the 1980s. Therefore, the organization prioritized targeting non-Cubs fans that wanted an influx of dollars designed to aid governmental fiscal issues and enhance local economic development to be supporters of the Wrigley Field renovation.
The central insight that the Cubs had in the testing phase was that the message had to focus on the direct benefits to the swing audience. The restoration was clearly designed to benefit the Cubs organization. To gain the support of the swing audience, the team had to communicate effectively how the changes to Wrigley Field would improve their lives. For Cubs fans, a winning team meant that they would get more out of being a supporter of the organization. For local residents, the Cubs construction project would bring new tax dollars to governments that desperately needed the funds. Making the individual benefits clear made it easier for the collective swing audiences to love the new winning brand for the Cubs.
In addition, The Cubs employed a new approach to using brand testing. Rather than determine a brand and test it with their audiences, the team decided to use the information it already had to target swing audiences. As the team entered the refinement stage, it began to use more traditional approaches to ensure that its messages continued to reach its target audiences.
The Cubs employed a situational transformation approach to facilitate its brand realization. In High Visibility, the authors define situational transformation as “placing [people] in unfamiliar situations to help develop their new brands.” (Rein, 2006). The operations of sports organizations are often divided into two spheres: team operations and business operations. The team operations focus on what happens on the field while the business operations focus on what happens off the field. These groups rarely interact or communicate throughout the course of the season (Rein, 2015, pp. 34-36).
When it comes to developing and realizing a brand in sports, the team operations rarely become involved. The team operations personnel acquire players and coaches while the brand operations employees attempt to build a brand around these acquisitions. On the surface, the Cubs commitment to winning by hiring or acquiring top talent clearly benefits the interests of the team operations groups.
However, the brand transformation process for the Cubs included integrating the team and business operations groups to embrace the loveable winners mentality. In particular, Epstein and Hoyer became some of the most visible advocates for the brand transformation. Before the 2013 season started, a USA Today headline proclaimed, “Theo Epstein: No more 'lovable losers' for Cubs.” In addition, Epstein said, “I tell the players, 'Right now, we're called lovable losers. What do you want to stand for? I guarantee you if you ask the guys, they don't want to be known as lovable losers three or four years from now." This helps demonstrate how the Cubs were proactively searching for players who wanted to be part of the team’s brand regeneration (Theo, 2013).
Epstein and Hoyer also became more involved in the activities of the business operations of the team. A good example is the Cubs’ new approach to sponsorship that would become available in large part because of the ballpark transformation. Epstein and Hoyer now participate in meetings with large corporate partners, such as Anheuser-Busch and Under Armour, to tell the team’s sponsors about the organization’s future strategic vision on and off the field (Harris, 2013). Fully integrating the team and business operations around the same brand made it clear to all external audiences that the team was behind the brand transformation. Wrigley Field became the central component as the entire organization communicated about the importance of the brand regeneration in a consistent way to fans, media, and sponsors.
The Cubs were in the middle of a brand transformation as this chapter was being written. As the team began the 2016 season, the Cubs were in the middle of its transformation centered on Wrigley Field. This included adding a new clubhouse, creating a permanent ticket office and guest service locations, and making improvements to the Marquee. At the same time, the Cubs have begun construction on areas around Wrigley Field including a new plaza and office building located adjacent to the northwest corner of the venue.
For many sports organizations encountering these challenges, even starting the brand transformation process would be difficult, if not impossible. In addition, the Cubs had a differentiated brand that enabled the team to achieve off the field success even as the team struggled for decades on the field to produce a World Series. Wrigley Field was the centerpiece of this identity, and fans, media, and sponsors were hesitant to make a change to the iconic venue they loved.
The Ricketts family understood this dynamic and prioritized a moderate brand transformation when it assumed control of the team. The owners realized that taking away the elements that made coming to Wrigley Field to watch a game so special would not benefit the team, its fans, or its sponsors. At the same time, the Ricketts family wanted the team to be a consistent winner. It realized that fans wanted the Cubs to win the World Series and would love the organization even more if it could deliver a title.
The Cubs began this transformation through its extended identity. Steps to change the brand as person (e.g. hiring Maddon) and brand as organization (prioritizing winning as an organization) served to complement the upgrades to the most highly visible element of its core identity. Using Wrigley Field was the centerpiece of the team’s new brand because it has embodied a clear and consistent message to its key audiences during a time of change. Since the Ricketts family assumed control of the team, it has made the new “loveable winners” a consistent message communicated to its core audiences. It has also continued to take actions that show its commitment to this brand transformation. The Wrigley Field restoration is at the center of this approach. The organization’s willingness to use its own money, at a time when many other sports organizations are using public financing for similar capital intensive projects, is a highly visible action that resonates with fans, media, and sponsors.
The Ricketts realized that purchasing the Cubs meant there was an opportunity to create a new brand. Renovating Wrigley Field would be at the heart of this brand transformation. The Cubs could only become the “loveable winners” by improving Wrigley Field for players, fans, and sponsors. The change to the ballpark is a consistent reminder to Cubs audiences that moving forward could be better than stopping time.
Adam Grossman is the president of the sports sponsorship and analytics firm Block Six Analytics. He is also the co-author of "The Sports Strategist: Developing Leaders for a High-Performance Industry." In addition, he is currently an adjunct lecturer at Northwestern University, where he teaches classes on entrepreneurship and quantitative analysis. Grossman also contributes to Forbes. Follow Adam Grossman on Twitter @adamrgrossman.